What is the “best” way to teach with Labster simulations, according to the data? Dr. Bruno Poellhuber wanted to find out. Bruno is a professor of education and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Montreal. Partnering with co-researchers at the University of Montreal and six other colleges, he ran an experiment with 6,000 students and 39 instructors who participated over the course of three terms. Bruno’s team noticed the most successful instructors leaned into using tools based on the pre-briefing, briefing, integration, and debriefing phases from the Jeffries model of teaching with simulation in the nursing field. They observed that instructors with highly engaged and motivated students shared specific pedagogical practices, which you’ll hear about in this episode.
April [00:00:00] Hey, everyone. I'm April and you're listening to The Labster Podcast. Our host is Dr. SJ Boulton, an educational designer, and former university lecturer who now develops Labster's interactive virtual lab simulations for students in high school, college, and university. This podcast is our space to share time with you and introduce you to a few of the innovative and inspiring science educators we meet as we, together, go about our mission of empowering the next generation to change the world.
Welcome to Episode 22. We’re thrilled to be joined by our special guest Dr. Bruno Poellhuber. Bruno is a professor of education and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Montreal. Recently, Bruno and his team of co-researchers published their study on the best ways to teach with Labster interactive science simulations.
After tracking 6,000 students and 39 instructors, he discovered a clear pattern of successful pedagogical practices, among teachers whose post-secondary science students achieved the highest scores for engagement and motivation. We'll talk about his exciting findings in just a moment. For now, we’ll say “welcome to The Labster Podcast, Dr. Bruno Poellhuber”.
SJ Boulton [00:02:40] Welcome to The Labster Podcast. It is a great pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much for coming to join us.
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:02:46] My pleasure.
SJ Boulton [00:02:47] Actually, first off, the first thing I need to say is congratulations on winning the Labster STEM Excellence Award. I hear that you won it for leading the way towards a more effective use of digital technologies within your institution and for championing evidence-based teaching strategies all the way through. So my hat is off to you. Congratulations. Excellent work and thank you.
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:03:08] I'm very thrilled receiving this award, but I feel I have to share it with my co-researchers, which are Christine Marquis and Sébastien Wall-Lacelle, who are both teaching science at Cégep de SaintJérôme, and that are my co-researchers as well.
SJ Boulton [00:03:25] Ah, you are too humble. Thank you for name-dropping them. I'll be checking those people out too to see what cool things they've been getting off to. That's awesome. And speaking of which, I believe you've just completed some really, really interesting research on how courses can use integrated virtual lab simulations during the pandemic at the University of Montreal and at some other colleges. Is that right?
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:03:46] That's right. Actually, we ran an experiment going on for three semesters starting from Winter 2021 to Winter 2022 at University of Montreal and six other participating colleges. There were a total of 39 teachers and almost 6,000 students participating in this research.
SJ Boulton [00:04:09] Wow, that's amazing. That's a huge study. And can you tell me a little bit about what the goal of the research was and what you were hoping to find out?
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:04:19] Well, actually, the goal of the research was to explore the pedagogical and didactic potential of computer-based virtual reality scenarios used for postsecondary science courses. Actually, as you just noticed, we wanted to use the potential of virtual reality to bring us in different spaces and time. And that was really useful during the pandemic, a period during which access to laboratories was very restricted, especially in winter 2021. And the other thing in our aims was that we wanted to focus not only on the VR simulations themselves, but on the pedagogical scenarios that teachers were building around these simulations. And we wanted to test the effects of the scenarios on students' motivation and engagement.
SJ Boulton [00:05:12] Oh, that's really cool. So not just looking at the sims, but how teachers chose to use them, like the pacing of them, the curriculum that was built around them, or that they were part of?
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:05:21] For sure, yes. The student support system, actually, we used a model coming from Jeffries in health care and nursing. We actually developed some tools based on the Jeffries model used in nursing for simulations and we adapted it for computer-based simulations.
