Computer based simulations play an important role in authentic assessment of practical work. Even though they do not replace the real physical interactions that occur in a lab or equivalent environment, they may replicate several of the processes that occur. Simulation may vary in nature and complexity but they usually allow students to manipulate data and examine consequences. Simulations may have a strong graphical component, representing a physical system that can be manipulated, or may be text/numerical based representing a conceptual model.

De Jong and Van Joolingen (Jong de, T. and W.R. Joolingen van, Scientific discovery learning with computer simulations of conceptual domains. Review of Educational Research, 1998. 68(2): p. 179-202) define computer simulations as programs that contain a model of a system (natural or artificial, e.g., equipment), or a process. They divide them in:

  • Simulations containing a conceptual model include principles, concepts and facts related to the system that is represented. These are used for discovery learning and may be qualitative/quantitative, continuous/discrete or static/dynamic
  • Simulations containing an operational model include sequences of cognitive and non cognitive procedures that can be applied to the system, used for experiential learning

The complexity of existing simulations varies considerable in relation to the sophistication of the model and the degree of manipulation of the system that it allows. In most simulations the student is asked to change values of input variables and then observe the results.

The paper by Thomas et al. defines three ways of integrating simulations in the assessment process:

  1. As part of the assessment question, providing different scenarios to be studied
  2. As the answer mechanism (the student has to use the simulation as the response)
  3. As the feedback provider to the student, important in formative assessment