Identifying secondary-school students’ difficulties when reading visual representations displayed in physics simulations

Víctor López, Roser Pintó

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


Computer simulations are often considered effective educational tools, since their visual and communicative power enable students to better understand physical systems and phenomena. However, previous studies have found that when students read visual representations some reading difficulties can arise, especially when these are complex or dynamic representations. We have analyzed how secondary-school students read the visual representations displayed in two PhET simulations (one addressing the friction-heating at microscopic level, and the other addressing the electromagnetic induction), and different typologies of reading difficulties have been identified: when reading the compositional structure of the representation, when giving appropriate relevance and semantic meaning to each visual element, and also when dealing with multiple representations and dynamic information. All students experienced at least one of these difficulties, and very similar difficulties appeared in the two groups of students, despite the different scientific content of the simulations. In conclusion, visualisation does not imply a full comprehension of the content of scientific simulations per se, and an effective reading process requires a set of reading skills, previous knowledge, attention, and external supports. Science teachers should bear in mind these issues in order to help students read images to take benefit of their educational potential.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1353-1380
Number of pages28
JournalInternational Journal of Science Education
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jul 2017


  • Simulations
  • physics education
  • visual representations


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