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:05:46] So our teams, our researchers and our pedagogical instructors, instructional developers, they worked together to develop tools to help teachers build sound pedagogical scenarios, to look at what should be expected of students at the pre-briefing phase, the briefing phase, during the simulations and at the debriefing phase as well. Because on the literature review we see that student support around the simulation, especially the debriefing part is very important. So we wanted to help teachers build sound scenarios. So the focus of the research was not only on the use of the simulation, but rather on the use of the pedagogical simulations that were around the simulations.
SJ Boulton [00:06:32] Now that makes total sense. I guess the Jeffries model is very reflection heavy as well as is, you know, nursing education's got a real great pedigree of it, integrating reflections into the learning experience. And so. yeah, the debriefing part of any kind of simulation-containing learning session, it's so important and I'd love to hear more about it. So what kind of activities did you find educators got benefit from to wraparound simulations?
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:07:02] Well, I'm going to maybe answer a little bit beside - because the numbers we have with the number of classes and the number of students, and the number of teachers participating made it possible for us to run multilevel regression analysis. And the really interesting part of it is that at level two, at the level of the teacher, the sole and only variable that ended up as significant was the scenario score. So.
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:07:49] After teachers would have experimented their simulations in class, we run the questionnaire to the students and we treat the results and discuss the results with the teachers and interpret it with them. And we ran 65 of these interviews, and we analyzed that during these interviews, the teachers shared with us the scenarios they built. And we coded the scenario according to a series of 11 criteria that told us how sophisticated the scenario was. So it was more or less a grid of scenario quality along 11 criteria. And this is the sole and only variable that stood out as significant in the multilevel regression.
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:08:42] So the teacher gender was not significant, teacher's discipline was not significant, teacher's experience was not significant. But the score of the scenario was the very only variable significant at level two for predicting behavioral engagement. So we started by noticing that some teachers were doing things that look to us associated with very high motivation and engagement scores.
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:09:11] I have a few examples of this, but I can give you a few examples of practices that some teachers were doing, of scenarios that get a high score. Actually, in the Pre-Briefing phase, they rely more on previous learning, they use strategies to activate previous learning and strategies which are not readings or things like that, but like ways of having spontaneous conceptions emerge. And oftentimes they start from this to build, they start from what students know about - pick a particular topic - and even if it's wrong, they'll revisit it after the simulation.
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:09:58] Another thing that they do that is greatly appreciated, in the Briefing phase, teachers that have low scenario scores give essentially logistical instructions. But teachers that have high scenario scores, they rather give conceptual links, and they give to students key elements that they should be attentive to during the simulation.
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:10:29] Furthermore, during the simulations, teachers that have a low score for the scenario, oftentimes they do nothing, like they let the students work through the simulation. But often times teachers with strong scenario scores are present all the way to offer students support. They are there to answer questions. They are there to offer guidance. And almost half of our teachers who have high scenario scores, they use a supplementary document asking the students to take specific notes at particular points of the simulation.
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:11:18] And finally, at the Debriefing phase of the simulation, the teachers that have high scenario scores really systematically wrap up the important points and they also run a structured discussion taking this knowledge further for students.
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:11:48] So if I'm looking at the very high level, these are the differences between these teachers that have a high score scenario compared to others.
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:12:01] I can give you an example of this in a particular course in physics. Students have different points to check out at different points of the simulation. The simulation is done in teams instead of individually. While one person in the team has the helmet, the others in the team have a conceptual discussion and ask some information about the simulation. And the simulation is oftentimes projected on the computer screen. So even if there's only one student that actually uses the simulation, everyone in the team can see what's going on and discuss what's going on. And they have specific points to notice at specific times. They have specific values to calculate, they have specific links to make with some concepts.
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:13:04] So you could argue that in some ways it might take them out of the immersive experience somehow, but in other ways, it really reinforced their conceptual learning.
SJ Boulton [00:13:17] Absolutely. That's a really interesting use case in a deployment strategy. It's cool to hear that the simulation was run in teams because one thing that I often hear about virtual technologies is just the burden of hardware. But that would actually reduce the burden of hardware if the simulation was run in teams and you use one headset and one screen with a group of students, then not everybody needs their own. And that's really interesting.
