Supporting middle school students’ science talk: A comparison of physical and virtual labs

Sadhana Puntambekar, Dana Gnesdilow, Catherine Dornfeld Tissenbaum, N. Hari Narayanan, N. Sanjay Rebello

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Research exploring students’ learning from physical and virtual labs has suggested that on the whole, students learn science content just as well, if not better from virtual labs as they do from physical labs. However, the affordances of physical labs might support the learning of specific skills and competencies that are just as crucial for learning science. In this study, we examined students’ discussions as they worked on physical and virtual labs to better understand how they learned from each, and the kinds of learning that each type of lab supported. One hundred and fifteen 6th grade students from three science teachers’ classes participated in this study. We examined audio data from all available groups as they engaged in physical and virtual labs (n = 14 groups; physical, n = 8 groups; virtual, n = 6 groups). We found that students conducting physical labs engaged in a significantly higher proportion of talk related to setting up apparatus and taking measurements and calculating outputs. Students who performed virtual labs, on the other hand, engaged in significantly more discussions about making predictions and understanding patterns of relationships between variables, and interpreting science phenomena. While students in the Virtual condition engaged in discussions that were more focused on the relationships between science ideas, students in the Physical condition learned science practices related to planning and carrying out investigations that are equally valuable. Our findings suggest that learning from one experimental modality may complement and supplement the relative weaknesses of the other, indicating a need for strategically combining the two. Implications and future directions are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)392-419
Number of pages28
JournalJournal of Research in Science Teaching
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2021


  • inquiry
  • laboratory science
  • language of science and classrooms
  • science education
  • social construction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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