Laboratories in lockdown: how our university partners responded to COVID-19

Ashleigh Steele
November 10, 2021

As an educator, how are you feeling? Exhausted? Hopeful? Drained? Proud?

It’s been a trying twelve months in the education sector for students and educators alike. Many challenges have been faced that have tested everyone’s adaptability, resources, and ability to think outside the box. LearnSci continues to support over 100 universities worldwide through these uncertain times. Your hard work and continual drive to best support students’ education and welfare has been outstanding. This has shone a light on the positive impacts our LabSims and Smart Worksheets have had on teaching and learning throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. This article outlines four of these impacts and presents case studies for each from our Teaching Innovation Awards 2020 entries.

1. Students continue to develop and practise key lab competencies, even from home.

De Montfort University, Health and Life Sciences

As restrictions forced lab practicals for the Basic Immunology module to stop, teaching staff implemented LabSims alongside other VLE/LMS tools to teach molecule separation methods. Students were given ample time to work through LabSims, which included Gel Filtration and Ion Exchange Chromatography. Once students' knowledge was secure through their completion and repetition, application-style questions challenged them to apply their new understanding in problem-based, real-life situations. Students then documented their understanding with a written assessment via OneClass Notebook. This approach allowed a wider range of lab techniques to be covered than the traditional lab sessions, and student engagement increased.

The simulations are great. I had to fill-in the column with the buffer really carefully!

University of Kent, Biosciences

The University of Kent adopted a blended teaching approach, incorporating online lectures and wet socially-distanced laboratory sessions within a second-year skills-based module. Many students however required an alternative to face-to-face laboratory teaching due to either shielding or self-isolating and therefore mirrored wet and remote practical labs were created with separate manuals. The remote learner manuals incorporated eighteen LabSims that mirrored the skills students used in the face-to-face wet laboratory classes. This approach allowed students to acquire lab skills either in the laboratory, at home remotely or interchangeably between the two options.

2. Increased student performance and attainment levels.

University of Brighton, Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences

The historically challenging module, Introduction to Biochemistry and Bioanalytical Techniques, provided fundamental concepts to first-year students. Since the introduction of an enzyme kinetics Smart Worksheet into the course assessment material, there has been a dramatic increase in overall pass rates and average student module grades. Students attended the lab class as usual, however the standard proforma using class data was replaced with the Smart Worksheet. Students performed a series of complex calculations with their own data, constantly supported by individualised feedback allowing them to learn from initial mistakes and improve their understanding and subsequent answers.

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University of Portsmouth, Biological Sciences

The first-year module, Experimental Biology, taken by Biology, Biochemistry and Marine Biology students provides extensive hands-on experience of key laboratory techniques and development of data analysis skills. The use of LabSims before and after lab sessions deepened the students’ understanding and performance of lab techniques. Smart Worksheets from the collection such as Mole Calculations: Moles and Molarity and pH and Buffers: Henderson-Hasselbalch Equation generate new data for students to work with each time it is attempted. This enables students to drastically improve their calculation and data analysis skills.

3. Increasingly valuable lab time is used more effectively, by thoroughly preparing students beforehand in techniques and protocol.

Student using tablet in lab

Swansea University, Genetics and Biochemistry

Under COVID-19 restrictions, lab time at Swansea University was limited, and demonstrations and discussions all ate into valuable bench time. In order to fully prepare students for these now-limited lab sessions, a combination of LabSims and university-produced videos were implemented. These demonstrated correct usage of the exact equipment and techniques students would be using, including lab safety, pipetting, balancing centrifuges, calibrating pH meters, and spectroscopy. These were packaged together within teaching modules on their Canvas VLE/LMS. Students were required to complete these LabSims and videos in order to access further materials and enter the lab. Once in the lab, staff noticed that students were able to begin their practical work faster, and asked fewer trivial questions which were previously commonplace in large first-year classes.

“There has been an increase in the quality of the data generated in class, with fewer students, who attended the lab class, requesting example data to complete their assessments due to poor data quality.”  

Galway Mayo Institute of Technology, Biopharmaceutical and Medical Science

First-year biology lab durations were reduced, requiring students to acquire the same level of technical skill in a short period of time. Within a pre-lab assessment, LabSims and Smart Worksheets were used to engage students in lab techniques prior to attending the lab. Weaker students were especially supported, as unlimited attempts enabled them to build their confidence. In gaining fundamental lab skills, students could grow in confidence, knowledge and competence, helping them feel better prepared and more capable of putting their new skills into action.

4. Increased quality and effectiveness of feedback provided to students.

Victoria University of Wellington, Chemical and Physical Sciences

First-year chemistry students traditionally submitted written lab reports via the VLE/LMS for assessment. By the time all reports were submitted, marked and returned, students had moved onto other experiments and the opportunity for meaningful feedback was lost. Eleven Smart Worksheets were therefore integrated across two courses, fully replacing the written reports. These gave students instant, consistent feedback as they processed their own data, drew conclusions linked to theoretical concepts and reflected on laboratory processes. In spite of the shift to online learning, students were more engaged with the lab programme and more likely to complete the reports than in previous courses.

University of Westminster, Life Sciences

Cell Biology, a first-year module with over four hundred students had three laboratory classes, each requiring a report designed to check understanding, data analysis and calculations. Long marking time and inconsistent marking (despite marking rubrics), resulted in student dissatisfaction. Smart Worksheets were implemented that replaced the lab reports but assessed the same criteria; understanding of theory, data analysis and calculations. Students benefited from a fast release of marks and instant, consistent feedback, which resulted in a significant increase in pass rates, overall grades and student satisfaction.

“Since we started using the post-labs [Smart Worksheets], the module has expanded from 445 to 691 students.”

Despite the many challenges of this pandemic to established methods of learning and teaching, our partners have responded with great adaptability and innovation, finding ingenious ways to ensure the continued development and support of their students. While our LabSims and Smart Worksheets provided the required tools, the initiative and critical thinking of educators has been the key to winning the day. The impacts evidenced above are not only pandemic-specific. Our resources can support your teaching and enhance the learning experience of your students, long after the pandemic.