How Labster Supports Active Learning Techniques in Science Courses

Ginelle Testa

Active Learning Overview

The Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education (Chickering & Gamson, 1987) formally established the modern expectation that college courses should be student-centered and engaging. Chickering and Gamson (1987) specifically identified Active Learning techniques as a group of powerful practices that support learners in developing their own understanding of course content.

“Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing pre-packaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves” (Chickering & Gamson, 1987, p. 4).

Chickering & Gamson

The opposite of active learning is passive or receptive learning, as in a traditional lecture. Active learning is thought to elicit deep learning, whereas passive learning is considered a more superficial level of learning (Phillips & Trainor, 2014).

At Labster, we describe “active learning” as an approach that demands that students think about what they are doing.

Labster is equipped to help teachers and students learn with each of the following active learning techniques:

  • Jigsaw 

  • Think, Pair, Share

  • Mud Cards/Ticket to Leave

  • Collaborative Quiz Questions

  • KWL

  • Reflective Practice

  • Scenario-based Learning Method

Jigsaw  Technique

According to, “The Jigsaw Classroom is a cooperative learning technique that reduces racial conflict among school children, promotes better learning, improves student motivation, and increases enjoyment of the learning experience” (Social Psychology Network, n.d.). 

Janet Rankin from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology describes the jigsaw method in an easy-to-digest way, starting with the example of a jigsaw puzzle where puzzlers generally separate by color, edges, or based on the picture.

She recommends first grouping these “puzzlers” or students by individual topic in class. There will be a group of “edge” people and so on based on the subject an instructor is teaching. After they’ve discussed and understood the topic, mix the groups and put people from each homogenous group into a heterogeneous group. There will be “edge” students, “color” students, and “picture” students in one group so that they can have a rich and balanced discussion. Finally, they then report to the class on their understandings (Rankin, 2017).

How Labster can help: A lab report template is available for all Labster simulations. It allows students to demonstrate their learning as a follow-up to completing a simulation and includes space for students to write the synopsis, hypothesis, experimental procedure, results, and conclusions. Lab reports could be used in the final stage so students can put the pieces they’ve learned together. Students might come to different conclusions! There isn’t always a single explanation in lab reports, so just like a jigsaw puzzle, what each student uniquely brings to the table is vital for the whole to come together.  

Lab reports can feel like a lot to conquer alone, especially when there’s so much information! Teaming up can make the process smoother. Our virtual chemistry lab, “Calorimetry: Using a bomb calorimeter” teaches three topics. One person could cover enthalpy, one could cover internal energy, and another could tackle the first law of thermodynamics together. 

Calorimetry using a bomb calorimeter Virtual Lab

Think, Pair, Share Technique

Think, Pair, Share is one of the classic strategies to engage students. It starts by giving students a prompt or question and time to think independently, which can range from 30 seconds to 5 minutes depending on student needs. This critical “think” time sets the Think, Pair, Share strategy apart from others because it gives students sufficient time to formulate their thoughts.

Next, they’re partnered or grouped with other students to review what they’ve learned. According to Rankin, teachers must walk around the classroom and listen to students to understand where they’re stuck and what they understand (Rankin, 2017). Once students have had time to talk, the pair shares with the class.  Students can pick one person to share with the class, or everyone in the group can share something. 

How Labster can help: Students can play Labster simulations independently, answering quiz questions as they go and gaining knowledge through gamification. Then, they can come together with classmates to talk about what they learned from the simulations and what they still need to figure out. For example, students can play a virtual biology lab like Cellular Respiration: Glycolysis and discuss how to help the basketball players understand how the food they eat converts to energy. Finally, students can share out with the class.

Cellular Respiration Glycolysis Virtual Lab

Mud Cards/Ticket to Leave Technique

Rankin also has a great video on Mud Cards/the Ticket to Leave method, where she talks about how these cards are easy for students to use and must be used consistently by the instructor. She asks students to write down where they need more information, where they’re confused, and what they’re excited to learn more about.

Rankin then takes all these cards at the end of class and quickly organizes them to prepare for her following lecture (Rankin, 2017). The instructor can review these anonymous cards to determine whether to use the next class meeting to backtrack and reinforce materials from the previous class or whether to move on and introduce new material. 

How Labster can help: Students must answer quiz questions to show their understanding as they progress through Labster’s simulations. Grading is automatic, and the platform organizes the data on the Teacher Dashboard. There, instructors get similar information to mud cards. They can see where students did well and where they are struggling and adjust their teaching accordingly. They can especially assess gaps to see where they need to coach more. 

Collaborative Quiz Question Technique 

Instructors can assign collaborative quiz questions to groups of students, requiring debate and discussion before they come to an answer. Through repetition and talking it through, students come to a greater understanding of the material. In an American Society for Engineering Education study, students struggled to comprehend complex concepts. They compared students taking scenario-based quizzes alone to those taking them collaboratively and found that “collaborative quizzes are well aligned to active learning approaches to teaching” (Oishi, Svihla, & Law).

