Learning on Electrical Circuits While Playing
‘E&E Electrical Endeavours’
Design Research on a Serious Game Optimizing for Conceptual Understanding
Ruurd Taconis
, Mariette Dubois
, Lesley de Putter
and Henry van Bergen
Eindhoven School of Education, Eindhoven University of Technology, Den Dolech 2, Eindhoven, The Netherlands
Sondervick College, Knegselseweg 30, Veldhoven, The Netherlands
Heerbeeck College, Willem de Zwijgerweg 150, Best, The Netherlands
Eindhoven University of Technology, Den Dolech 2, Eindhoven, The Netherlands
Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Eindhoven University of Technology, Den Dolech 2, Eindhoven, The Netherlands
Keywords: Design Research, Electrical Circuits, Conceptual Development, Serious Games.
Abstract: A serious game was developed in a two year design research project by educational researchers, game-
designers and secondary school teachers in close collaboration. In a first round, students played the game in
class using an open-inquiry strategy. Although the game had a strong impact on the students’ conceptual
development, it provoked the construction of misconceptions. The game was adapted and partially
redesigned on the basis of the evaluation outcomes and an additional expert-review. Also the instructions to
the game were redesigned and written down in a teachers’ guide. In a second round, a pedagogical approach
of alternating open-inquiry type gaming-episodes with guided reflection and internalisation episodes was
used in class. Again a strong impact on students’ conceptual understanding of electrical circuits was found.
Significantly fewer misconceptions occurred. The results indicate that the close collaboration of school
teachers, educational experts and game designers was fruitful for improving the serious game and its use in
school practice. Moreover it became clear that serious games have the potential to contribute to students’
conceptual understanding, in particular when a suitable mental model is coherently represented in the
game´s layout and structure.
Serious games are an inviting new option in
education. The game industry is growing
spectacularly. However, the characteristics that
make games adequate serious games and the
pedagogical do’s and don’ts of using them in
education are still largely uncovered (Michael and
Chen, 2006). This paper reports on a design research
project conducted using the game ‘E&E electrical
endeavours’. The project’s aim is to help students
master the subject of electrical circuits in grade 9 of
Dutch secondary education, develop a pedagogical
approach to using serious games in secondary
education, and to motivate students for science and
electrical engineering.
The game was previously developed at the
faculty of Electrical Engineering at Eindhoven
University of Technology mainly for raising the
interest of potential new students. Hence the main
focus in the initial version 1.0 of the E&E electrical
endeavours game was on student involvement and
motivation, excellent graphics and challenging
content on electrical circuits. The game can be
typified as a simulation based game for individual
use. It is not a role-playing game where players are
set against each other. In version 1.0 no match with
formal science curricula was pursued. A pilot
evaluation (Dekker et al., 2010) showed the game
was attractive and entertaining for students in
secondary school.
Secondary schools were seeking ways to
modernize education by implementing ICT, to
enrich science education by e.g. serious games, and
to bring a lively perspective on scientific practice
and careers into the school.
Combining these, the joint conclusion was that
both university and secondary school goals could be
successfully supported if an attractive serious game
Taconis R., Dubois M., de Putter L. and van Bergen H..
Learning on Electrical Circuits While Playing ‘E&E Electrical Endeavours’ - Design Research on a Serious Game Optimizing for Conceptual
DOI: 10.5220/0004793200050013
In Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Computer Supported Education (CSEDU-2014), pages 5-13
ISBN: 978-989-758-021-5
2014 SCITEPRESS (Science and Technology Publications, Lda.)
could be constructed. The game should fit well into
the formal curriculum, clearly contribute to student
learning and should be brought into school as a
sincere and attractive picture of scientific practice
and careers.
To achieve this, a project group was formed
comprising secondary school teachers, experts on
science education and game-designers. Their task
was to: “Construct and evaluate a serious game that
is attractive and motivating on one hand and making
an adequate contribution to formal learning in
secondary education on the other”. In line with this,
a key research question addressed in this paper is:
which characteristics of the game and of the way it
is implemented in classroom make it adequate for
learning about electrical circuits and dealing with
misconceptions in particular? The approach taken to
actually develop the game and answer the question
was a design research project.
