Motivation and Simulation Software

Created by: Lisa Greenwood

*Retrieved Using Google Images

What are simulations?

The term simulation can be defined as a program that allows "students to make accurate observations of phenomena that could otherwise be completed only in the real world or in some cases not at all" (Bell and Trundle, 2007, p. 348). "Simulations may be used to present information and guide the learner, to guide and practice, to do all three, or to assess a learner's knowledge. However, it is rare for a simulation to provide all four of these phases of instruction" (Alessi and Trollip, 2001, p. 11). "For educational purposes, a simulation need not be rich enough to suggest a complete real or imaginary world. The main use of simulation in education is to allow the users to learn relationships and principles for themselves" (Axelrod, 1997, p.3).

There are many different computer simulations that attempt to model real-world scenarios for various content areas. “The computer simulation experience ranges from a variety of dynamic two- and three-dimensional desktop settings to full immersion virtual reality systems” (Bell and Trundle, 2008, p. 348). Some of which are used for direct instruction and some take a more constructivist approach, while other simulations are "combined with the game methodology to foster discovery learning" (Alessi and Trollip, 2001, p. 11). Finally, it is important to know that there are two methods of distribution for computer-based simulations: CD-ROM and the Internet.

How is motivation defined?

Webster’s College Dictionary defines motive as "some inner drive, impulse, intention, etc. that causes a person to do something or act in a certain way; incentive, goal. Motivation is the noun form of motive, which implies that it is a “thing” that every person has" (McNeely, 2002).

According to Alessi and Trollip (2001) motivation can take two forms: Intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is defined as motivation that "comes from within the person, such as one's personal interests and are more beneficial to learning than extrinsic motivators (those that are applied from outside, such as grades from a teacher)" (Alessi and Trollip, 2001, p. 25).

Why should this topic interest educators?

To better understand motivation issues in schools, the book entitled Improving Student Learning by Lee Jenkins offers information that may help. Jenkins states that “all children are born motivated. Educators are meant not to motivate children to learn, but to discover what demotivates them and stop those practices.” (p. 27). Although it might not always be easy, as teachers, one of our many goals in education should be to motivate students to learn. Knowing that children are born motivated should encourage teachers to find out what motivates students and also to find ways to use those sources of motivation to help our students learn in meaningful ways. Many educators might wonder what to do next. How can we incorporate what motivates students to learn with the content they are learning about? Well, perhaps a change in our classrooms is necessary in order to make the unmotivated student motivated to learn. In fact, computer-based simulations just may be the answer that teachers have been looking for.

According to Alessi and Trollip (2001) simulations emphasize intrinsic motivation. Through the use of simulations, learners are intrinsically motivated to learn because "they are participating in events rather than reading about them" (p. 229). Furthermore, Alessi and Trollip suggest that learners are typically more motivated to learn by active participation rather than by passive observation. In fact, Alessi et. al. explain these findings by saying that "it is more interesting to fly a simulated airplane, for example, than to read about flying it" (Alessi and Trollip, 2001, p.229). How true!

Motivational Elements of Simulations:

According to Alessi and Trollip (2001), there are several intrinsic motivating factors that can be found in most simulations. These elements include the following:

1) Challenge

In simulations, the difficulty increases as the learner progresses. In order for learners to be motivated to learn, students must be properly challenged. "As learners progress through a simulation, it can gradually increase via realism, add user actions, and decrease instructional supports. Doing so increases the challenges to learners in keeping with their improving performance."

2) Fantasy

Realistic fantasy is present in most simulations scenarios.

3) Relevance

Learners view simulations as more relevant to their needs because they are able to interact with it versus passive activities such a lecture or reading a book.

4) Gaming

The sense of completion has the potential to intrinsically motivate students to play and learn (Alessi and Trollip, 2001, p.229).

What Does Educational Research Say?

Research conducted by Rieber (1990) indicates that students benefit from visual and verbal information presented through simulations due to the unique intrinsic motivating characteristics of simulations. When students worked with simulations, Reiber reported, "students' attention was more easily distracted to and less likely to be distracted away from, the animated information" (Rieber, 1990, p. 139).

