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Teaching and Learning Forum 2010 [ Refereed papers ]
Student attitudes and preferences towards non-invasive animal-based and computer-based practicals

Jo Elliott and Dominique Blache
The University of Western Australia

There have been recent moves to replace the use of animals in teaching with interactive computer programs and simulations. However, it is important to understand student attitudes towards non-animal alternatives to the use of animals to ensure that students receive a valuable learning experience. Previous research suggests that students support the use of non-animal alternatives to the invasive use of animals but the replacement of non-invasive animal use has received less attention. The aim of this study was to determine the attitudes of undergraduate science students towards the use of non-animal alternatives to replace non-invasive animal use in practical classes before and after exposure to non-animal alternatives. Students were surveyed before and after taking part in a non-invasive practical involving the use of live sheep and a computer simulation of the same class. The results showed that, both before and after completing the practical series, students agreed with the statements that non-animal alternatives provide a valuable, and an enjoyable, learning experience and that this attitude did not change (p = 0.688; p = 0.549, respectively). However, students did not feel that non-animal alternatives provide as good a learning experience as the use of live animals. In addition, students rated the animal-based exercise as more enjoyable than the computer simulation (p < 0.001). The non-invasive nature of the practical, the species used and the relative simplicity of the concepts presented are thought to have contributed to these attitudes.


Introduction

Animals have traditionally been used in life science courses to demonstrate important concepts to students. However, advances in technology and increased public pressure to reduce the use of animals in teaching have led to the development of numerous alternative teaching tools (Balcombe, 2000; Vieuille & Aubert, 2005). The majority of these non-animal alternatives are interactive computer programs and simulations which aim to replace practicals that cause direct harm, such as dissection or functional tissue preparation for which animals are either anesthetised and/or euthanized (Balcombe 2000). Such alternatives have a number of attributes which make them as effective a teaching tool as the use of animals (Balcombe, 2000). First, the flexibility of the alternatives allows students to work at their own pace and repeat exercises if necessary (van der Valk et al., 1999). Second, increased student involvement in the computer-based alternative promotes active learning (Dewhurst & Jenkinson, 1995). Third, less time is required to learn concepts through computer-based learning than through conventional teaching methods (Kulik, Kulik, & Cohen, 1980). There is evidence that these factors contribute to greater student achievement from computer-based alternatives than from the use of animals. For example, students who completed E-rat, a computer-based rat dissection, performed on average 7.4 per cent better than students who completed a conventional dissection (Predavec, 2001).

The use of computer-based alternatives to replace less- or non-invasive practical classes, such as those designed to demonstrate behaviour or thermoregulation, has received less attention. Although a practical class to demonstrate thermoregulation may not involve direct harm, the animals are exposed to psychological (e.g. handling-induced stress) and environmental stressors within the range of their capacity to adapt to the changes. Thus, while such a class is non-invasive, as it does not involve surgery, tissue collection or exposure to distressing stimuli outside the animals' ability to cope with the changes, it does involve an imposition on the animals. With this in mind, alternative teaching methods are being developed to replace these non-invasive practical classes. It is important therefore to assess the effectiveness of the developed alternatives.

When assessing the effectiveness of alternative teaching methods it is important to consider student attitudes, enjoyment and preference. If students have negative attitudes towards the use of non-animal alternatives it may reduce the effectiveness of these alternatives in teaching concepts. A positive mood enhances learning in comparison to a neutral mood (Lee & Sternthal, 1999), therefore it is important that students have a positive attitude towards, and enjoy, the teaching methods used. For example, students with a higher level of enjoyment of high-school physics classes achieved higher marks (Pell, 1985). Likewise, Green (1993) found that enjoyableness of a teaching method was moderately to highly correlated with the effectiveness of that teaching method. Conversely, if students do not enjoy a teaching method and thus have a poor attitude towards it, the method may be rendered less effective. Given that student opinions of the use of non-animal alternatives to dissections tend to improve after completing a class involving a non-animal alternative, and vice versa (Dewhurst, Hardcastle, Hardcastle, & Stuart, 1994; Strauss & Kinzie, 1994), it seems important to investigate student attitudes to alternatives to non-invasive practicals both before and after exposure to an alternative.