2.1 Design Research
Design research is well known in both engineering
and educational research (Gravemeijer & Cobb,
2006). In design research on education, education is
being (re)designed and evaluated in various rounds.
These comprise an alternating sequence of
(re)design and evaluation leading to new or refined
design criteria. The evaluation adds up to a picture
that allows answering previously set research
questions, as well as bringing forth new hypothesis
and tentative answers. From a methodological point
of view, it is a productive experimental design with
both explorative and confirmative aspects. From a
practitioner’s point of view, it has the strong
advantage of making a very close connection
between research on one hand, and professional
practice and professional development on the other.
2.2 Serious Games and Learning
Theory on the design and use of simulation-type
serious games in education strongly emphasises the
concepts of flow (Csikszentmihaly, 2009) and
experiential learning. A key theory on experiential
learning is developed by Kolb (1984), and adapted
for the case of serious games by various authors
(Ruben, 1999; Koops and Hoevenaar, 2012).
Using insights from general cognitive
constructivist learning theories and the five stage
model of skill acquisition by Dreyfus & Dreyfus
(1980) (shown in Figure 1), Taconis (2011),
developed a hypothetical model of experiential
learning in serious games.
Figure 1: The Dreyfus & Dreyfus five stage model of the
genesis of an expert (http://www.leanleadershipacademy.
The ‘Taconis model’ explicitly pictures how the
rules underlying and governing the game-engine,
through producing the game’s ‘behaviour’ and the
regularities in the gaming environment, structure the
learners experiences while gaming. It also pictures
how skilled action by the learner, the acquisition of
operational rules and ultimately a coherent
reconstruction of the rules underlying the game-
engine´s may result from the learners ‘structured
Figure 2: The hypothetical model of experiential learning
in simulation-based serious games by Taconis (2011).
In the model ‘skilled actions’ (upper box in second
column in Figure 2) are defined as those actions
adequate within the gaming environment that do not
imply or require conscious declarative knowledge.
These actions represent adequate behaviour in
standard situations without being underpinned with
knowledge. This corresponds to the advanced
beginner position in the Dreyfus & Dreyfus five-
‘Operational rules’ (middle box in second
column in Figure 2) are – in line with the five- stage-
model – considered a next step in development. The
operational rules are typified by the involvement of
conceptual understanding, though of an operational
type, using concepts that are apparent within the
experienced game environment. An example would
be a learner that acts adequately within the game and
is able to explain why and how he performs in terms
of the game-world. This could be considered
roughly equivalent to the stage of being competent
within the five-stage-model though this concerns the
game-environment only. Reaching this level requires
the constructing (learning) of operational rules from
experience, and it is presumed to require systematic
and reflective thinking. Constructing these rules may
be stimulated by asking the students questions,
facilitating group discussions and adding tasks that
require the construction and verbalization of such
rules. Operational rules and skilled actions may
transfer from the strict game-environment to other
situations/environments, and this is more likely to
occur the more akin these situations are (Vockell,
2013). For example, from a serious game that
models projectile trajectories, skilled actions and
operational rules may relatively easily transfer to
projectile shooting experiments in classroom, but
less easily to text-book questions on this subject or
the context of satellite trajectories.
The (re)construction of ‘theoretical insight’
(lower box in second column in Figure 2), aligns
with both ‘competent within the game-environment’
towards ‘competent in real life’. This splitting-up of
the ‘competent stage’ in the five-stage-model results
from the fact that experiential learning from serious
games involves two realities: the real world and the
game world that simulates it. By its nature,
theoretical insight will formally apply to real-life
situations, since the rules a simulation based serious
game is built upon apply to real world as well. Even
though in many cases the rules underlying the game
are in fact simplified versions of real life rules.
But this equivalence will not be automatically
clear to the learner. Hence, theoretical insight only
principally applies to both the game-world and the
real world. In education, the learner should make
considerable effort to understand and recognize this
difference (transfer) and to achieve a ‘competent in
real-life’ stage.