An article by Bell and Trundle (2008) describes a group of fifty teachers’ perceptions (pre and post intervention) of the effectiveness of a science/ inquiry-based computer simulation on students (grades pre- k-3) conceptual understanding. After participants used the instructional intervention simulation software (Starry Night Backyard) to better understand moon phases, Bell and Trundle found that after instruction, 80% of participants drew scientifically accurate representations of the moon’s phases compared to the 4% pre-intervention. In addition, a large majority of participants drew scientifically accurate moon sequences (98%), compared to the 18% pre-intervention. Overall, the study’s findings indicate that the inquiry-based simulation was effective in promoting scientific knowledge and understanding of the moon phases. This study demonstrates the effectiveness of using simulations in elementary classrooms with an inquiry based form of instruction to promote scientific understanding.

Dempsey and Gregory (1993) suggest that “content is the single most important basis for prescribing variations in a simulation” (Dempsey and Gregory, 1993, p.197). They also bring up the point that while a simulation can never fully replicate the operation environment it does, however, have many advantages. Such as the fact that when using a simulation, dangers are not present, expenses are typically less, it can occur frequently, and do not have situational restraints (p. 203). This article also states that the gaming aspects of simuations motivate learners. The article states that in order to increase student motivation, simulation designers need to keep in mind the “ACRS” instructional design: attention, relevance, confidence, and satisfaction (p. 214).

An article by McNeely (2002) explains how using the Classroom, Inc. (CRI) software simulations can increase student motivation. McNeely explains that good simulation software will contain content that promotes the following skills: problem solving, decision-making, collaboration, and evaluation. McNeely states that when learning becomes the responsibility of the student, the teacher is able to support and facilitate that learning. The CRI Handbook describes these simulations as software that promotes real-life workplace experiences, that covers several curriculum areas, fostering collaboration among students, developing critical thinking skills, and that provides students with a technological basis for learning (CRI Teacher’s Handbook, 1999). The article explains that simulations are most effective when teachers undergo training on how to use simulation software and when students collaboratively use the simulation to make decisions and problem solve.

Jones, Gobert, and Pine (2008) tested the effectiveness of using three varying simulations in an inquiry-based elementary science model on children’s (ages two to five years old) vocabulary development and long-term knowledge. Their longitudinal study found that simulations used to teach complex science content increased children’s long-term knowledge, accounting for an increase in children’s working memory as well. Researchers’ results indicate that children’s performance improved with age. In addition, they found that simulations designed to promote long-term knowledge and high levels of interaction were a better fit for children ages two to three years old. These results suggest a need for computation models in science to promote vocabulary learning and long-term retention in young children.

Links to Educational Simulations

Classroom Inc. Simulations

This link will take you to the official Classroom Inc. website, as discussed earlier in the McNeely (2002) article. This site includes several simulations that provide information on each simulations targeted audience and purpose.

Click on the hyperlink explore learning to learn more about gizmos and what educators have to say about their use in the classroom (this video was derived from

Phet Interactive Simulations
Watch the video to learn more about the PhET Project. Also, click on the PhET hyperlink to gain access to the official PhET website. This site offers free interactive and research-based simulations of physical phenomena from the PhET project at the University of Colorado.

This link will direct you to a youtube video. This video provides educators with an overview of SecondLife, its purpose, and how educators can use SecondLife in the classroom.

Follow the link to watch a youtube video about the computer game SimCity. “SimCity is an interactive simulation allowing the user to experiment with a hypothetical city by changing many variables, such as tax rates and zoning policy” (Axelrod, 1997, p.3).


Alessi, S. M. & Trollip, S. R. (2001). Multimedia for learning: Methods and development. New York: Allyn and Bacon.

Axelrod, R. (1997). Advancing the art of simulation in the social sciences. Simulating Social Phenomena, 21-40.

Bell, R., & Trundle, K. (2008). The Use of a Computer Simulation to Promote Scientific Conceptions of Moon Phases. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 45, 346-372.

Dempsey, J., & Gregory, C. (1993). Interactive instruction and feedback. Educational Technology Publications, 197-229.

Interactive Classroom Simulations. (2006). Retrieved April 2, 2010, from

Jenkins, Lee. (1999). Improving student learning: Applying deming’s quality principles in classrooms. Quality Press.

Jones, G., Gobet, F., & Pine, J. (2008). Computer Simulations of Developmental Change: The Contributions of Working Memory Capacity and Long-Term Knowledge. Cognitive Science, 32, 1148-1176.

McNeely, L. (2001). Using Classroom, Inc. Software Simulations to Increase Student Motivation.

Rieber, L. (1990). Using computer animated graphics with science instruction with children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 135-140.