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Teaching with Virtual Students

July 1st, 2022

Simulated classrooms help/prepare pre-service teachers

Julian Fischer

Simulated classrooms allow pre-service teachers to experience realistic teaching situations. In these virtual environments, the complexity of teaching situations is reduced enough to avoid cognitive overload for pre-service teachers. The simulations allow them to interactively apply and develop their knowledge by encountering problem situations, making decisions, and testing their actions without experiencing real-world consequences such as negative feedback from the student body.

Simulated classroom environments offer the potential to close the existing gap between theoretical teacher training at universities and real classroom situations in schools. Simulations are simplified dynamic models of reality, which are transferred into digital systems, but still exhibit a degree of general validity. Within simulations, specific scenarios can be repeated as often as desired in order to practice them over longer periods of time than would be possible in real life. Most simulated classroom environments are based on role-play simulations in which users assume the role of the teacher who interacts with the virtual students. Real, class-specific teaching situations are simulated, for example, classroom disruptions caused by "interrupting" or "fidgeting", to which the teacher must react adequately.

The Simulated Classroom Biology used in this study is a non-immersive simulation in which a virtual school classroom is represented using a combination of text and images. In this simulated classroom environment, pre-service teachers take on the role of teachers and teach virtual students about a particular topic. During a virtual lesson, questions can be selected from a menu of questions to which the virtual students respond. The virtual students can be modified for different experiments by creating different ability profiles for them. For example, the probability of correct answers or the participation in class can be preset within the virtual student body. Assessments can be made by pre-service teachers based on answers given by virtual students or participation shown in class. The congruence of the pre-service teachers' assessments and the virtual students' actual demonstrated performance provides a measure of the accuracy of the assessments.


Theory of evolution: difficult to communicate

The theory of evolution and its teaching is an essential part of biology classes. However, students find it difficult to understand the complexity of evolution. They very often have erroneous ideas with which they explain evolutionary processes. As a rule, the misconceptions are based on naïve ideas or everyday notions. The process of natural selection is particularly difficult to convey. Most commonly, misconceptions in this area are based on the assumption that individual organisms can actively evolve during their lives and adapt to environmental conditions at will. Students typically use the following misconceptions to explain the process of natural selection:

  • anthropomorphic (human characteristics are transferred to non-human organisms)
  • teleological (development of a trait is seen as goal-oriented and purposeful)
  • Lamarckian (trait change is explained by use or disuse of organs).


Based on experience in goal- and problem-oriented thinking, these explanations can be enhanced when students are often asked to explain natural phenomena in causal terms in science classes. The goal of biology instruction should be to help students acquire conceptual knowledge about evolution. In doing so, it is important that teachers recognize and adequately address misconceptions of their students.


The Simulated Classroom Biology: Capturing Interrelationships of Declarative and Procedural Knowledge

A distinction is made in research on teachers' professional competencies between declarative and procedural knowledge. Declarative knowledge is understood as specialized knowledge, i.e., knowledge about facts, concepts, and principles. Procedural knowledge describes the knowledge of action. A linguistic formulation of procedural knowledge is often difficult, since courses of action are partly unconscious or intuitive. Procedural knowledge includes automated sequences of actions, but also processes following a step-by-step scheme. Declarative and procedural knowledge can be distinguished from each other, whereby declarative knowledge is the starting point or prerequisite for procedural knowledge. Declarative knowledge is only transformed into procedural knowledge in actual action situations, i.e. through regular practice and contextualization.

Pre-service teachers' declarative knowledge is often inert in concrete teaching situations and cannot be retrieved. This seems a major challenge in teacher education. Accordingly, pre-service teachers should be provided with the opportunity to apply their declarative knowledge in concrete action situations and thus develop procedural knowledge.

This study involved biology pre-service teachers who first completed a questionnaire with subject-specific and didactic questions on the topic of evolution, and were then confronted with specific situations for teaching evolution in the simulated classroom biology. Thus, declarative knowledge was recorded with the questionnaire and procedural knowledge with the Simulated Classroom Biology. This allows us to clarify the extent to which declarative and procedural knowledge of pre-service teachers are related.


Identifying misconceptions

In the overall questionnaire, the 51 pre-service teachers included in the study scored an average of about 36 out of 67 possible points. In the simulation, the pre-service teachers asked a total of 2988 questions, to which the virtual students answered 49.2% incorrectly and 50.8% scientifically correctly. Of the virtual student responses, pre-service teachers were able to identify 91.8% of the scientifically correct responses and 90.1% of the incorrect responses. On average, pre-service teachers identified the specific misconception category about 59% of the time. The Lamarckian misconception was identified most frequently, followed by the teleological misconception. The anthropomorphic misconception was identified least frequently.

Weak to moderate correlations were shown between declarative knowledge in the questionnaire and procedural knowledge in the Simulated Classroom Biology. The proportions of correct diagnoses of scientifically correct virtual student responses, specific misconceptions in virtual student responses, and of the dominant misconceptions in individual virtual students at the end of the lesson correlated statistically significantly with the declarative knowledge demonstrated. A closer look at the diagnoses of specific misconceptions showed that the proportion of correct diagnoses for responses with anthropomorphic and teleological misconceptions correlated statistically significantly with declarative knowledge, whereas for Lamarckian misconceptions the diagnosis does not seem to be related to declarative knowledge.



The results of the present study show that biology pre-service teachers have difficulty identifying specific misconception categories related to natural selection in student responses. Accordingly, within university biology teacher education, a strong focus needs to be placed on sensitizing students to common student misconceptions. Instruments such as simulated classrooms can be used for this purpose. Furthermore, the study provided evidence that declarative and procedural biology-related professional knowledge on evolution are related in prospective teachers. The use of simulated classroom environments seems to provide an opportunity for pre-service teachers to apply the declarative knowledge acquired during their biology studies in a tangible action situation.

The integration of simulated classroom environments into university teaching thus offers good learning opportunities in which procedural knowledge can be applied and trained. Here, pre-service teachers can put their professional knowledge to the test independent of time and place and prepare themselves for future situations in the classroom. Since procedural knowledge is an important component for the professional activities of future teachers, it should be especially fostered during the science teacher training program.

Fischer, J., Machts, N., Möller, J., & Harms, U. (2021). Der Simulierte Klassenraum Biologie: Erfassung deklarativen und prozeduralen Wissens bei Lehramtsstudierenden der Biologie. Zeitschrift für Didaktik der Naturwissenschaften, 27(1), 215–229.

Dr. Julian Fischer

was a staff member in the Department of Biology Education at the IPN. He studied at Kiel University from 2010 to 2017 and is currently in teacher training as a teacher at grammar schools. The research results presented here are parts of his dissertation prepared at the IPN.