The positive attitudes of students towards alternative teaching methods found in previous studies may have been influenced by the invasive nature of the animal-based practicals used in those studies. Students often find the sights and smell associated with invasive animal use, such as dissections and surgeries, confronting and this can detract from the learning experience (Cox, 2004; Predavec, 2001). The use of a non-animal alternative allows students to study the same concepts in the absence of the confronting and potentially upsetting stimuli. In non-invasive animal-based practical classes, such as those used to demonstrate thermoregulation, these confronting aspects of animal use are not present. This may affect students' perceptions of the imposition on the animal and thus their attitudes towards the practical class. Therefore, alternatives to non-invasive practical classes may not be as appealing to students as alternatives to invasive animal use.

The aims of this project were to determine student attitudes towards the use of non-animal alternatives when the alternative replaces a non-invasive animal-based practical class (see method section for description), and to investigate whether these attitudes change after exposure to a non-animal alternative and an animal-based practical. In addition, the learning experience and the preference for each of the teaching methods were investigated. It was expected that student attitudes towards computer-based non-animal alternatives may become more positive after they complete the practical series.

Methods

The learning experiences, preferences and attitudes of undergraduate science students towards the use of non-animal alternatives in teaching were obtained using two anonymous, matched questionnaires. The questionnaires were distributed to second-year students enrolled in an animal-based science unit at The University of Western Australia; the first during the first week of study in the unit and the second after students had participated in the environmental physiology laboratories, described below. Students were asked to provide the final four digits of their phone number on each survey. This allowed the two questionnaires to be matched for analysis without compromising the confidentiality of the students.

Practical and the computer-based simulation

Three practical classes were designed to demonstrate to students the physiological and behavioural responses of thermoregulators (in this case, sheep) and thermoconformers (goldfish) to changes in environmental temperature and humidity. In the sheep-based class, sheep were exposed to increased humidity, ambient temperature and radiant heat, and their physiological responses (core body temperature and skin temperature) and behavioural responses (respiration rate) were measured. A computer-based alternative to the sheep-based class was designed using footage and data from previous years. The computer-based practical allowed students to gather the same data as would be obtained from the animal-based class. The third practical of the series involved measuring the physiological response (respiration rate) of fish to increases and decreases in water temperature. The two animal-based practicals can be considered non-invasive because the environmental conditions were varied within the limits of the adaptative capacity of each species. After completing the practical series, the students were required to analyse the data and prepare a scientific report detailing their results for one of the sheep practicals (either the animal-based or the computer-based class) and the fish-based practical, and compare the response of a thermoconformer to that of a thermoregulator. The students involved in this research project participated in all three practical classes (sheep, computer-simulation, fish), following a latin square design.

Participant group

Participants were recruited from a second-year Animal Science practical classes (n=30). As a pre-requisite to this unit, all students had previously completed a first-year Biology unit in which they took part in a dissection. Participation in the survey was voluntary but strongly encouraged. Participants were provided with a project information sheet (Appendix 1) as approved by the University Human Ethics Committee at the distribution of the first questionnaire.

Questionnaires

The first questionnaire (Appendix 2) included seven quantitative questions to establish the demographic of the students and their previous educational exposure to animals and non-animal alternatives. Student attitudes towards the use of animals in teaching and the use of non-animal alternatives were determined using 11 statements. Students were asked to rank their agreement with each statement on a four-point scale (Strongly disagree - strongly agree, no neutral point). Seven of the 11 statements related to the learning experience provided by animal-based laboratories and non-animal alternatives, while the remaining four related to how the students reacted to these teaching methods, e.g. feeling uncomfortable or ill. Students were also asked to choose whether they would prefer to participate in a practical class using live animals, a non-animal alternative or a combination of the two. Finally, the students were asked to add any further comments that they wished to be taken into account.

The second questionnaire (Appendix 3) included the 11 attitude statements used in the first questionnaire, the preference for teaching methods and the request for additional comments. In addition, the second questionnaire included two items asking the student to rate their enjoyment of the two classes (computer-based or animal-based) on the four-point scale used for the attitude statements.

