Olkun, S. (2003). "Comparing Computer versus Concrete Manipulatives in Learning 2D Geometry"

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Olkun, S. (2003). Comparing Computer versus Concrete Manipulatives in Learning 2D Geometry. Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching, 22(1), 43-56.

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Table of contents

Study Outline and Method

In this relatively recent investigation, Olkun (2003) explores the effect of computer and concrete manipulatives on the spatial skills of 4th and 5th grade students. A straightforward pretest, treatment, and posttest experimental design was employed with 93 students, equally and randomly distributed across three groups: computer, concrete, and control.

All three groups were given a pretest of spatial ability containing spatial tasks, spatio-numeric tasks, informal area measurement tasks, and mental rotation tasks.

The two experimental groups were then given the experimental treatment – an experience solving Tangram puzzles. The computer group solved Tangram puzzles through computer software, and the concrete group used Tangram pieces made of wood to solve Tangram puzzles presented on paper. They engaged in their respective activities for roughly between 80 –120 minutes, and completed 30 puzzles that were designed by the experimenters.

Tangrams were chosen with the intention of providing “students with a setting in which they could search for functional uses of geometric shapes and thereby discover the relationships between 2D geometric figures” (Olkun, 2003, p.49).

Then, immediately following the treatment, the students were given posttests covering the same areas as the pretest.


Main Results: Experimental Group Performance

  • Both experimental groups (concrete and computer) had higher means on the posttest compared to the control group.
  • The researchers found that there was a statistically significant difference between the performance scores of computer group and the control group.
  • Similarly, the researchers found that there was a statistically significant difference between the performance scores of concrete group and the control group.
  • However, there were no statistically significant differences found between the performances of the concrete group and computer group. More specifically, the computer group’s performance increased more than that of the concrete group, but this difference was not found to be statistically significant.

Other Interesting Results: Grade Level & Gender

  • Students in grade 5 seemed to fair better on the spatial tasks (both pre- and posttests) than their 4th grade counterparts. Further analysis showed that these groups reacted to the treatments in different ways. This analysis suggested that the “fourth graders gained more in [the] concrete situation while fifth graders gained more in the computer situation.
  • On the pretest, there were no statistically significant differences between the performance of boys and girls. On the post-test, however, the boys out-performed the girls, and this difference reached statistical significance. Thus, the researchers infer that, “boys gained more from the intervention than did girls” (p.54).
  • Of the four areas covered in the pre- & posttests, the spatial area was the only area in which statistical significance was reached in the difference between the experimental groups (both computer and concrete) and the control group.

Discussion & Conclusions

  • This study supports the idea that experience (solving Tangrams) with “manipulatives (both computer and concrete) has a positive effect on students’ geometric reasoning about two-dimensional geometric shapes, especially on spatial tasks” (p. 55)
  • However, since no significant difference was found between the computer group and the concrete group, the authors conclude that “the choice between computer versus concrete manipulatives is not very clear” (p.55)
  • Regarding the differences based on grade level, the authors hypothesize that these differences may be due to different “the amount of experience the students had with computers at the time of the intervention” (p.55). This is the same reasoning given for the gender differences, with the claim being made that boys in the culture of study engage more in computers than girls.
  • The authors realize the limitations of the study – specifically, the short intervention time, where “longer intervention time with extensive use of manipulatives may produce different results” (p.55).

The bottom line

  • The authors suggest that, based on the findings here, computer and concrete manipulatives can be used “interchangeably” at the elementary level, with positive results possible with either.
  • They assert that it might seem more appropriate to use “concrete manipulatives in early grades while moving gradually to computer manipulatives towards upper elementary grades” (p. 55). In earlier elementary grades, the authors suggest incorporating computers as “learning with playing” to improve student familiarity with computer use.
  • Future research can delve further into these questions, while considering student preferences, reactions to and perceptions of using various (computer and concrete) manipulatives.


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