SJ Boulton [00:13:45] And then when you mentioned that students have specific discussion points, I suppose you're creating an opportunity for reflection within the actual learning process as well. Even if you're breaking immersion, I guess the students are then able to kind of discuss, reflect and argue whether or not they're right, whether their experience was the true one, whether they saw it one way or another, which probably makes up for, if not exceeds, the benefit that you would get from being fully immersed in that single experience as an individual.
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:14:20] Mm hmm.
SJ Boulton [00:14:21] That's so interesting. Ooh, I'm feeling inspired. So you've been researching and investigating problems in science education that are probably very familiar to some of the things that we encounter at Labster. And we noticed that the scientific concepts that folks want to teach with digital affordances are becoming more and more abstract. So when we were first making simulations, they were often kind of representations or based upon existing practical techniques. So for example, an ELISA assay or concrete strength test and things like that, whereas now what we hear is that folks would like or educators would like to have digital affordances that can help students to understand the very abstract and conceptual ideas that underpin some of the procedural work that underpin and builds mental models for students within a discipline.
SJ Boulton [00:15:30] And then secondly, the teaching methods they use online are often quite lecture-based. Now, what's interesting to me is that you mentioned that in the high-graded scenarios, the teachers were present all the way through, which sounds to me like this is something that's done in person or it's done in a classroom or it's done on campus. Is that true or is this something you think could still be remote?
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:16:00] Well, to be clear, it has been mostly done remotely.
SJ Boulton [00:16:04] Okay.
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:16:05] For Winter 2021 and fall 2021, kind of half and half, and almost exclusively in-person in Winter 2022. So actually, our original research plan was for 15 teachers and 500 students and we ended up with 29 teachers and almost 6000 students. And that was due to the effects of the pandemic. But we still maintained our numbers during the three iterations. So it's not only the pandemic, but the pandemic was the occasion of having the interest.
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:16:48] What you're saying is quite interesting because we had interviews with teachers after they've been exploring the Labster simulations and we had group interviews with students after they have been using the simulations. And for both groups, contextualization was one of the key advantages. Actually, teachers' first impression was that they immediately perceived the pedagogical potential benefits of the simulation because these were contextualized in real-life problems. And they also perceived the fun aspect because they are kind of game-like.
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:17:31] And for the students, it's a little bit of the reverse. They immediately perceived the fun aspect and were really attracted by this aspect, but they also perceived the possibility of better understanding some concepts because of the representations that were made. And so somehow they were kind of congruent with teachers' perceptions. But students also reported that they felt that these simulations were preparing them for the lab better, like lowering their anxiety. And they also appreciated a lot the fact that they could pace their own simulation, go at their own pace, and review it since they will have access to the simulations both before and after the class.
SJ Boulton [00:18:23] It's so interesting and I'm so glad that the students were the ones that perceived that. And why do you think, in the face of a lot of evidence and a lot of excellent support from folks like yourself, a lot of literature being published, why do you think that science educators are perhaps reluctant to start using digital affordances and instead choose to keep more traditional tools. What do you think it is about the experience that maybe stops people from getting involved?
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:19:02] Well, I mean, from my opinion - and that's an opinion, that's not a research result - but in my opinion, it's a "science teaching culture." And science teaching culture is not equal across disciplines. We have been undergoing a very important science teaching revolution over the last 20 or 25 years. And a lot of this comes from physics teaching. So physics teachers, they kind of stand out. Maybe it's because of the sheer difficulty of the task in physics, but there have been physics teachers at the forefront of educational reform with the use of technology, with teaching and learning. I'm thinking of the Active Learning Classrooms of the 21st century by Baepler. So these were not only classes, but they were physical environments in which teachers and students could use technology and could deploy active learning strategies. So it was not only about spaces, it was about strategies, and it was about digital affordances.