Statistical analysis

The changes in attitudes between before and after the exposure to the 3 practicals were analysed using a Wilcoxon matched-pairs test in Genstat 8th Edition (VSN International Ltd.) after converting the responses to the 11 attitude statements into numerical values (strongly disagree = 1, strongly agree = 4) and. The changes in preference for teaching methods were analysed using a Wilcoxon matched-pairs test after converting the response to numerical values (live animals = 1, non-animal alternative = 2, both = 3). The students' ratings of enjoyment of the use of live animals and the use of non-animal alternatives in the two practical sessions were analysed using a Mann-Whitney U test after conversion to numerical values (strongly disagree = 1, strongly agree = 4). Seven respondents answered at least one statement by marking a neutral point on the scale. These neutral responses were classified as missing values.

Results

Background statistics

Of the 30 students surveyed, 28 completed both questionnaires. Of these, 13 were male, 15 female. They ranged between 18 and 23 years of age, with a mean age of 19.5. Six students were studying Agriculture, five were studying Animal Science and ten were enrolled in a double degree of Agriculture/Science and Commerce/Economics. The remaining students listed their degree as Agricultural Economics (n=3), Wildlife Management (n=2), Genetics (n=1) or Zoology/Marine Biology (n=1). Sixty-four percent of the students were from a farming background. Twenty had attended high school in an Australian metropolitan area, seven in an Australian rural area and one a Japanese high school. All of the students had previously taken part in a dissection using animals including cane toads, mice, rats and sheep. Twenty-three students had previously participated in a class using live animals, including sheep, mice and invertebrates. Only seven students had used a non-animal alternative, including computer simulations (n=5), 3-D models (n=1) and an unspecified alternative (n=1).

Attitudes to the use of animals in teaching

Both before and after completion of the three practical classes, students agreed with the statements that the use of live animals in practical classes provides a valuable educational experience and an enjoyable learning experience. The degree of agreement regarding the value of the experience did not change after completion of the classes (p = 1.00; Table 1), however students thought that practical classes involving live animals were more enjoyable after completing the practicals (p = 0.039; Table 1). Students disagreed with the statement that using live animals in a non-invasive practical class made them feel uncomfortable, both before and after completing the class series (p = 0.289; Table 1). Likewise both before and after the practical series, students disagreed with the statement that using live animals in a non-invasive practical class made them feel queasy or ill (p = 0.688; Table 1). In both instances, students agreed with the statement that the use of live animals in practical classes is justified (p = 0.25; Table 1).

Attitudes to the use of non-animal alternatives in teaching

Both before and after completing the practical series, students agreed with the statement that the use of non-animal alternatives in practical classes provides a valuable learning experience (p = 0.688; Table 1). Students also agreed in both instances that the use of non-animal alternatives in a practical class provided an enjoyable learning experience (p = 0.549; Table 1). Students agreed with the statement that the use of non-animal alternatives in practical classes is justified, both before and after completing the practical series (p = 1.00; Table 1). In both cases, students disagreed with the statements that the use of a non-animal alternative in a practical class made them feel uncomfortable (p = 0.13; Table 1), or queasy or ill (p = 1.00; Table 1).

Comparisons of, and preferences for a teaching method

Both before and after the practical, students disagreed with the statement that the use of a non-animal alternative in a practical class provides as good a learning experience as the use of live animals (p = 0.63; Table 1). In both instances, students agreed more strongly that the use of live animals in practical classes provides a good educational experience than with the statement that the use of non-animal alternatives provides a good learning experience (p = 0.001, in both cases). The students also agreed more strongly with the statement that the use of live animals in practical classes provides an enjoyable learning experience than with the statement that the use of a non-animal alternative provides an enjoyable learning experience, both before and after completing the practical series (p = 0.004; p < 0.001).

