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  • Writer's pictureHongji Dai

Learning Electronics: Traditional hands-on experiment vs Digital simulation tool in Usability

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

In electronics education, hands-on experimentation has long been considered a crucial component for students to gain practical knowledge and experience. However, with the advent of digital simulation tools, the traditional approach to hands-on experimentation has begun to evolve. This has led to a debate over which approach is better suited to enhance the learning experience for students. In this blog post, we will explore the usability of traditional hands-on experiments and digital simulation tools in Learning Electronics.

Issa & Isaias’s (2015) criteria defines usability using the principles of learnability, flexibility, robustness, efficiency, memorability, errors, and satisfaction are some key principles that support usability. These principles have significant benefits in each of the contexts of the traditional electronics lab and in the use of digital simulation tools.


Learnability: In traditional lab, students are always required to have a pre-session or initial safety session. I remember my own first lab session where I learned how to set the limit on a power supply’s current. The purpose was to protect the circuit from generating or transmitting harmful effects due to a short-circuit or overload. After this first lab session, we took nearly half a semester to study all the equipment, and how to operate them in a safe manner. However, even after I had adequate training, I was still concerned about doing something wrong when performing the physical lab. For example, there are lots of buttons on a general oscilloscope, as shown in below, where a new user might be confused.

practical testing

On the other hand, if we apply the use of a digital simulation tool, it greatly reduces the difficulty of using the risks involved in using physical equipment. One of the most popular science simulation tools called PhET, as an example shown below, has all the labels on the device, like the voltmeter marked as “voltage”, so learners are aware that the device is being used to measure voltage, and the number showing below is its voltage reading. The oscilloscope (Figure Below, Blue device) is also drawn in a much-simplified version. It is a great starting point for new electronics learners.

virtual testing

Flexibility: Traditional electronics experiments are usually taught in a designated laboratory. However, schools in remote areas experience issues with accessibility which make it very difficult to conduct learning activities related to electronics experiments. They may also not have specialists who teach electronic courses. A majority of simulations tools are free and open-sourced while some of them are web-based so users do not need additional software that can be costly and expensive. All you need is a digital device that can access WIFI so you can make electronics labs on-the-go.

Robustness: Robustness is the level of support provided to the user in determining achievement and assessment of goals. Traditional labs are heavily dependent on a teaching assistant or instructor. Due to the traditional lab environment being limited by the time and facility, students have less opportunities to get help from their peers. On the other hand, open-source software platforms normally have a large community so there are tons of resources, discussion boards, and published projects; therefore, users can easily find solutions or receive help.

Memorability: Since the physical breadboard is reusable, the circuit you build on it needs to be removed before students build the next circuit. With digital simulation tools, students can always save the circuit file in their account or download to their local computer, so they can access the built circuit and review them anytime they want.

Errors: In a traditional lab setting, many types of errors may cause irreversible results which is why pre-session or safety sessions are mandatory before each experiment. Generally, the instructor will warn students to not connect a separate wire to the two terminals of a power supply, but because of their curiosity, many students want to see what will happen in such a false operation. In this case, if teachers do not pay attention, it may burn out the power and cause safety accidents. Digital simulation tools provide students with virtual components and an experimental environment where students can connect experimental devices and observe experimental phenomena according to their own interest. When the operation is an error, the virtual software will appear with a related error warning to remind that the operation will cause harm, without causing a real accident. Taking the LED chaser circuit as an example, if I accidently replace the 3V battery with an overrated 9V battery, the chip will burn out and the simulation will indicate that as well. In reality, if students made such an error or mistake, which is actually quite often, they need to find another chip to build the circuit again, and the burned chip is broken and becomes an electronics waste.

virtual testing using stimulation

Efficiency: Traditional physics experiments can be affected by objective factors such as experimental instruments and places and cause unsatisfactory experimental results. When performing traditional experiments, there is more wear and tear on equipment and safety may become an issue. Increased use and age of physical equipment can also result in inaccurate readings thus making the experimental phenomena observed and the experimental data obtained by the students unsatisfactory even in the case of error-free operation. Therefore, the phenomenon often occurs in the experiments, students are busy checking and repairing the instruments throughout the experiment in order to get more ideal results, wasting a lot of time. The use of virtual simulation experiments can provide an ideal experimental environment, so that the experimental environment does not affect the experimental apparatus. In this case, it boosts students’ efficiency and rids unnecessary distractions and glitches so they can solely focus on the experiment.

Satisfaction: I want to substitute satisfaction criteria with effectiveness because satisfaction is a more subjective measurement and effectiveness should be a more valued criteria in educational measure. The question is asked whether remotely operated or simulation-based labs are as effective as the traditional hands-on lab format? According to Corter et al. (2007), results indicate that remote and simulated labs can be at least as effective as traditional hands-on labs in teaching specific course concepts. Students express a preference for traditional hands-on labs but learn the relevant concepts as well or better with newer forms of laboratories.


Issa, T., & Isaias, P. (2015). Usability and human computer interaction (HCI)Links to an external site. In Sustainable Design (pp. 19-35). Springer.

Corter, J. E., Nickerson, J. V., Esche, S. K., Chassapis, C., Im, S., & Ma, J. (2007). Constructing reality: A study of remote, hands-on, and simulated laboratories. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), 14(2), 7-es.

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