Constructing or reconstructing theoretical insight
definitely requires systematic and reflective thinking
as described above, but also making comparisons
with contrasting and/or akin situations and
theoretical points of view. The confrontation with
situations other than the game-environment is
needed; both to help constructing the theoretical
ideas independently from the game-world and to
facilitate transfer to other situations (Vockell, 2013).
The presumed necessity to implement in
classthese reflective of theoretical components as
well as exercises in other learning-environments
than the game-environment, conflicts with the
fundamental importance of flow for gaming and the
use of serious games in education. Put in terms of a
concrete design dilemma: how can we have students
‘in the flow’ while gaming within the game-
environment as well as active as critical thinkers on
a theoretical level transcending the game-
environment. This seems to connect to a
fundamental design dilemma in inquiry structured or
open education aiming at conceptual development
described by various authors such as Kirschner,
Sweller and Clark (2006) and - for the case of
education on electrical circuits - Kock et al. (2013).
Once attained, theoretical insight opens up an
avenue to develop towards proficiency with respect
to real-life situations and beyond.
2.3 Learning about Electrical Circuits
Learning problems in electricity have been widely
documented: Over the years remedies have been
suggested to overcome students’ conceptual
problems in electricity, but only with limited success
(Mulhall et al. 2001). The topic is still receiving
attention (for example Engelhardt and Beichner
2004; Hart 2008; Taber et al. 2006; Jaakkola, Nurmi
& Veermans, 2010). Coming to grips with the
scientific concepts in electricity requires an
understanding of the physics involved, which is at
least partly at odds with the everyday experiences
and ways of speaking about electricity (Shipstone
1985; Duit and Schecker, 2007).
A key problem is the development of inadequate
conceptual understanding of various aspects of
electrical circuits and particular persistent
‘misconceptions’ that students tend to develop. In
Duit’s STCSE bibliography on students’
‘misconceptions’ and conceptual change (Duit,
2009) several hundreds of publications are listed on
learning electricity.
Taconis (2010) has described a hierarchical
building of concepts concerning electrical circuits
based on a review of literature. Each addition to the
concepts requires all concepts in the lower floors to
be rightly understood.
1) Correct understanding of electrical circuits
essentially being closed but not short circuited,
and the electricity circling in the circuit, and the
current not being consumed in the circuit,
2) Understanding that two distinct physical
quantities are necessary to understand/describe
the flow in electrical circuits (and such systems):
electrical current and voltage,
3) Understanding of the topological types of
electrical circuits; series and parallel and their
implications for electrical current and voltage.
4) Understanding of particular electrical
components and their properties.
Students may experience problems on either level of
this hierarchy and students’ alternative ideas often
do not correspond to the scientific view and do not
easily change through instruction (Shipstone 1985;
Duit and Von Rhoeneck 1998; Engelhardt and
Beichner 2004; Taber et al. 2006). Kock et al.
(2013) conclude: when trying to solve problems or
explain phenomena in circuits, students frequently
(a) confuse important concepts such as current and
voltage, (b) use the idea that current is consumed (or
use unipolar, clashing or shared current models), (c)
view power supplies as a source of constant current
instead of constant potential difference, (d) have
difficulties building and drawing circuits and (e) do
not realize that a change of one element can have an
impact on the current in the whole circuit.
A main obstacle here is that students may tend to
understand electrical phenomena in terms of the so
called ‘experiential gestalt of causation’ (Anderson,
1986). This basic misinterpretation may underlay
many of the observed misconceptions.
In the ‘experiential gestalt of causation’ there is an
aim, a cause or chain of causes that instigates a
process, a medium/vehicle, and a desired effect. This
mental model implies a number of intuitive
qualitative rules such as:
the effect is roughly in the direction of the cause /
chain of causes,
the stronger the initial cause / chain of causes, the
stronger the effect – by default proportional,
the cause / chain of causes costs 'effort', and is
weakened in the long run (due to exhaustion) while
the effect continues,
there is a physical connection of the cause to the
effect, possibly through the medium (or vehicle),
which may damp the effect – by default
proportional to its dimensions,
the better the medium and / or the smaller the
distance the stronger the effect,
as the cause stops, of if the contact is ended or the
medium is removed, the effect stops.