How Labster can help: Students can pair up to complete simulations. They can try out lab techniques for the first time and become more familiar with advanced lab equipment. Throughout the Labster virtual lab, Dr. One will ask them quiz questions. Students can collaborate to answer these questions. Just as students in the ASEE study did better alongside one another, students can put their brains together. 


This technique can make lecturing more impactful. Before the lecture begins, ask students to open a blank page and create three columns. In the left column, they will type a “K” for what they already KNOW, in the middle column, they will type a “W” for what they WANT to know,  and in the right column, they will type an “L” for what they have just LEARNED during the lecture. Using these columns as a graphic organizer for their notes, students will place known topics or facts in the “K” column and slowly move unknown topics from the “W” column to the “L” column (Zehnder, et al., 2021). 

One suggestion is to ask students to share these documents with the instructor after class. This can serve as a source of feedback about which topics remain confusing (“W”) so the instructor can provide further reinforcement.

How Labster can help: Labster simulations are self-paced and replayable. This is an opportunity to reinforce a student's understanding of the learning objectives they still find confusing. When a learner repeats a simulation experience, they are likely to achieve a higher score. Instructors can set the Labster grade book to count each student’s “best attempt” (highest score), so there is no risk a student who replays a simulation could reduce their grade. Replaying a simulation is also a great way to prepare for a course exam or project!

Reflective Practice

Reflection is an integral part of active learning. John Dewey, educational reformer, psychologist, and American philosopher, said: “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” A Harvard Business School study confirmed this when students improved up to 25% when they simply took time to reflect on what they learned (DiStefano, et al, 2014). 

Reflecting is a continuous process in the science classroom, not a single occurrence, so teachers should spread activities throughout lessons. There are many ways to do this reflection. Some activities that can be reflective are creating a portfolio, journal, blog, scrapbook, sketch, and having students take a video of themselves. 

How Labster can help: Labster lab reports can be used as a reflection tool to get students to think about all they’ve learned. They reinforce learning and help students identify the most important takeaways, for example, how the evidence supports their conclusion. It’s also an opportunity to determine where more education needs to take place, as students can express where they need more support, then teachers can give it accordingly. 

Scenario-Based Learning (SBL) Method

Scenario-based learning happens through interactive components of a storyline that allow students to make choices and solve complex problems (Budhai & Skipwith, 2022). In gamified SBL, students can learn by having a role in a situation that might happen in real life. They can then take their knowledge and apply it to their professional positions in the future. 

One of the significant benefits of SBL is that students can experience productive failure during simulations, where they can fail again and again with little consequence aside from reinforcing learning. There’s no danger of explosions or spills, so students are free to practice. 

How Labster can help: Students can play through fun storylines with virtual labs. We have an Evolution simulation where the story introduces you to a real-life beached animal. Through DNA tests, you can trace its evolution through thousands of years. With storytelling, students can get engaged and think about real-life scenarios. These storylines also help learners to explore future careers!

In our simulation: “Sensory transduction: Learn why you feel pain when you get hit by a rock,” there’s a clear storyline where students determine which anesthetic drug will allow their friend to keep climbing a mountain without having their muscles affected.

Hit by rock simulation

Reflection questions:

  • What’s your favorite active learning strategy to use in the classroom?

  • How can you align one of these strategies with your use of Labster simulations?


Budhai, S. & Skipwith, K. Best Practices in Engaging Online Learners Through Active and Experiential Learning Strategies 

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987, March). Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. AAHE Bulletin, pp. 3-7.

DiStefano, G. Francesca, G. Pisano, G. Staats, B. (2014) Learning By Thinking: How Reflection Improves Performance. Harvard Business School.

Oishi, M. Svihla, V. Law, V. (2017). Improved Learning Through Collaborative, Scenario-based Quizzes in an Undergraduate Control Theory Course. American Society for Engineering Education.

Phillips, C. R., & Trainor, J. E. (2014). Millennial students and the flipped classroom. ASBBS Proceedings, 21(1), 519. 

Rankin, J. [MIT OpenCourseWare]. (2017, February 17). Jigsaw [Video]. YouTube.

Rankin, J. [MIT OpenCourseWare]. (2017, February 17). Think, Pair, Share [Video]. YouTube.

Rankin, J. [MIT OpenCourseWare]. (2017, February 17). Mud Cards [Video]. YouTube.

Social Psychology Network. (n.d.) THE JIGSAW CLASSROOM. Retrieved from

Zehnder, C., Alby, C., Kleine, K., & Metzker, J. (2021). Learning that matters: A field guide to course design for transformative education. Myers Education Press.

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