A biology teacher from Taylors College in Western Australia, Harmony Clayton has used Labster as a part of her course the past two years to enhance the learning experience of her students, all of whom are international. This month she spoke to us about how virtual labs have added value to her course, and helped engage her students with biology.
When Dr. Clayton was first introduced to the idea of using virtual labs as a part of her course at Taylors College, a university preparation college for the University of Western Australia (UWA), she was enthused about the idea of providing her students with a new learning format: “There is always a chance that someone is not going to connect with the practical work, or not going to connect with the lectures, or not going to want to talk in a tutorial, and it's nice to have another way that they can potentially engage with some of the content.”
The idea of bringing virtual lab technology into the classroom wasn’t Dr. Clayton’s own, but rather that of the college’s tech-minded Learning Resources Manager, Matt Reed. However, she certainly wasn’t opposed to it: “I am less likely to go out and find a technological solution myself and more likely to rely on something I've used previously, but when someone gets me into a technology I usually love it!” she expressed.
Having used the technology for a while now, her enthusiasm has only grown: “I am really enjoying the way that Labster enhances the students’ experience. If I didn’t think it was beneficial I could stop using it at any point, but I really can see the benefit of it in the format that I am using it. Personally, from a teacher’s perspective, I look forward to the sessions, because I see more liveliness and activity than I do in most of my other lessons”.
In order to find the simulations that best suited her students, Dr. Clayton tried out a number of virtual labs and settled on eight that she found matched her molecular biology course curriculum.
Using them as predominantly in-class exercises, her students found the content a welcome change to traditional methods of teaching: “It is nice for the students to be able to have different methods of learning, and Labster really ticks the visual and self-directed boxes. Especially if you have English as a second language, which almost all of my students do, it can be challenging to always be listening and writing. It’s a nice break for them to have another angle on the content that is fun but still educational.”
To assess the students’ learning and ensure their engagement with the simulations, Dr. Clayton assigns the simulations to her students in class, and gives them about an hour to complete. Any unfinished simulations can be completed at home, and students also have the option to repeat them as many times as they like. The grade that they get for the simulation then goes towards a tiny percentage of their course grade. But it took a bit of time and experience before Dr. Clayton reached the conclusion that this was the method that worked best for her and her students:
“The first time I ran Labster, I got the students to provide written feedback, where they explained to me what they had learned from the simulation. Completing this feedback was what got them the grade. But I decided to change methods because I wanted to encourage them to pay more attention to the quiz questions and getting the answers right. I felt like, if they had to get it right, then there would be more reason for them to take it seriously, instead of just clicking the screen until they get the right answer. And I think it has worked better that way! With my recent class I found that many students really wanted to get a score of 100%, so they kept repeating the simulations to get a perfect score, which actually helped them learn the content better.”
Dr. Clayton explained how learning with the virtual labs helped the students learn at an individual level, while at the same time increasing collaboration.
“I am always there to help them and hop in if they are getting visibly frustrated with something, but most of the time I like to let them go at their own pace and work things out on their own. I think that’s one of the benefits of Labster, that it allows students to work independently. They don’t get worried or self-conscious about their performance, they just work through it at their own pace.”
“At the same time,” she continued, “because they are in the same classroom as their friends, they will help each other and collaborate. Sometimes they are competitive with each other as well! It doesn’t happen all the time, but one of my favorite things is when students argue with each other about the correct answer, or teach one another, because I can see that they are really learning.”
Overall the feedback that Dr. Clayton has received from students is positive, saying that generally Labster is useful, engaging, and fun. Having a relatively small class with mostly introverted students, Dr. Clayton often found it a challenge to get the students comfortable with speaking up in class. “So I love seeing them being engaged with Labster, and I love seeing quiet students coming alive a bit more. This also translates into them being more likely to speak up in my other classes and relax into the theory. From that perspective, I really love it.”
From a student survey conducted at the end of the last semester, it was clear that most students enjoyed the simulations. One student commented: “Labster was entertaining and educating! It’s a fun way to learn after two hours of lecture, where we can enjoy learning. I feel like I’m playing a game that is educating. Overall I am so satisfied with Labster! I hope there’s Labster at UWA?”
The summary of the student survey showed that the majority of the students were satisfied with the simulations:
‘I gained relevant knowledge by using the simulation’: 74 % of students either ‘completely agree’ or ‘agree’ with this question
‘I found the simulation motivating’: 68 % of students either ‘completely agree’ or ‘agree’ with this question.
‘I feel more confident about my lab skills after the simulation’: 71 % of students either ‘completely agree’ or ‘agree’ with this question.
‘I feel that I can apply what I have learned in the simulation to real world cases’: 77 % of students either ‘completely agree’ or ‘agree’ with this question.
‘In general, I was pleased with the simulation’: 71 % of students either ‘completely agree’ or ‘agree’ with this question.
Taylors College campus
In addition to keeping her students active and engaged, Dr. Clayton also saw other advantages of using Labster in her class.
First, she explained the value of having a more ‘hands-on’ tool that allows the students to apply what they learn: “Labster allows you to go into particular situations that you would not be able to explore in class due to limitations of cost, time, or just logistics. It gives the students the chance to understand things in depth and see the bigger picture and applications, because you can compress so much into a very short simulation. Most simulations start with identifying a real-world problem and then progress to doing research experiments in the lab, and finally seeing the applications and outcomes. That just wouldn’t be feasible in an undergraduate introductory biology unit, but with Labster we can cover all that in one hour.”
This is an advantage, particularly because the students at Taylors College are taking introductory undergraduate courses. “In the unit where I use Labster, we introduce a wide range of concepts so we have limited time to spend in the lab. We run only three in-class labs across the entire 12-week course, so that means only a few hours where the students can do experiments and get hands-on experience. So the virtual labs help make up for that limitation and help me enhance the wide variety of theory topics we cover in the course. And there are so many cool things that you can do with Labster that you would otherwise never be able to do, I think it’s nice that they at least get to see these things in some form, so that they are aware that you can do lots of different things in science.”
Dr. Clayton found that the more abstract areas of biology, such as molecular biology, seemed to be harder for the students to grasp because most of the processes they study are not visible, even under a microscope: “When there is something that you can't see with your eyes, it is just so hard to connect the different things you are learning. I use animations and diagrams in class as much as possible, but it’s often not enough. So with Labster, I love how they’re able to see comprehensive models and animations of an entire concept in 3D, which I think really helps in the understanding of molecular biology.”
When asked about what the future may hold for science education, Dr. Clayton remarked that it is not science itself that faces a threat, but people’s perceptions of it. With information and misinformation being almost indistinguishable at times, and facts being cherry-picked or taken out of context to back up opinions, trust in science is quickly being eroded.
The antidote to this is scientific literacy. In a ‘post-truth’ world, it is important for technology to continue to inspire students to seek the truth and engage with the content they are learning; “I think going into the future anyone has the ability to find a ‘fact’ whenever they want, true or not. So it's become more about teaching students how to think critically, how to put things in the correct context, and how to set up rigorous experiments and apply the scientific method, rather than turning a large proportion of them off with a heavy focus on recalling dry facts and theories, which anyone with internet access could look up at any time. On that front, I think Labster can only be good because if it engages one more student that normally wouldn't care or connect with material, that is one more person that goes into the community with a little bit more scientific literacy.”
This blog post was first published in 2019.
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