Assessing the impact of Labster on your students: Cognitive learning outcomes

Over the years, teaching and learning has become a sophisticated science, with ongoing advancements in digital technology that are set to revolutionize the sector.

Incredible developments in virtual and augmented reality will have us all on our toes, running to keep up with the new tools and pedagogies that are made available to us.
But keeping up with technology is only half the story. As scientists, we at Labster know that creating a product that looks good on the surface and seems fun to use will not suffice in the long run.
Our mission is to educate, and we know that our customers, a group of highly educated scientific consumers, are going to want to know how we prove that our product educates, and how they can measure the impact of Labster on their own students.
What I have come to understand, being a teacher myself, is that cognitive learning outcomes are only a fraction of the education that students receives in high school, college or university.
Equally important are the ‘soft skills’ that a student acquires. These are the non-cognitive learning outcomes.
So let’s look at these categories separately and break down some of our understanding of how you can assess the impact of Labster.
Read on to learn how to assess cognitive learning outcomes, or skip to part two to learn how to assess non-cognitive learning outcomes.

Assessing cognitive learning outcomes

Interestingly, examinations were introduced many centuries ago as a means to assess individuals without prejudice.
An exam script didn’t take social standing into account, and was seen as a social leveler at a time when social class and status were the primary indicators of an individual’s suitability for high ranking work.
Since then, we have not deviated too far from this model in which we assess cognitive learning in exams that are mostly paper based, timed, and stressful.
Not surprisingly, this has resulted in an ongoing academic debate about whether our traditional view of assessments is meaningful, and whether it is helping to meet the demands of the current and future labour market.
Over recent years, we have seen an increasing recognition of the role of assessment for learning, where formative, continuous assessment is perhaps more meaningful and fair, and final papers (assessment of learning) don’t carry quite as much weight as they used to.
Whether you are considering formative or summative assessments, both are performance indicators for students and teachers to reflect on. The purpose of this can be twofold: Firstly, to monitor how learning is progressing for the students, and secondly, to determine how effective the teaching method (pedagogy) has been. It is this second consideration that has allowed teaching instructors around the world to recognise that Labster is an effective teaching tool delivering it’s claim to empower the next generation of scientists through impactful, engaging education.

Investigating pedagogical methods: Good to know before you get started!

If you are hoping to construct pedagogical scholarship around your teaching practice, using the experience of your students as part of that study, there are a couple of things that you’ll want to have in place.
Firstly, remember that the publication of student results from any study requires the consent of your participants. You may also need to get ethical approval.Both of these will have to be in place ahead of your study (i.e. your teaching).
I would also strongly suggest that you collaborate with other universities, or with education specialists to increase the impact of your study. Papers reporting ‘this is a neat method that worked with our students’ won’t survive the peer-review process for publication, although they may have their place at smaller peer-to-peer group meetings and less formal platforms that look to share excellent teaching practice.
Undoubtedly, unpublished studies will still have a lot of merit internally – be it for your institution’s ability to demonstrate rigour in assessing learning methods, or for you personally (perhaps for meeting criteria for career progression). The value of your work can be appreciated from several views.

Methods for assessing performance

There are a many different methods you can use to assess the performance of your students, and to establish whether there has been knowledge gain from the simulations. A few ideas are listed below, some of which will address whether students are also able to apply, evaluate and create with the knowledge they have acquired. These have the potential to demonstrate higher order learning. Each of these can be used effectively as an assessment for learning.

1. Using the provided quiz questions

In every Labster simulation, you’ll find quiz questions that you can use to assess performance. Labster has in-built quiz questions running through each simulation, and we have made it easier for you to access and download these questions to use ‘outside’ of the simulation via the Faculty Resource page. The quiz questions can be used to establish the baseline knowledge level of your students, before directing them to the simulation. This makes it easier to show that learning has been achieved by testing the students again with the same questions after their learning experience.
After playing the simulation, the student scores can be collected from the Teacher Dashboard, providing you with a clear presentation of ‘before’ and ‘after’. And you can really go to town using this simple model and use it to start looking at different groups of students (e.g. high, medium, low knowledge groups). You could use this to compare different teaching methods, or look at short term versus long term knowledge retention.

2. Writing your own questions

Aside from using the provided quiz questions, you can write your own questions to demonstrate that there is transferable knowledge gain, or even ask the students to write questions for each other, and thereby collectively build a bank of class questions. PeerWise is a great tool for this purpose.
Keep it fun and reward prizes for those who get the most involved with writing and answering questions.

3. Presenting and interrogating literature

Another idea is to get students to give a short presentation explaining the method or technique taught in the simulation. If your class is using several simulations, split the students into groups and give each group a different method or technique to explain to the class.
As the whole class will have played all the simulations, they can peer review how well they think other groups deliver their message.
You can assess the students’ presentations based on their ability to answer your research questions: If the students have learned several skills or techniques by playing different simulations, how well do they apply their learning to pick and choose which simulations they would use to answer the research question?
You can also put them to the task of interrogating scientific literature to find a paper that uses a method they have learned in the simulations. Ask them to give a 5 minute summary of the paper highlighting their understanding of why that method was applied, and what it contributed to the research paper.
A fun thing to do is to give your class a paper from the archives. For example, take Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, published in 1929, and ask them, given the methods and techniques they have learned about, how would they research that now? It is fascinating for them, and you, to explore scientific history together in this way and to evaluate the methods that were available at that point in time.
Well chosen research papers can also be used in more formal exam settings. Exam questions based on the paper could ask them to explain the theory behind a section of the materials and methods, to identify the key methodologies and write short notes on them, or to further explain  the methods that are so commonly used now that they go unexplained! For example, sequencing and PCR will never be much elaborated on beyond identifying machinery, enzymes and primers used, but could your students expand on this satisfactorily?
All of these are fair means for a student to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding, their appreciation of context and capacity for knowledge transfer, and can show their ability for application, evaluation and creativity within their discipline. If we start to get creative with our questions, their answers will become more authentic and original too, and not just a download of rote learning.
Read on in part two to learn how you can assess student outcomes in relation to non-cognitive learning outcomes.

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