After completing the series of practical classes, the students rated the animal-based class as more enjoyable than the computer-based class (p < 0.001; Table 2). Before completing the practical series, 11 students stated that they would prefer to take part in a practical class involving live animals while 16 students preferred to take part in a class involving both live animals and a non-animal alternative. One student did not answer this question. After the practical series, 18 students stated their preference as a class involving live animals while 10 students preferred to use both live animals and a non-animal alternative. These proportions were not significantly different (p = 0.173; Table 3).

Table 1: The mean, standard deviation and median for the students' level of agreement with each of the attitude statements before and after completing the practical series (1 = strongly disagree, 4 = strongly agree). The p-value represents the results of the Wilcoxon matched-pairs test testing for differences between the two values.

Attitude statementBefore practical seriesAfter practical seriesP-value
Mean ± S.D.MedianMean ± S.D.Median
I believe that the use of live animals in practical classes provides a valuable educational experience3.54 ± 0.514.003.57 ± 0.504.001.00
I believe that the use of live animals in practical classes is justified3.32 ± 0.483.003.43 ± 0.503.000.25
The idea of using live animals in a non-invasive practical class makes me feel uncomfortable1.61 ± 0.502.001.46 ± 0.511.000.29
The idea of using live animals in a non-invasive practical class makes me feel queasy or ill1.57 ± 0.502.001.50 ± 0.511.500.69
I believe that the use of live animals in practical classes provides an enjoyable learning experience3.14 ± 0.593.003.48 ± 0.513.000.04
I believe that the use of non-animal alternatives in practical classes provides a valuable learning experience2.82 ± 0.483.002.77 ± 0.593.000.69
I believe that the use of non-animal alternatives in practical classes is justified3.07 ± 0.603.003.15 ± 0.603.001.00
The idea of using a non-animal alternative in a practical class makes me feel uncomfortable1.68 ± 0.482.001.50 ± 0.581.000.13
The idea of using a non-animal alternative in a practical class makes me feel queasy or ill1.54 ± 0.512.001.50 ± 0.511.501.00
I believe that the use of a non-animal alternative in a practical class provides an enjoyable learning experience2.67 ± 0.483.002.56 ± 0.642.000.55
I believe that the use of a non-animal alternative in a practical class provides me with as good a learning experience as the use of live animals2.29 ± 0.662.002.42 ± 0.902.000.63

Table 2: The mean, standard deviation and median for the students' level of agreement with the statements that they enjoyed the animal-based class and the non-animal alternative class (1 = strongly disagree, 4 = strongly agree).


Mean ± S.D.Median
I enjoyed the animal-based practical class3.45 ± 0.533.00
I enjoyed the non-animal alternative class2.63 ± 0.602.75

Table 3: The stated preference of students for teaching methods before and after completing the practical series


Live animals Alternative Both
Before practical series (n=27) 11 0 16
After practical series (n=28) 18 0 10

Student comments

Seven students provided additional comments on the first questionnaire. Generally these showed support for the use of animals in teaching. For example, in response to the statement "I believe that the use of a non-animal alternative in a practical class provides me with as good a learning experience as the use of live animals," a female student commented "in some cases, yes, although I believe that live animal use is generally a better option. Non-animal alternatives are good learning tools when animals are unavailable." Two students differentiated between the invasive and non-invasive use of animals, For example, one student explained that"[a]s long as the animal is not hurt in the process, I do not see a reason as to why live-animal pracs [sic] shouldn't be used" (M, 20).

Four of the students who provided additional comments in the first questionnaire also commented in the second questionnaire, along with one additional student. Three of these students reiterated their earlier comments, for example "[w]hile the use of non animal alternatives would be valuable if animals could not be used, live animals are much better" (F, 19). One student, who had earlier commented that, because she had never used a non-animal alternative, she was not sure if it would be enjoyable, commented that "[t]he use of non-animal alternative is beneficial with the animal component as well. However I feel that more is learnt from hands on activity" (F, 19). Again, there was a distinction between the invasive and non-invasive use of animals with one student commenting that "if it is non-invasive I'd rather use live animals, but invasive or dissections of animals, use the non-animal alternative" (F, 19).

