The Virtual Classroom (Part II) – Lab Reports

Hey ya’ll! It’s been a while… but I’m ready to chat a little more about that summer course:

I talked about my 4-week Intensive Introduction to Neuroscience with virtual lab in my second blog post a couple weeks ago…it has since ended (it was only 4 weeks long). It’s been an experience.

The Pros: students can move at their own pace to a extent, I can use programs that allow me to assess them at multiple points and correct mistakes, with proper planning students can have a really good experience. “With proper planning…”

The Cons: I wasn’t always able to predict where my students would struggle and didn’t realize they still didn’t understand a concept until after the exam or lab report was submitted. And with a four week course, there’s no time to go back, fix things, try again because we have moved on to new material!

So, in short, I didn’t predict trouble spots 100% of the time. Fortunately (and I do think this is fortunate), I saw all of my students (all 4) struggle with the same concepts. To me, that means I know exactly where I need to increase instruction and attention. One example of this was the lab on neurotransmitters. Despite the chapter reading, the lecture video with questions, my students still didn’t understand that the ‘mystery solutions’ we were using were having an effect on Daphnia heart rate because they were mimicking endogenous neurotransmitters.

So, the virtual labs. Lots of prep, but overall, worth it. As I mentioned, I created videos with instructions for students to follow so they could collect their own data. The data they collected was due by Wednesday of that week, and then I compiled all of it, analyzed it in GraphPad Prism, and provided the graph of the data for them to use in their final lab report, due that Friday.

First, I made a video with instructions (you may have to create a free account with NJVID to see it). To actually complete the lab, I had to make a number of videos in which students could count the heart rate of the Daphnia. Each video contained instructions, such as: “Count the heart beats and multiply that value by 6 to get the bpm. After you have acquired the bpm for each of the 3 trials, average it and submit the value. That is the data point for that subject.” You can see an example here. Data was submitted on a Google Form so that I had all of their data in one place.

The lab reports were another beast. To start, not all of my students were neuroscience, or even science, majors. And even if they were, most of them (3/4) were underclassman, and likely had not had to write up a lab report before. Knowing this, I prepared a few resources to get them on the right track: I uploaded a lab report template, figuring that if they took a look at that, they would understand the basics of including an introduction, hypothesis, methods section, results section and conclusion. However, even when students know that all of these sections and components must exist, they don’t always know what they should be writing about, so I included a word document with questions that should be addressed in each section. While this was helpful, students either provided a bunch of single sentences smashed into a paragraph that didn’t necessarily flow, or they provided a list of responses. This is a big example of not knowing what my students don’t know and not giving them enough guidance.

So, on the second lab report, I provided some questions to get them started as well, but also included in the instructions that these questions should be addressed in paragraph form, should include transitions and should overall be giving the reader the information needed to support they hypothesis they would make at the end of the introduction. I also provided a single primary literature article for them to read and reference to support any claims they made. I don’t know if anyone else has experienced this with undergrads, but they like to make statements and hypotheses based on their personal feelings or experiences. I mean, I was probably guilty of that too, but I’m really trying to get my students to kick that habit, so I also included in the instructions that “You must provided a citation for any statements you make”. I think that helped.

I also provided a rough format for students to follow for the methods, results and conclusions, as well as provided a graph of their data. A problem I encountered was that some students completely disregarded (or didn’t understand?) the graphed data, and made contradictory statements to it in their results section. For subsequent lab reports, I provided the graph as well as a statement about what the graph meant.

What I hope is that I was able to provide guidance for my students without completely holding their hand and writing the lab report for them. I did see improvement over time, and I also asked students to submit their lab intro with hypothesis prior to receiving a graph of the results. While these were graded, it allowed me to give them some feedback for improvement on the final lab report.

Now I want to ask: who else has run a virtual lab and how did you tackle the lab reports? I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, so if you know of some resources or have actually tried some methods of teaching how to write a lab report, fill me in!!

Overall, the online course was a good learning experience for me. One student filled out the course evaluation and it was all positive. I definitely have some changes in mind, and I’m still trying to figure out the absolute best way to design a virtual lab, so I will probably write about that later (as a heads-up I’m currently experimenting with Microsoft’s Sway program).

Thanks again for stopping by!!

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