Figure 3 shows an example.
Figure 3: ‘Electricity’ effect as experienced in day to day
life: when plugged in (cause) de 'electricity' from the
socket is directed to the light bulb connected (aim) via the
cord (medium/vehicle) to produce the desired effect. An
example of cause - effect reasoning, from which students
may derive interpretations such as: a wire twice as long
will make the light bulb half as bright.
An attempt to counter the misinterpretation of
electrical circuits from such a linear causal
perspective often made is to explain that the
electrical circuit is to be understood in terms of an
analogy. Two such analogies are regularly used in
science education (Hart, 2008) with their own
strengths and weaknesses:
a) Fluid current analogies, that of the home heating
system in particular,
b) Microscopic analogies in which the electrical
current is modelled by a stream of electrons
depicted as e.g. lorries carrying an electrical load
travelling a closed path.
The E&E electrical endeavours game uses the water
current analogy.
2.4 Research Questions
The research questions are:
1. Can we built and use for education a serious
game that leads to adequate qualitative
understanding of electrical circuits without
particular misconceptions?
2. What characteristics of the game and the way it
is used in classroom facilitate adequate
understanding of electrical circuits? In particular:
a. in dealing with misconceptions
b. keep a productive the balance between flow-
based gaming and reflective and theoretical
The project was performed in two consecutive
rounds each comprising a (re)design and a testing
phase. It started with the game version 1.0 as
previously build. On advice of the secondary school
teachers version 1.0 was upgraded to version 1.1
before starting the project, in order to remove
mistakes and smaller difficulties. Version 1.1 was
tested by panels of experts in the pedagogy of
science, school teachers and students and found
adequate for classroom use.
3.1 Description of the Development
Version 1.1 was taken to the classroom in two Dutch
grade 9 classes, one general secondary education
and one pre university education. A third one, also
pre university education, served as a control group.
The lessons were structured to an open inquiry
model. The students were allowed to play with
version 1.1 during 1½ lesson (approximately 75
minutes). The lessons for the experimental and
control groups were partly the same, but deviated in
the experimental group playing the game and the
control book following the textbook. This is shown
in Table 1. Figure 4 a typical screen shot.
In round II, version 3.0 was taken to the
classroom in three Dutch grade 9 classes, one
general secondary education and two pre university
Table 1: The quality of the circuits built.
Experimental groups Control group
Activation of basic knowledge from grade 8
Inquiry learning playing
with version 1.1
Individual working
from the textbook
The teacher coaches;
no additional teacher
explanation of theory
The teacher coaches;
no additional teacher
explanation of theory
Learning task: Build a parallel circuit of two light bulbs
Continuation like 1
Continuation like 1
Classical teaching using the textbook
Figure 4: Characteristic screen shot of E&E electrical
endeavours version 1.1.
education. Version 3.0 has a renewed level structure
that closely follows the regular Dutch grade 9 lesson
plan. Also the layout of the game screen is renewed.
First, in the left part of the screen the electrical
circuit is continuously shown as a closed circuit
providing an overview to the students which is much
akin to the electrical schemes’ usually found in
textbooks. Second the working screen on the right is
redesigned to more realistically depict voltage and
current meters and the way they should be
connected. Figure 5 gives an impression.
Figure 5: A characteristic screen shot of E&E electrical
endeavours version 3.0.
In round II there was no control group. The lessons
were structured according to the teacher guide that
was written on the basis of the experiences in the
first round and a review of literature. In the first
lesson –again- the subject was introduced and the
prior knowledge of the students was activated The
students were then allowed to play freely with the
game for approximately 40 minutes, in which they
could take op the challenges built into the games
level structure. The next lesson, a classroom
discussion was organized evaluating the students
various ideas and results, and drawing common
conclusions on understanding electrical circuits. In
both coaching the students and the classroom
discussions, the teacher could make use of a set of
questions in the teacher guide especially designed to
stimulate the verbalization/construction of
operational rules and theoretical knowledge and to
stimulate transfer (see Figure 2). The whole
experiment comprised 6 lessons (300 minutes).
