Self-assembly is the fundamental but counterintuitive principle that explains how ordered biomolecular complexes form spontaneously in the cell. This study investigated the impact of using two external representations of virus self-assembly, an interactive tangible three-dimensional model and a static two-dimensional image, on student learning about the process of self-assembly in a group exercise. A conceptual analysis of self-assembly into a set of facets was performed to support study design and analysis. Written responses were collected in a pretest/posttest experimental design with 32 Swedish university students. A quantitative analysis of close-ended items indicated that the students improved their scores between pretest and posttest, with no significant difference between the conditions (tangible model/image). A qualitative analysis of an open-ended item indicated students were unfamiliar with self-assembly prior to the study. Students in the tangible model condition used the facets of self-assembly in their open-ended posttest responses more frequently than students in the image condition. In particular, it appears that the dynamic properties of the tangible model may support student understanding of self-assembly in terms of the random and reversible nature of molecular interactions. A tentative difference was observed in response complexity, with more multifaceted responses in the tangible model condition.