The Importance of Teaching Material to Suit Different Learning Styles

In my experience as a teacher (both in the classroom and as the primary educator of my children in our home-school), I am convinced that no two people learn the same way.

I love to learn by reading. My older son, diagnosed with dyslexia in the 2nd grade, learns best by listening. Well before he learned to read, he had an impressive vocabulary and an uncanny ability to recall facts that he’d learned as I read aloud to him.  My younger son is a ball of kinetic energy. Unable to sit still in his younger years, I allowed him to jog in place as he did his lessons. Somehow, the act of moving actually helped him to concentrate on his school work.

There are four accepted types (or modalities) of learning: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile.  Typically, students learn best when the material is taught in more than one way. Engaging multiple learning modalities is a great way to get the different parts of a student’s brain working together to make learning connections happen. Unfortunately, students are often expected to learn difficult material by merely reading a textbook.  However, if the student is not a visual learner, they may struggle to understand.

A model of an atom that my son made out of a giant cookie, frosting, and candy
A model of an atom that my son made out of a giant cookie, frosting, and candy

Whenever I can, I provide students opportunities for hands-on learning. Making models of cells or atoms, using candy to demonstrate electron configurations, or playing bingo to practice using a codon table—with a little imagination, you can find a way to make learning fun outside of a textbook.

Use candy to represent electrons and have students build a tangible electron configuration
Use candy to represent electrons and have students build a tangible electron configuration

PhET Interactive Simulations

Of course, hands-on experiments aren’t always convenient or practical.  Additionally, there are certain topics for which finding ways to incorporate hands-on learning is more difficult.  

Many websites are available which provide fun FREE virtual labs that can be done anytime, anywhere. Websites are available that allow students to perform virtual dissections, or virtually perform a gram stain procedure to identify unknown bacteria.

In my quest to find online resources for my students, I stumbled across a gem. It’s called PhET, and I love it!

The PhET Interactive Simulations project is run by the University of Colorado, Boulder. Founded by Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman, PhET simulations (often referred to as sims) provide research-based, game-like environments for students to learn math and science.

Currently, simulations are available for topics in biology, chemistry, physics, earth science, and math. Activities within each topic can be narrowed down by grade level from elementary school through college. Simulations for elementary school give students practice with topics including basic arithmetic, calculating area, constructing circuits, and learning about the states of matter. For students in middle school, PhET features activities to help students understand basic algebra, lasers, forces, and other topics.  High school sims allow students to explore the properties of light, radioactivity, capacitors, and much more.

The best part: all of the simulations are FREE!

How I Use PhET in My Classes

Currently, I am teaching chemistry to high school students.  In a perfect world, I’d have several days a week to teach these students. In actuality I only get one 60 minute class per week.  PhET is an excellent resource to supplement our class time. Here are some examples of PhET simulations that I have encouraged my students to explore at home.

In the Build an Atom activity, students build the given atom by adding protons, neutrons, and electrons to the empty atom template. To complete this activity, students must practice retrieving information from the periodic table, understanding which numbers correspond to the element’s atomic number, atomic mass, and net charge. Additionally, students must recall where each of the subatomic particles belong.

Screenshot of the PhET Build an Atom activity

In this example, students need to remember that an atomic number of 1 indicates that this hydrogen atom has one proton in the nucleus.  The fact that the atomic mass is 1 signifies that it has no neutrons. The net charge of -1 indicates that the element has one more negatively-charged electron than positively-charged proton.  Since the student already knows the atom has one proton, this means that the atom must have two electrons. Both electrons reside in the electron orbital closest to the nucleus.

Screenshot of the completed Build an Atom Phet sim

The Build an Atom simulation can be found here:

Students can also practice balancing equations.  In this example, they determine the balanced equation for the combustion of methane.

Screenshot of a PhET simulation in which the student must balance a chemical equation
In this sim, the student is able to visualize whether or not the chemical equation is balanced

As students toggle up and down to add more of each type of molecule, a picture of each molecule is shown in the boxes.  This enables the student to see a representation of how many of each type of element is present so they can easily determine what needs to happen in order for the equation to balance.

You can explore the Balancing Chemical Equations simulation here:

PhET has Something for Everyone

PhET has so many useful (and fun!) simulations on a wide range of topics and age levels. I can honestly say that I enjoyed exploring the site and all it has to offer.

A sample of the sims available in the high school physics category
A sample of the sims available in the high school physics category
A sample of sims available for high school chemistry
A sample of sims available for high school chemistry

A sample of elementary school topics
A sample of elementary school topics

One funny simulation demonstrating static electricity features “Johnny Travoltage”.  As the student directs Johnny to rub his feet on the carpet, a buildup of excess negative charges occurs.  When the student guides Johnny’s hand to touch the metal doorknob…ZAP! (If you or your student would like to learn more about static electricity and why it seems worse during the winter, check out this blog post.)

You can play around with Johnny Travoltage here:

While textbooks definitely have their place in education, providing other sources of information will help your students learn and retain the material. Experiments, hands-on activities, and online virtual activities and simulations are a wonderful way to enhance the learning process. I hope you will check out PhET and all that it has to offer.

Once you try it out, let me know your favorite sims!

Further Information

Kinesthetic, Visual, Auditory, Tactile, Oh My! What Are Learning Modalities and How Can You Incorporate Them in the Classroom?

Why Teach with PhET?

Secondary Science Virtual Labs

Thanks to Candace Granstaff for telling me about PhET.

If you’re looking for fun, engaging high school science classes with opportunities for hands-on exploration, check out the courses I have to offer here: High School Science Courses Taught by Dr. Kristin Moon Currently I offer  high school biologychemistryphysics, and anatomy and physiology

2 thoughts on “PhET: an Excellent Resource for Virtual Learning”

  1. i am a phd student and trying to use vitual lab to teach thermal physics in introductory physics. pls how can i down load a virtual lab package from PhET the tertiay level.
    thank you

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