3.2 Analysis of the Circuit Building
For both rounds, the learning results were obtained
using the standard test results (grades). The same
test was completed by all groups in that round. In
addition an analysis was made of pictures taken
from the circuits built in the learning tasks ‘build a
parallel circuit of two light bulbs’. The analysis
focussed on the correctness of the circuits and the
presence of misconceptions. Four misconceptions
were focussed on in particular: circuit not closed
/incorrect, short circuit, a circuit lay-out depicting a
´linear causal ‘understanding’ of electrical circuits,
and the type of meaning of ´parallel´ the students
displayed in the circuit built. Concerning the latter:
components may be placed ‘visually parallel’ though
when analysing the circuit net ´electrically parallel´
– see figure 6.
A codebook was used to underpin the various
judgements on the circuits and the apparent presence
of misconceptions and two researchers cooperated in
categorizing the various circuits.
Figure 6: Optically parallel though not electrically.
In round I, the teacher reported a marked distinction
between students that are experienced gamers and
other students. The non-gamers experience difficulty
in finding their way in the game, while the gamers
seemingly effortless solve the problems presented.
The teacher also reported that all students had
difficulty recognizing the electrical components in
the game. Students in the experimental setting
comment: “it was fun, but I would have preferred an
ordinary lesson since then I would have understood
it much better”.
The result of the analysis of the ‘parallel circuits’
built in the second lesson and their quality in general
is shown in Table 2.
Table 2: The quality of the circuits built.
Round I Round II t-test
M SD n
g.s.e. exp. 13 -0,54 0,75 11 1,68 1,03 5,94***
g.s.e. contr. --- --- --- --- --- ---
p.u.e exp. 11 1,05 1,59 24 1,92 0,70 1,74*
p.u.e contr. 12 2,75 0,45 --- --- ---
TOTAL 36 1,04 1,70 35 1,84 0,81 2.54**
Abbreviations: g.s.e. = general secondary education, p.u.e = pre
university education. Sign. Levels: * = 5%, ** = 1%, *** = 0,1%
* duo’s of students
The control group that worked from the textbook
clearly outperformed the two experimental groups.
However it was observed that the average grades for
the test at the end of the lessons did not significantly
differ for the three groups. The teacher commented
that she had to make an extra effort in the
experimental groups to secure their progress.
An analysis of misconceptions in the circuits
built after the second lesson is shown in Table 3,
which shows that misconceptions occurred
frequently in the experimental groups.
Table 3: The occurrence of misconceptions in the first and
second round.
not closed
view of
Round I
M 0,45 0,39 0,52 1,19
SD 0,47 0,50 0,45 0,38
Round II
M 0,03 0,14 0,41 0,16
SD 0,17 0,36 0,35 0,81
t-test -4,19*** -2.10* -1.0 (ns) -6,55***
Sign. Levels: * = 5%, ** = 1%, *** = 0,1%
* duo’s of students
A qualitative analysis of the circuits built revealed a
very interesting pattern.
It appeared that a majority of students (54%)
built a circuit in a very particular manner. For
general secondary education students this is even
77%. First they added a switch to the circuit - a
component that was not at all mentioned in the
assignment. Second they ordered the components in
a linear fashion starting with the switch, followed by
the ‘parallel part’ and ending with a light bulb.
Figure 7 shows three examples (three left columns),
Figure 7: Student mimicking the games circuit lay-out and
linear topology when building a parallel circuit.
as well as the game lay-out (right column). This
typical lay-out by the students both resembles the
game’s screen lay-out and is in accordance with the
‘experiential gestalt of causation’.
The disappointing learning result from the game
as such, the lack of student and teacher enthusiasm,
the frequent occurrence of misconceptions, and the
apparent strong but unwanted learning effect arising
from the games lay-out that effectively encourages
students to understand electrical circuits in terms of
‘the experiential gestalt of causation’ formed a
strong incentive to improve both the game, and the
way it is used in classroom. First a panel of teachers
was asked to comment on the game and the inquiry
based classroom implementation. This resulted in
redesigning specifications for the game, and the
conclusion that the open-inquiry approach should be
replaced by a carefully planned approach combining
experiential learning on one hand and reflection,
verbalisation en additional experience on the other.
