Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Making the most of laboratory sessions: A multimedia solution

Christy Pinfold
Multimedia Development Unit
and
Annette Patak
School of Natural Sciences
Edith Cowan University
In the first year unit Form and Function in Biology at Edith Cowan University, students are required to participate in a series of laboratory sessions, some of which are animal dissections. We have commonly found student preparation for dissections to be inadequate, and attribute this largely to a lack of suitable study resources. Traditional study resources for student preparation have been written instructions for the dissections and diagrammatic representations which often bear little resemblance to the actual structure of the animal.

In order to make the most of the laboratory learning experience, we set out to improve the quality of the pre-lab instruction available to our students. A solution was sought in interactive multimedia (IMM), and this work has resulted in the program Snail Dissection Prelab.

This paper will briefly describe the design of the IMM program and will then focus on a small study we have conducted in order to elicit student perceptions of pre-lab study and it's relationship to laboratory performance. Students were also asked to evaluate the IMM program in terms of its effectiveness as a pre-lab instructional resource.


Introduction

The traditional structure of courses which include laboratory tasks has been based on an assumption that students will come to the laboratory session suitably prepared. Not surprisingly, we have found that student preparation, for dissection tasks in particular, is generally not adequate for a high level of performance in the laboratory session. Recognising that "university teachers must take responsibility for what and how their students learn" (Laurillard, 1993, p10), we have undertaken to improve the quality of the pre-lab instruction available to our students with a view to enhancing the learning experience of the laboratory sessions.

To begin with we have focussed on one particular dissection, that of the snail. The objectives for the snail dissection laboratory can be summarised as follows:

The small size of the animal, combined with the usual pressures of a limited 2 hour session, and the restriction to 1 specimen only per student, means that the snail dissection is one of the most difficult laboratory exercises for our students.

In an attempt to improve student preparation, we have developed an interactive multimedia program which is a simulation of the snail dissection. We report here on the implementation and formal evaluation of this program.

Traditional pre-lab instruction

Traditionally, there has been no formal time allocation for preparatory study before labs. Students are provided with a lab manual which contains a written procedure for performing the dissection as well as a diagrammatic representation which often bears little resemblance to the actual structure of the animal. The recommended text can be consulted for information regarding the function of body parts and systems. Students are encouraged to seek other reference material, a dissecting atlas for example, from sources such as the library or the Internet.

Good pre-lab instruction - Student perceptions

We surveyed a group of 60 students to find out what they thought they needed to do before attending a lab in order to be well prepared. Students were able to draw on their previous experience of laboratory dissections in the unit to answer the question. We asked them to think of their responses on three levels as follows:

Basicwhat would the basic level of preparation be?
Intermediate  what would possibly enable you to perform at a better(intermediate) level?
Higherwhat type of preparation might assist you to perform a really good dissection lab?

The responses are summarised in Table 1.

Table 1: Student perceptions of prelab study questionnaire results

What makes good prelab preparation?
Basic1.
2.
Read laboratory notes / manual
Read handbook
Intermediate3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
Read relevant sections of text book
Study diagrams / models / dissection atlases
Watch a demonstration
Ask questions of teaching staff and peers
Obtain information from the Internet
Higher8.
9.
10.
Read other reference material
Watch video recordings of the dissection
Make notes / photocopies of reference material

A solution? - Snail dissection prelab

This section will cover the three main phases of the project: program design, student evaluation of the program and observations of student interaction with the program.

Program design

A grant of $20,000 from the Quality Assurance Project - Enhancement of Technology Teaching and Learning at ECU in 1996 made it possible to undertake the development of an interactive multimedia (IMM) program to assist students in preparation for the snail dissection laboratory. It is recognised that IMM is unlikely to provide a single solution to the difficulties faced by our students, but an IMM program that engages the student in an active preparatory process is expected to promote a quality improvement over existing pre-lab instruction.

