The eBiolabs story

Introduction

eBiolabs is a set of integrated tools that support laboratory based learning; it aims to increase student achievement in laboratories by reducing the cognitive load. eBiolabs also helps to reduce the marking and administrative burden associated with lab sessions by automatically marking student work and maintaining a record of student attendance and achievement. We have developed sophisticated questions types and algorithms that increase consistency, quality and quantity of feedback.  Unsurprisingly, eBiolabs has increased student satisfaction with practical work.

We developed the system because our students were under-preparing for practicals and were often blindly following lab instructions without any real understanding of the experiment. As lab-based classes are expensive to run, and the opportunity to repeat is usually non-existent, learning opportunities were being squandered. This is a shame because we, like many others, believe that laboratory skills are an essential part of any life scientists' development.

The pedagogical work and technical infrastructure for eBiolabs was initially supported by the JISC but as its value to the students and staffs was shown internal funding was provided from a variety of sources, not least the AIMS CETL, our alumni and from our Schools. The initial concept for the Dynamic Laboratory Manual came from our colleagues in the School of Chemistry who developed the first DLM as part of the ChemLabS CETL.

From the student perspective

eBiolabs is where students go for everything to do with their practicals; it contains all the information that students need to succeed in the lab in a familiar, user-friendly and stimulating environment. For each practical there are three on-line activities i) the Experimental information, ii) the Pre-lab quiz and iii) aPost-lab assignment. There is also a (non-virtual) lab book. Students generally engage with the on-line activities in this order, although we know some students look at the pre-lab quiz first and only then look at the experimental information. We know this because the system allows us to track how students navigate the system, and of course because we ask them.

Although the experimental information is always available, we only release the quizzes and assignments at the appropriate time. A bespoke application, "Marks, Attendance and Feedback", makes it very simple for staff to check on student progress; for example, if a student has not complete a prelab test by the deadline their name appears at the top of that days' class list and is helpfully flagged in red.

i) The Experimental Information

This section contains the background on the methods, techniques and equipment used in the practical (see figure 1). Where high value assets have been created, such as interactive animations or videos, we have tried to make them as generic as possible so that they can be reused in other practicals. We place a special emphasis on the areas where students tend to struggle in the lab such as data handing and calculations, and we try to resist the temptation to reproduce all the lecture material.

ii) The Pre-lab Quiz

These are designed to ensure that the student has engaged with and understood the Experimental Information. The quizzes are automatically marked and feedback is given online. We typically choose to give students two attempts at the quiz and, if they take this option, give students the average mark of the two attempts. This mark is worth 20 - 30 % of the total practical mark, and, despite our feelings about learning being its own reward, recognise that if we did not give them some marks, the quiz would generate resentment among a subset of the students.

The temptation to for students to plagiarise the answers to the quiz is reduced by making extensive use of question banking, where each student sees a different set of questions, and by randomising the order of the questions. Feedback tells us that if the students consider that the quizzes are "fair" they take them seriously. If not students are more tempted to treat them as hoops to jump through than self-reflective learning opportunities.

iii) Post-lab Assignments

After the practical students enter their data from their lab book (see figure 2) into an electronic form in eBiolabs. If the answer to a problem has an algorithmic solution it is automatically marked by eBiolabs.

Data
Example of a post-lab assignment

We have experimented with two basic types of assignment submission. The first is contained entirely within eBiolabs. It is similar to a quiz but uses custom question types to facilitate the entry and processing of data collected during laboratory experiments.

In some cases, usually when the calculations required for analysis are more involved, we require the post-lab assignments to be uploaded as an electronic file. This file can be of any type, Word, Prism or SigmaPlot for example. However, we wanted to make the system as universal as possible and wanted the students to be able to do the analysis on their own computers. After much discussion we settled on Excel as our standard data analysis package. The advantage of this is that we can provide template pro-forma files for the students to complete, and the completed files can be automatically marked using Visual Basic scripts.

You can view and attempt the post-lab assignments from the front page of this demo site.

Excel ScreenShot
Figure 4: Example of a post-lab assignment in Excel

From the staff perspective

eBiolabs has dramatically reduced the administrative and assessment burden associated with running practicals. We estimate that we have saved over 25 staff days per year on the first year Biochemistry course alone. No longer do we have thousands of paper assignments to handle, marking has been reduced to only those questions for which there is no algorithmic solution, such as written conclusions, and we can easily keep track of student achievement.

Running practicals is now more enjoyable as students now have a higher skill level on entry to the lab, and the questions they ask have become more varied and show a greater degree of understanding.

We are now committed to running all our practicals using the eBiolabs model and are actively developing new content.

eBiolabs lessons

What we have learnt:

  1. Never lose sight of the core mission: the primary purpose of laboratory sessions is to teach skills that cannot be taught elsewhere.
  2. Prepared learners are successful learners.
  3. Professional material inspires confidence. The vast majority of students have no problem working on-line provided the material is of a high quality.
  4. All the knowledge needed to succeed in the laboratory should be contained within (or referenced from) the on-line experimental information.
  5. Concentrate effort on practicals running at the start of the course. It sets the tone and lets students know the importance you attach to lab work.
  6. It is not necessary to fill the laboratory with computers. In many cases students do not need access to pre-lab material to achieve in the laboratory.
  7. The correct balance between background theory and technical knowledge needed to succeed is not always easy to achieve. We have found that it is easy to err too far in favour of the former. eBiolabs is most valuable when used to teach the technical aspects of practical science.
  8. The sole purpose of pre-laboratory quizzes is to ensure learners have the knowledge needed to succeed in the laboratory. It follows that the quiz setters must possess clarity of purpose. Do not think that someone who is not intimate with the experimental information can do a good job of writing the quiz.
  9. Use question banking. Some learners are strategic to the point of self-defeat: they will look at the pre-lab quiz first and then at just enough of the experimental information to obtain the answers (or they will ask a friend). This attitude can to some extent be mitigated by well-designed questions and by question banking where every student sees a different set of questions.
  10. Simply increasing the number of pre-lab questions to cover every aspect of the experimental information is self-defeating; it results in unhappy and resentful learners.
  11. The amount of information to include in the printed lab book is difficult to assess and close attention should be paid to student feedback. Too much and students may not value the pre-session learning, too little and they may need extra support in lab.
  12. As our students are now doing more preparation work we have reduced the amount post-lab work. In general the post-lab assignment should not ask questions that the student could have answered without doing the practical.
  13. Many students find maths and data handling one of the most challenging aspects of laboratory work. eBiolabs is a great platform to provide contextualised support material.
  14. Not all students are digital natives. Although we had a few complaints about the Excel pro-formas, discussions with the students revealed that their difficulties were actually more with basic computer operations such as saving and retrieving a file.
  15. Learners appreciate the effort put into the quality of the materials and report that being able to refer back to the high-quality and professional on-line materials is one of the most useful aspects of eBiolabs.
  16. Students are the best quality controllers. Give them every opportunity to feedback and report where improvements can be made.
Ebiolabs Screenshot
Figure 1: Example of eBiolabs experimental information
ebiolabs lab book
Figure 2: Laboratory work book
In the lab
Student in practical lab session
Class in lab
Students in a practical lab session
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