This criticism was theoretically underpinned by
experimental work of Kock et al. (2013) and the
theoretical insight by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark
(2006). A review of literature led to the model by
Taconis (2011) depicted in Figure 2, and a extend
teacher guide comprising: a) background
information on learning from serious games and
understanding electrical circuits, b) an example time
table, c) concrete questions the teachers could use to
stimulate the verbalization/construction of
operational rules, theoretical knowledge and their
transfer (Figure 2).
In round II the changes were implemented. The
teachers reported the students being enthusiastic
about the game, and students reporting that ‘it really
helped them to understand electrical circuits’. One
student for instance stated: ‘the game really made
me understand what I am doing, and helps me to
explain what it is to my friends’. This was supported
by a very high mean score on the test concluding the
lessons: 7.2 out of 10 (usually 6.3).
The quality of the ‘parallel circuits’ built is
shown in Table 2. It reveals a significant increase
with respect to the quality of the circuits built in the
first round. Table 3 shows that also the occurrence
of misconceptions significantly decreased, except
for the occurrence of the ‘experiential gestalt of
Figure 8: Typical wrong placement of the switch.
A qualitative analysis of the circuits built by the
students revealed that in addition many students
(54%) have difficulties with the correct placement of
the switch (Figure 8). It effectively functions as an
optional ’shortcut’ directly at the entrance of the
powering wires from the power unit. Again, this is in
clear accordance with de games lay-out (Figure 5),
were the switch has taken the form of a beam across
and blocking the current at the top of the screen.
We conclude that the close cooperation between
school teachers, experts on science education and
game-designers was a successful way to a clear
improvement in both the game and the way it is
adequately used in classroom. Note that enhancing
the games contributed to cognitive learning did not
imply a decrease in student enthusiasm. The
progress made is documented in the projects
physical products: the game and guideline for its
adequate use in education.
It is concluded that the game when used
according to the guideline, probably contributes to
improved student understanding. However,
misconceptions still occur, those related to ‘the
experiential gestalt of causation’ in particular. In
terms of the model by Taconis (2011) learning
effects seem to concentrate on the level of ‘skilled
action’ (building an electrical circuit) and
´operational rules´. Students do not report on
theoretical understanding or models they (re-
Concerning the second research question, it is
found that the games screen lay-out has a strong
though undesired impact on students’ mental model
of electrical circuits and student learning. The way
things are presented apparently strongly influences
the students´ way of ‘looking at things’. This
‘topological mimicking’ seems to be a very powerful
learning mechanism. The games lay-out, and
probably its structure as well, sends out a very
strong message about ‘how things are’. Though not
entirely effective in the case of our project, the
strength of this mechanism is potentially valuable
for designing serious games.
Concerning the use of serious games in
classroom, it became clear that ‘open inquiry’ alone
is not the way to go. An approach balancing gaming
and deep cognitive processing in alternating phases
seems much more fruitful. In this a rule of thumb
helping teacher in a practical way could be: “treat
serious games as experiments or practical exercises”.
Our research has been on a fairly small scale, and
as such its outcomes may be easily over generalized.
But they point toward two particular issues of
importance for larger scale future research:
- developing a pedagogical approaches balancing
between play and open inquiry on one hand and
stimulating and structuring deep cognitive
processing on the other. Put more generally:
seeking a productive balance between flow and
- taking advantage of the strong modelling impact
the lay-out and the structure of the game have on
student learning.
This research was funded by the SLOA fund of the
Dutch ‘onderwijs cooperation’ seeking to promote
secondary school teachers doing educational
research in cooperation with academic educational
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The E&E game and its versions:
1.0 and 1.1 (http://www.eeee.tue.nl/ )
2.0 (http://www.eeee.tue.nl/sloa/index.html )
3.0 (http://www.eeee.tue.nl/sloa/thebeginning/index.html )