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Earth surface modeling for education: How effective is it?

Wei Luo

Mixed or inconclusive results regarding the effect of computer simulations in enhancing students’ learning have been reported in the literature (see for example Edsall & Wentz, 2007). Furthermore, few studies have specifically examined how the actual effect of technology use on learning varies between genders (see for example Koh et al., 2010).

In a newly published paper in the British Journal of Educational Technology (Luo et al., 2018) we present results from a randomised experimental design, replicated over four semesters, that compared students’ performance in understanding landform evolution processes associated with the Grand Canyon. Students’ performance was measured by the pretest-to-posttest score-growth between two treatment methods: an online interactive simulation tool, Web-based Interactive Landform Simulation Model – Grand Canyon (WILSIM-GC), and a paper-based exercise. In addition, an attitudinal survey was conducted to assess students’ experience, the degree of their satisfaction with the user interface design of WILSIM-GC and learning activities, and their attitudes toward computer simulation as compared to the traditional learning method.

‘Our findings suggest that the visually oriented, easy-to-use interactive computer simulation approach helps female students overcome the perceived gender barrier in technology.’

While both methods were shown to be effective at enhancing students’ learning of the landform concepts and processes, the authors found no statistically significant difference in score growth between the two instructional methods. With the simulation method, female students showed greater score growth than males, especially for test items requiring higher level thinking. This suggests that the visually oriented, easy-to-use interactive computer simulation approach has helped female students overcome the perceived gender barrier in technology (see for example Wassenburg, de Koning, de Vries, Boonstra, & van der Schoot, 2017). This finding indicates that the visually rich interactive simulation tool can be integrated to better support female students’ learning in geoscience.

Another finding of this study is that science-major students generally outperformed non-science-major students in terms of score growth, which suggests that background knowledge (as implied by students’ major status) played a vital role in realising the potential of computer modeling to enhance students’ learning. This finding is consistent with the findings of previous studies, and suggests that for computer simulations to improve students’ learning, proper scaffolding to prepare students with the required background is necessary (see Adams et al., 2008).

The attitudinal survey is composed of 27 six-point Likert items, and results indicated that throughout the four semesters of the study students consistently agreed with the positively worded statements and disagreed with the negatively worded statements – consistent with our expectation that WILSIM-GC has a positive effect on students’ learning. In particular, three of the items specifically asked students to compare the two instructional methods, and they consistently favored the WILSIM-GC over the paper-based method.

The findings of this study suggest that:

  • simulation should be leveraged to engage students in enhancing their learning, particularly for female students
  • sufficient scaffolding with background knowledge, and the integration of both paper-based and simulation approaches, are necessary to maximise the effect of interactive simulation in geoscience education, especially for online or hybrid courses and flipped classrooms.

The web-based Interactive Landform Simulation – Grand Canyon (WILSIM-GC) can be accessed at The project is supported by the (US) National Science Foundation.

This blog post is based on the article ‘Earth surface modeling for education: How effective is it? Four semesters of classroom tests with WILSIM‐GC’ by Wei Luo, Thomas J. Smith, Kyle Whalley, Andrew Darling, Carol Ormand, Wei‐Chen Hung, Jui‐Ling Chiang, Jon Pelletier and Kirk Duffin.

It is is published in the British Journal of Educational Technology, and is free-to-view for a limited period, courtesy of the journal’s publisher, Wiley.


Adams, W. K., Paulson, A., Wieman, C. E., Henderson, C., Sabella, M., & Hsu, L. (2008). What levels of guidance promote engaged exploration with interactive simulations? (pp. 59–62). AIP Conference Proceedings 1064, 59 (2008), 59–62.

Edsall, R., & Wentz, E. (2007). Comparing strategies for presenting concepts in introductory undergraduate geography: Physical models vs. computer visualization. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 31(3), 427–444.

Koh, C., Tan, H. S., Tan, K. C., Fang, L., Fong, F. M., Kan, D., Lyse, S. L., Wee, M. L. (2010). Investigating the effect of 3D simulation based learning on the motivation and performance of engineering students. Journal of Engineering Education, 99(3), 237–251.

Luo, W., Smith, T. J., Whalley, K., Darling, A., Ormand, C., Hung, W. C, Chiang, J.L., Pelletier, J., & Duffin, K. (2018). Earth surface modeling for education: How effective is it? Four semesters of classroom tests with WILSIM-GC. British Journal of Educational Technology.

Wassenburg, S. I., de Koning, B. B., de Vries, M. H., Boonstra, A. M., & van der Schoot, M. (2017). Gender differences in mental simulation during sentence and word processing: Gender differences in mental simulation. Journal of Research in Reading, 40(3), 274–296.