Less anxious, more excited: Researching student perceptions on the impact of LabSims

Emily Coyte
July 14, 2022

Educational research is a way of learning and sharing with a community of people interested in teaching and learning, adding to the evidential basis underpinning what we do and why we do it. There is an increasing amount of educational research work involving our resources being carried out, which we are keen to support. 

This article details one such study published in the Journal of Chemical Education, entitled: Prelaboratory Technique-Based Simulations: Exploring Student Perceptions of Their Impact on In-Class Ability, Preparedness, and Emotional State.

This study was a collaboration between Stephen George-Williams and Shane Wilkinson from the University of Sydney, alongside Richard Blackburn and Dylan Williams from the University of Leicester. This new work builds upon previous research on our Chemistry LabSims a couple of years back, expanding and applying it using bigger sample sizes and a new context of Year 1 students at the University of Sydney.

The paper’s research question was geared towards uncovering the effect Chemistry LabSims had on students’ perceptions of their confidence, independence and technical ability in undergraduate chemistry teaching labs. 

The findings showed that LabSims had a positive impact on the learning experiences of the majority of students, for example by helping to ease them into the laboratory environment, and allowing them to make use of feedback once they’re there.

“Students were generally found to be less anxious and more excited to attend the laboratories, and they frequently utilized their experiences with the simulations during the in-laboratory class time.”
Quote from George-Williams et al. (2022)

As part of this study, the researchers asked seven survey questions specifically about LabSims to their Year 1 students on a chemistry module. They obtained 419 responses in 2020, an impressive sample size and a reasonable proportion of the cohort.

A firm majority of students reported that they were motivated to use the LabSims due to receiving both incorrect and correct feedback (68% and 71% agree respectively), which they could make use of during in-lab practical sessions (63%). Incorporating high quality feedback plays a key part in creating more effective online assessments and learning activities, so it’s something we think about a lot when designing our resources. 

Students also said they engaged with the simulations as many times as needed to get the correct answer (70%), showing willingness to persevere and “complete the feedback cycle” by making use of the comments received on initially incorrect answers. 

These findings were supported by nine student interviews based around the questionnaire. These added a qualitative dimension, providing a richer exploration of the questions by allowing students to discuss their reasoning behind their answers in more depth.

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Students were asked the free-text question of “What effect(s) do you believe (if any) that the Learning Science simulations had on your laboratory experience?”. 373 students responded to this question, although 306 of these were usable for analysis (the remaining responses did not discuss LabSims).

Of these 306 responses, 77% (237) were positive. Through further qualitative analysis, the researchers identified a number of themes in the student responses. The most prevalent one was about LabSims’ good functionality (137 mentions), such as being a “useful and convenient” demonstration of lab techniques, and by “showing what would and would not work” via their visual nature.

82 students mentioned that the LabSims helped ease them into in-laboratory experiences, by helping them feel more prepared, completing the lab sessions easier or more efficiently, and 27 specified that it helped increase student confidence or reduce their anxiety. 

The findings also revealed a perceived disconnect between online and physical space of the labs. The student responses that were more neutral or mixed largely centred around this difference, for example one specified that the resources “could not replicate an in-person lab experience”. We understand and agree - teaching labs provide students with a vital space for skill development and real connection, both with scientific equipment and other people, where considerations of time, budget and location allow. Our resources are intended to enhance, not replace teaching labs, allowing staff and students to get the most of these invaluable in-person experiences.

'77% of students identified positive impacts of LbSims on their laboratory experiences.'

Congratulations to Stephen George-Williams and collaborators on this article. To explore other examples of LearnSci in the literature, head over to our Educational Research page. You can also find out how we can support your educational research projects, and our contact details if you would like to get in touch to discuss ideas.

Further Reading

For more inspiration on how LearnSci resources are impacting students’ learning:

  • Many Teaching Innovation Award winners have used our resources to great effect,
  • A wealth of case studies highlighting how different partners have chosen to incorporated LabSims and Smart Worksheets, and what a difference they have made,
  • The findings of our 2021 student survey from partners around the world on how their students use our resources and what they think about them.