Discussion

The hypothesis that student attitudes towards the computer-based alternative would become more positive after completing the practical series was not supported. With the exception of their belief that the use of live animals provided an enjoyable learning experience, which became stronger after completing the practical series, there was no difference in the students' attitudes before and after the practical class series. Before and after completion of the practical series, the students surveyed showed a generally positive attitude towards the use of animals and the use of non-animal alternatives in teaching, although they rated the animal-based practical as more enjoyable than the alternative computer-based class. Although the students believed that non-animal alternatives can provide a valuable and enjoyable learning experience, this belief was not as strong as for the use of live animals. Similarly, they did not feel that non-animal alternatives provide as good a learning experience as live animals. The positive attitudes of the surveyed students towards the use of animals in teaching and the lack of preference for alternatives is contrary to the findings of previous studies in which students were exposed to alternatives that replaced invasive animal-based practicals (Predavec, 2001; Samsel et al., 1994). Thus the nature of the practical seems to have greatly influenced the attitude of students towards both teaching tools.

The survey results, in combination with the students' comments, suggest that students value the hands-on experience that they receive in a traditional laboratory class environment. While most students did recognise the value of the computer-based alternative, their preference tended to be for the animal-based practical or for the alternative to be taught in combination with the live-animal practical. A possible reason for the contrast is that the animal-based exercise used in our study was non-invasive compared to surgical procedures carried out in other studies (Dewhurst et al., 1994; Samsel et al., 1994). This is supported by comments provided by some of the students in the present study which indicated that they perceived the animal-based practical to be non-invasive and that this influenced their preference. This suggests that the nature of the practical class and the students' perceptions of the imposition placed on the animal can influence their attitudes towards the use of animal and preferences for different teaching tools. In support of this, 56 percent of college students expressed objections to dissecting anaesthetised live animals but more than 75 percent were in favour of using live animals in a practical class in which they would not be directly harmed (Lord & Moses, 1994). Likewise, the majority of students learning about classical conditioning techniques found that a computer simulation of the classical conditioning of dogs easier to use than the same practical using live earthworms (Abramson, Onstott, Edwards, & Bowe, 1996). However, more than 90 percent of the students felt that a better understanding of the concepts involved was gained from the practical using earthworms. As in our study, the animal-based practical did not involve harming the animals (Abramson et al. 1996).

The animals used in the practical class could also have influenced student attitudes and preferences. It is well documented that the attitudes towards the use of animals differs with species (Dawkins, 1991). For example, the use of companion animals, such as the dogs used by Samsel et al (1994), is viewed as less acceptable than the use of invertebrates, small rodents or 'utility' animals, such as sheep (Hagelin, Carlsson, & Hau, 2003; Vieuille & Aubert, 2005). The use of sheep combined with the farming background of the majority of students may have reduced student empathy towards the animals involved in the practical class (Hagelin et al., 2003). Furthermore, the most significant stress imposed on the sheep was due to handling. It is possible that the group of students surveyed in our study did not perceive the stress of handling as an imposition on the animals because of the placid nature of the species and because of the inexperience of students in detecting signs of psychological stress in sheep.

In addition, the relative simplicity of the concepts presented may have led to the students finding the computer-based alternative less stimulating than the animal-based exercise. If students are not challenged, they are unlikely to engage in the cognitive processes required for active learning (Michael, 1993). Without active learning, students are less stimulated and the learning experience is less valuable.

In conclusion, although students recognised the value of non-animal alternatives, they believed that the use of live animals provided a more valuable learning experience. They also found the computer-based alternative less enjoyable than the animal-based exercise. These attitudes were probably influenced by the non-invasive nature of the animal-based practical, the species used and possibly the simplicity of the concepts presented. If the non-invasive nature of the practical did influence the students' attitudes and preference, this suggests that the students, consciously or unconsciously, may have a utilitarian view of the use of animals in teaching and thus support animal use when they perceive that the learning benefits outweigh any harm caused.

References

Abramson, C. I., Onstott, T., Edwards, S., & Bowe, K. (1996). Classical-conditioning demonstrations for elementary and advanced courses. Teaching of Psychology, 23(1), 26-30.

Balcombe, J. (2000). The use of animals in higher education: Problems, alternatives & recommendations. Washington, DC: The Humane Society Press.