The Snail dissection prelab program makes use of a series of computer enhanced photographic images of a garden snail. The program follows the sequence of the actual laboratory exercise, while allowing students to work at their own pace, making as many revisits to each section as they choose. In the first section of the program students can practise identifying the body parts which are visible on three external views of the snail. Students can access labels and perform a labelling activity for each view. An Index listing the body parts and systems is available for reference and this includes a description of the function of each part. The Index can be printed from the program. The second section of the program contains the virtual dissection which is broken down into each of the main steps in the dissection task. For each step a demonstration can be viewed and a simulated attempt by the student performed. Labelling activities are also included after each dissection step. A quiz is built into the program which can be used as an assessment item for the unit. A more detailed description of the program can be found in Pinfold & Patak (1997).

An additional grant of $5,000 from the Faculty of Science Technology and Engineering Teaching and Learning Committee's Small Grants Programme to Improve Teaching and Learning supported the evaluation of the program. The evaluation study was approved by the Committee for the Conduct of Ethical Research: Code 97-113 at ECU.

Student evaluation of the program

The snail dissection lab is scheduled in second semester each year. In 1997 the IMM Snail dissection prelab program was scheduled during the laboratory session in the week prior to the snail dissection laboratory. The IMM program was also made available for reference on 2 computers during the actual dissection laboratory. At the end of the actual dissection laboratory we asked the students to rate the IMM program in terms of the criteria they had identified in the prelab study questionnaire. The results of this evaluation are shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Student evaluation of IMM program: questionnaire results
ABCDE

Basic1.
2.
Read laboratory notes / manual
Read handbook
37
11
21
21
37
42
5
5
0
21
Intermediate3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
Read relevant sections of text book
Study diagrams / models / dissection atlases
Watch a demonstration
Ask questions of teaching staff and peers
Obtain information from the Internet
11
42
63
26
5
58
26
26
42
26
21
21
0
21
37
5
5
5
5
16
5
5
5
5
16
Higher8.
9.
10.
11.
12.
Practice identifying the various body parts
Practice performing the dissection steps
Read other reference materials
Watch video recordings of the dissection
Make notes / photocopies of reference
material, including diagrams and videos
68
37
0
22
44
16
32
26
39
39
16
26
47
28
11
0
0
21
11
6
0
5
5
0
0

A The multimedia program was an excellent way of achieving this aspect of prelab study.
B The multimedia program was a fairly good way of achieving this aspect of prelab study.
C The multimedia program was a small help in achieving this aspect of prelab study.
D The multimedia program was not very helpful in meeting this aspect of prelab study.
E The multimedia program did not help achieve this aspect of prelab study at all.

The results of the evaluation survey suggest that the IMM development was a worthwhile attempt at improving the quality of prelab instruction. Our interpretation of the first two items under the basic category and item three under intermediate, is that the program assists the students to make sense of the laboratory notes. The visual support of the photographic images would be a large contributing factor here, as procedures written in the style of lab notes are difficult for novices to follow. Similarly item four indicates that the images used in the program and the labelling interactions have been useful. Item five was also a positive result for the program, with 89% of respondents rating the program as excellent or fairly good in its capacity to provide a useful demonstration of the dissection. The results for item six we found very interesting; 68% of respondents said the program was excellent or fairly good in its capacity to allow them to ask questions of teaching staff or peers. This we feel is a vital issue in the implementation of the program and will be discussed further below under implementation.

Items eight and nine, under higher, were not in fact student responses to the prelab study questionnaire but were added to this survey as specific indicators of the two main objectives of the program and indeed of the snail dissection lab exercise. The results show that the program was more successful in helping attain the first of these two objectives, namely identifying the body parts. This represents a simpler task than the second objective, performing the dissection steps. Even on the second objective, 69% of respondents rated the program as excellent or fairly good in its capacity to enable them to rehearse the dissection steps.

