Physical vs. Virtual Manipulatives:Is There a Difference?

The use of physical math manipulatives and hands-on learning has been extensively researched. In general, the research supports the use of manipulatives and indicates that students who use them learn more than those who do not.

The use of physical math manipulatives and hands-on learning has been extensively researched. In general, the research supports the use of manipulatives and indicates that students who use them learn more than those who do not. DUPLICATE

However, it should be noted that the manipulatives themselves are not solely responsible for the increase in student performance. Rather, the proper context must be used. The use of manipulatives still requires well-planned and comprehensive lessons.

But should you use physical manipulatives over virtual manipulatives? The early research tells us that both physical and virtual manipulatives can have a positive effect on students’ learning of mathematical concepts.

However, when used in combination, the effect on student learning is greater than when either is used in isolation. At Brainingcamp, we don’t advocate for eliminating physical manipulatives. We understand their value.

However, we do advocate for the use of both physical and virtual manipulatives. We firmly believe that their careful and thoughtful use enhances student learning.

What is a Virtual Manipulative?

A virtual manipulative is an interactive, web-based representation of the same physical math manipulatives you already use in your classroom.

For example, Brainingcamp offers 16 manipulatives in our virtual collection. Our digital manipulatives have all the familiarity of their physical counterparts but add convenience and interactive features that will transform how you teach.

Students can interact and experiment with virtual manipulatives to a greater degree than they can with physical models. This feature alone makes them more engaging for young learners.

Advantages of Virtual Manipulatives

Like their physical counterparts, virtual manipulatives have been proven to help students learn math and build a conceptual understanding of core mathematic concepts.

But that’s not where the advantages end. Some other benefits of virtual manipulatives include:

  • Flexibility: Virtual manipulatives allow for additional flexibility and functionality. For example, virtual Base-Ten Blocks can help students visualize and connect the action of breaking apart a ten into ones by using animation to show a ten as a bundle of ones.
  • Additional Features: Virtual manipulatives can have additional functions that the physical can’t. For example, Brainingcamp’s CuisenaireĀ® Rods contain an eleventh rod, whereas the physical set only has ten rods. Furthermore, our eleventh rod is adjustable and opens the door for increased mathematical exploration.
  • Limitless Opportunties: Virtual manipulatives provide an endless supply. Each student can have their own set that they can access at any time, at home or at school.

By Mark Schmit

Mark is a dedicated and passionate educator, content, and product developer whose had his finger on the pulse of Math Education since 1987. Mark strives to make student learning deeper and teacher instruction better.