I chose a chemistry sim that I wouljd likely use in my class this year, and compared a gold star and a non-gold star activity. First I want to say that the non-gold star activity looks very much like an activity I woujld develop if I just sat down to do it without engaging in this course. I have always felt my students needd a good bit of direction in using something like this and my activity would be the guidance that leads them to the knowledge I wanted them to gain. That being said, I tried out the two activities with the sim myself as if I were a student. Oh my ...... The non-gold star activity keeps me very busy, trying hard to find the "right" answer off the screen and certainly keeps me focused on a very sepcific task. But I find that I am not developing any kind of my own understanding of the concept being addressed. So I went on to the gold star activity ......
This was a much shorter (on paper) activity without much direction. I could envision my students being highly stressed when first introduced to an activity like this. They are so used to being spoon fed (and we tend to play along with the spoon feeding, thinking this is what they need) that I think they will be very uncomfortable working with this much latitude. I think in the end, the students will actually understand the concept better this way, provided they do not simply give up and not complete the activity out of frustration.
This exercise has helped me see a couple of things:
1) Following the Inquiry Guidelines as I develop activities will be important to keep me from being cookbook.
2) Look for Gold Star Activities already available on the site!
3) Build in some time at the beginning of the year to scaffold students' use of the sims to help them over the hump of this very different way of learning. Expect some frustration and pre-plan for how to deal with it so students learn to work through rather than quit.
4) Always be willing to revise and redo as needed to develop deep understanding!