Item 11 refers to watching a video recording of the dissection. It was a decision in the planning stage of the project not to use digital video clips in the IMM program, given the type of hardware available in the labs to which we have ready access. The ratings given here suggest that the decision was reasonably successful, as 61% of respondents indicated the animations helped with this aspect in either an excellent or fairly good manner. (Video is given as a separate item to watching a demonstration, item 5). The final item, item 12 was an interesting indication of the manner in which students engaged with the program. Of the respondents, 83% gave an excellent or fairly good rating to the notetaking and copying of diagrams and other references aspect, and the majority of students were indeed observed taking many notes and drawing their own versions of the labelled images that appeared on screen. The suggestion that users be able to print the Index came out of this evaluation and has been implemented.

Observations of student interaction with the program

Observation notes were made while the students were working with the program and three computers were fitted with video recording devices which enabled detailed viewing at a later date. The video tapes also recorded the dialogue between each pair of students using those computers. In our observations we noted many things that related specifically to design elements of the program and these are being used formatively to make changes to the program. But of greatest interest and import were the observations which relate to the learning environment and the manner in which the students engaged with the program. Some of these observations include:
Each pair worked on the program at their own pace, negotiating between themselves their approach to the task.

The students collaborated within their pairs and across neighbouring pairs in their responses to certains areas of the program.

The students asked many questions, both of their peers and the teaching staff.

Having been encouraged to refer to the lab manual in conjunction with the program, as the lab manual would be essentially what the students would work from in the actual lab session, the students demonstrated that a high level of integration of these two resources was possible and indeed resulted in a mutual heightening of the effectiveness of each resource.

The students interacted in a self-testing manner with many of the screens which were not designed in the activity mode - this was most common on second and subsequent visits to a screen.

Many students took very detailed notes; some even reproduced their own hand drawn versions of the labelled images.

The performance on the quiz questions relating to the identification of body parts was considered by the unit coordinator to reflect a high level of attainment in the relatively short space of an hour.

Implementation

Perhaps the most difficult facet of this project has been solving the dilemma of how best to implement the IMM prelab program. As others have also realised, IMM programs address students' learning needs in a variety of ways and offer students involvement in and control over their learning process, even in classes that are larger than traditional tutorial groups. Effective use of these new materials requires, however, that they be integrated with the rest of the course and that students have appropriate support and guidance in their use. (Soper, 1997).

There is therefore a real need for evaluation of IMM programs such as this, to ensure their effectiveness in laboratory teaching (Johnston & Peat, 1997). The results of our evaluation indicate that individual access to the program as a self study tool is not the best application of the program. However, we are faced with a shortage of suitable hardware in the teaching labs to which we need access for a once-a-year implementation such as this.

The second difficulty, which will likely be more easily overcome than the first, is making the decision to cut content within the course in order to allocate time to the prelab session. This has been done for the case of the Snail dissection prelab. We plan to replicate the IMM program for the other three dissection labs conducted in the unit, and consequently we need to reorganise the laboratory schedule to accommodate them.

Conclusion

We conclude that the validity of the IMM program as a prelab instructional resource was confirmed by the student evaluations and our observations of the learning experience. The value of the resource to the overall teaching program was also recognised in the actual laboratory session the week following the IMM prelab, when the real snails were so brittle from the fixative, that the final steps in the dissection were almost impossible for the students to perform and hence some body parts not visible for study.

References

Johnston, I. & Peat M. (1997). What did we learn from the dry labs workshop? Proceedings of Dry Labs Workshop. University of Sydney, April 1996. pp. 1-3. http://science.uniserve.edu.au/su/SCH/pubs/procs/drylabs.pdf

Laurillard, D. (1993). Rethinking university teaching. London: Routledge.

Pinfold, C. & Patak, A. (1996). Using multimedia to help overcome inadequacies in student preparation for laboratory sessions: Snail dissection pre-lab. in R. Tilbrook (Ed.), Showcasing Best Practice at ECU. Perth: http://www.cowan.edu.au/eddev/showcase//pinpatak.htm

Soper, J. B. (1997). Integrating interactive media in courses: The WinEcon software with workbook approach. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 97(2). http://www-jime.open.ac.uk/jime/03/

Please cite as: Pinfold, C. and Patak, A. (1998). Making the most of laboratory sessions: A multimedia solution. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 269-273. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/pinfold.html


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