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:20:19] In chemistry, it seems to me that we're really still in a very transmissive culture. Like we teach a lot of content, we prepare a lab experiment, and in biology, we are kind of in between because we have also prominent biology teachers that are aligned with that scientific teaching reform. So there's a kind of disciplinary teaching culture that exists, but we've been having some very interesting breakthroughs with biology teachers at our colleges and universities.
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:21:02] In this experiment in physics, it was a little bit hard to try because there was not a lot of physics, simulation. And in chemistry, we had a lot of success at the college level, the Cegep level in Quebec is kind of the last year of high school and first year of university, and we didn't have much success at university level. And I think it's it's because of the curriculum alignment, like the Labster simulation were very well aligned with the Cegep curriculum, but the things that they are doing at University of Montreal in chemistry, they're not aligned with the kind of simulations Labster has, so it's a mix of things, I'd say.
SJ Boulton [00:21:44] I must admit, and maybe this is off-topic a little bit, but one thing that I always found very challenging about creating simulations for chemistry and physics especially was the sheer number of failed states that you have to take into account when you were trying to build a scenario. Like everything that can go wrong, the glass can break, the tools that you're using can be not set up. And that's before you've actually started thinking about the parameters of the experiment or of the interaction that you're trying to build in the direction for. So, for example, even something as simple as setting up a pendulum for a swing or a two axis, two point pendulum or something like that, all of the different variables that impact the way that that pendulum actually swings and then trying to build something that visually represents an accurate, well-paced swing. It's so complex, and especially when it's built within something like a lab room. I'm not saying we shouldn't do it, we absolutely should. But there is some unexpected complexity when one comes to build a virtual lab for things that seem on the surface so simple. And they're actually really quite tricky. And it's part of the thing that drives this right to keep on improving and building these affordances that can support students and really help them get the most out of it. Very cool.
SJ Boulton [00:23:24] And unfortunately, our time has already started to come to a close. And I've really, really enjoyed talking with you, Bruno. And I really wanted to say thank you for sharing your thoughts with us today, especially all of your learnings just hearing about how these different scenarios can have such a massive impact on how much students are getting out of simulations. And it's such a new thing for me, and I was really excited to hear about it. So thank you.
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:23:49] Yes, well, thank you for inviting me.
SJ Boulton [00:23:52] No worries. And before we wrap the episode up, I just have one last big question. Since you spend so much of your time focused on the cutting edge of pedagogy and technology and how they work together, I'd really like to get your perspective on what you think. Five years into the future of education, do you think teaching will look different? How do you think our institutions will change?
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:24:15] Well, I think it will look somehow different. I think - well, let's say I'm an optimist, so I would say I hope - but I think I think that I think that we really kind of had a technological and pedagogical breakthrough during the pandemic. I think teachers are discovering a lot of new resources and sometimes not using them as well as they could.
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:24:39] But still, they discovered the possibility of learning management systems and web conferencing. I think that if they are supported in a good fashion, they will also be able to discover the true pedagogical affordances of these rich learning environments. I think that virtual reality will become very big in the next five years, and especially immersive virtual reality. It's like tools to build videos, they are now at a level that is democratizing it. So quite soon I expect to see many pedagogical uses of maker spaces and luxury devices for gaming used to make serious games in VR. And, I see a lot of potential for artificial intelligence. So it might look really optimistic to think that we can use that. But actually, you can now today benefit from the chat bots that are integrated into teams or other virtual environments. So it's not as far-fetched as it might seem to think that we'll be able to exploit these technological pedagogical affordances in the near future.
SJ Boulton [00:26:02] Oh, I've got such a big smile on my face just listening to your optimistic outlook. That's wonderful. Thank you so much, Bruno.
Dr. Bruno Poellhuber [00:26:09] Thank you.
April [00:26:11] Thank you very much for sharing your research and your time with us in this episode, Dr. Bruno Poellhuber. And we thank you for listening. If you liked this episode, we hope you’ll share it with a fellow teacher and subscribe to The Labster Podcast. We invite you to send us your feedback at April at Labster dot com. Until next time, keep teaching and keep learning!
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