The transfer of scientific principles using concrete and idealized simulations

Participants in two experiments interacted with computer simulations designed to foster understanding of scientific principles governing complex adaptive systems.  The quality of participants’ transportable understanding was measured by the amount of transfer between two simulations governed by the same principle.  The perceptual concreteness of the elements within the first simulation was manipulated.  The elements either remained concrete throughout the simulation, remained idealized, or switched midway into the simulation from concrete to idealized or vice versa.  Transfer was better when the appearance of the elements switched, consistent with theories predicting more general schemas when the schemas are multiply instantiated.  The best transfer was observed when originally concrete elements became idealized.  These results are interpreted in terms of tradeoffs between grounded, concrete construals of simulations and more abstract, transportable construals.  Progressive idealization (“Concreteness fading”) allows originally grounded and interpretable principles to become less tied to specific contexts and hence more transferable.

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