Cox, L. (2004). The dissection controversy: What are dissections teaching students? University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne [viewed 20 Oct 2009, verified 22 Jan 2010] http://students.ed.uiuc.edu/lmcox/EPortfolio/dissectionfinal.htm

Dawkins, M. S. (1991). Attitudes to animals. In L. Friday & R. Laskey (Eds.), The Fragile Environment: The Darwin College lectures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dewhurst, D. G., Hardcastle, J., Hardcastle, P. T., & Stuart, E. (1994). Comparison of a computer simulation program and a traditional laboratory practical class for teaching the principles of intestinal absorption. Advances in Physiology Education, 12(1), 95-104.

Dewhurst, D. G., & Jenkinson, L. (1995). The impact of computer-based alternatives on the use of animals in undergraduate teachings: a pilot study. Alternatives to Laboratory Animals, 23(4), 521-530.

Green, J. M. (1993). Student attitudes toward communicative and non-communicative activities: Do enjoyment and effectiveness go together? The Modern Language Journal, 77(1), 1-10.

Hagelin, J., Carlsson, H.-E., & Hau, J. (2003). An overview of surveys on how people view animal experimentation: some factors which may influence the outcome. Public Understanding of Science, 12, 67-81.

Kulik, J. A., Kulik, C.-L. C., & Cohen, P. A. (1980). Effectiveness of computer-based college teaching: A meta-analysis of findings. Review of Educational Research, 50(4), 525-544.

Lee, A. Y., & Sternthal, B. (1999). The effects of positive mood on memory. Journal of Consumer Research, 26, 115-128.

Lord, T., & Moses, R. (1994). College students' opinions about animal dissections. Journal of College Science Teaching, 23(5), 267.

Michael, J. A. (1993). Teaching problem solving in small groups. Paper presented at the Promoting Active Learning in the Life Science Classroom, Kentucky.

Pell, A. W. (1985). Enjoyment and attainment in secondary school physics. British Educational Research Journal, 11(2), 123-132.

Predavec, M. (2001). Evaluation of E-Rat, a computer-based rat dissection, in terms of student learning outcomes. Journal of Biological Education, 35(2), 75-80.

Samsel, R. W., Schmidt, G. A., Hall, J. B., Wood, L. D. H., Shroff, S. G., & Schumacker, P. T. (1994). Cardiovascular physiology teaching: Computer simulations vs. animal demonstrations. Advances in Physiology Education, 266, 36-46.

Strauss, R. T., & Kinzie, M. B. (1994). Student achievement & attitudes in a pilot study comparing an interactive videodisc simulation to conventional dissection. The American Biology Teacher, 56(7), 398-402.

van der Valk, J., Dewhurst, D., Hughes, I., Atkinson, J., Balcombe, J., Braun, H., et al. (1999). Alternatives to the use of animals in higher education: The report and recommendations of ECVAM Workshop 33. Crete: European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods.

Vieuille, C., & Aubert, A. (2005). The human-animal relationship in higher scientific education and its ethical implications. In M. Marie, S. Edwards, G. Gandini, M. Reiss & E. von Borell (Eds.), Animal bioethics: Principles and teaching methods. Wageningen: Wageningen Academic Publishers.

Appendix 1: Letter - Student attitudes towards non-animal alternatives in teaching

This is contained in the file [elliott-appendix1.pdf], PDF format, 128 kB

Appendix 2: Animal Science 210 Questionnaire 1

This is contained in the file [elliott-appendix2.pdf], PDF format, 72 kB

Appendix 3: Animal Science 210 Questionnaire 2

This is contained in the file [elliott-appendix3.pdf], PDF format, 68 kB

Authors: Jo Elliott and Dominique Blache, School of Animal Biology, The University of Western Australia.
Email: ellioj01@student.uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Elliott, J. & Blache, D. (2010). Student attitudes and preferences towards non-invasive animal-based and computer-based practicals. In Educating for sustainability. Proceedings of the 19th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 28-29 January 2010. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2010/refereed/elliott.html

Copyright 2010 Jo Elliott and Dominique Blache. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format, provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.


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