My experience with Labster: Dr. Sabine Matallana-Surget, Stirling University
Dr. Sabine Matallana-Surget has worked at Stirling University since 2015 and taught undergrad classes in a number of courses from chemistry to microbial ecology to advanced molecular biology.
She has been using Labster in 4 modules, with 1st and 4th year students since 2016, and has noticed the positive impact of Labster on her students’ learning processes and level of engagement. Overall, the simulations have had a great impact on her students’ understanding of chemistry.
“My students find it difficult to understand the sub-microscopic levels in chemistry. Some of them don’t really enjoy chemistry because it’s just too abstract. So that’s why I wanted to use simulations. Labster allows a dynamic visualisation of chemical reactions so that students can practice and better understand these concepts, and consequently enjoy the classes more.”
Dr. Matallana-Surget has found that, with time, the virtual lab simulations have not only helped engage and motivate her students, but also saved her time and resources.
“I think it’s a win win! It’s great for both students and teachers.”
Read on to learn how Dr. Matallana-Surget has used Labster in her courses, and how the outcome has benefitted her and her students.
Enjoyment is key
Dr. Matallana-Surget chose to use the virtual labs as a complimentary tool in her modules, meaning that the labs weren't compulsory, and the students could merely use Labster to increase their understanding of difficult concepts. Despite the fact that the students weren’t assessed on the labs, Dr. Matallana-Surget quickly noticed great results.
“In my class of 220 1st year students, I got 80% of the students to take all three of the virtual labs, even though it wasn’t a requirement! This is amazing, because I didn’t have to send lots of emails reminding the students to do the labs. The students completed the labs because they understood that simulations could help them.”
Giving the students the opportunity to complete the virtual labs on their own time, and only if they wanted to, had a particularly positive effect on their engagement.
“If they are having fun taking the virtual lab, and they don’t feel any pressure, because they’re not assessed, they will enjoy the module much more than they otherwise would. They are happy students when they see that we’re not only trying to get them to understand the content, but also to enjoy it. This enjoyment is what makes the difference.”
A tool that provides context and visuals for students
Dr. Matallana-Surget found that the lab simulations were beneficial to her students in several ways. One of the benefits was that the students got an understanding of why they were learning what they were learning.
“The scenarios in the virtual labs are really good for the students because they put things into context. I think this is important, because sometimes students are just learning techniques and theory, and they don’t get an understanding of why it’s important for them to learn it and in which contexts they can use what they have learned.”
The virtual labs also made it easier for the students to grasp difficult concepts that were taught in Dr. Matallana-Surget’s classes because they provided a visual counterpart to the rest of the material.
“It helps students visualize concepts, especially in chemistry and molecular biology. Simulations present concepts in a more intuitive and less abstract way by providing a dynamic representation of chemical reactions or mechanisms at a molecular level. When we teach students concepts that they cannot see, it easily becomes too abstract. They can get lost, lose interest and/or confidence. But when they visualize mechanisms and chemical reactions in the animations, it really helps their understanding, and then they start enjoying it and they become more confident… For some concepts, simulations are even more efficient than a book or a figure on a whiteboard.”
She also found that adding this visual counterpart to the existing content was an important and useful part of engaging and motivating students.
“Students easily get bored, so they like it when they have a wide diversity of teaching tools in their modules. I think if we offer more diversity in our teaching, then they connect more with you. If students read in their module outlines that they will have lectures, practicals, virtual labs, workshops and/or tutorials, then there’s a better chance that they’ll enjoy the module. I believe Labster is a complementary innovative tool, not a replacement tool.”
A win-win for students and teachers
Labster not only helps students, but also lecturers. Dr. Matallana-Surget teaches a large class of 220 students, making administration and marking time consuming. She found that Labster could help assess the engagement and progress of her students during the semester, as well as help design questions and provide feedback for tutorials and mock exams.
“I am not using Labster as an assessment tool as I want students to enjoy the virtual labs. I believe that by doing mistakes and not being assessed, the learning process is significantly enhanced. I find Labster useful for assessing the engagement of my students during the semester. I can check the number of students taking the online quizzes during the semester, and look at their scores and the time they take for each quiz”.
Labster also helped her with the assessment of each individual student’s skills. The virtual labs offer a unique way to assess practical skills that can otherwise be difficult, due to the number of students working together in groups, as well as the different levels and personalities of each student.
“Usually in practicals, students work in groups of two, three or four. Even if we assess their lab reports individually, we never assess their individual practical skills. Within a group of students we often observe a dominant student, and other students who are perhaps shy or introverts, or who lack confidence, and who will only follow what the others do. Being able to use Labster gives the shy students the opportunity to practice on their own, giving them a lot more confidence. So again, it’s a benefit for both students and lecturers.”
Aside from assessment, Labster helped Dr. Matallana-Surget save time on tasks throughout the semester.
“Another great thing is the online quizzes! Since I have 220 students in first year, it is close to impossible to provide individual feedback for the coursework. Labster saves me time to set up questions for the mock exams and quizzes. So students can practice at home, and they can get personal feedback on their quizzes. Quizzes take up a lot of time to prepare, but finally, with Labster, we have great online quizzes that we don’t need to sit and spend a lot of time designing. And I think that’s another plus for teachers.”
Last, Dr. Matallana-Surget also found that Labster offered access to equipment not necessarily available at the university.
“Nowadays there is an obvious increasing cost of hands-on laboratories in biology, and when we want to give students practical experience with advanced machines that a smaller university does not necessarily have, or we want to avoid the risk of ruining the expensive equipment, virtual labs become very useful. Labster can help students get a better understanding of for example Mass Spectrometry and Next Generation Sequencing. With Labster, students get to see what the machine looks like instead of just understanding the principles. Those virtual labs are especially great when we have an increasing number of students each year.”
Learning from mistakes
Before using Labster with her students, Dr. Matallana-Surget explored Labster’s simulation catalog and tried all the simulations. One of the things she found to be an advantage in a virtual lab was the possibility of making mistakes and learning from them.
“I think the virtual labs are very realistic, and students can make mistakes that you just cannot make in a real lab, as it can be dangerous. This is something that typically blocks the students’ progress. They think to themselves “I don’t want to do mistakes, what’s going to happen if I do this wrong?” But in the virtual labs they can make all the mistakes they want. It helps them to understand the risks and consequences of their mistakes. So I think that’s a part of what makes the labs really high quality.”
What do the students think?
To get a better understanding of what the students thought about Dr. Matallana-Surget’s courses, she gathered feedback through surveys at the end of the semester. As it turned out, the students showed a particularly positive attitude towards Labster.
“I’ve done surveys to get students’ feedback on the modules I coordinate. Students have responded that they enjoyed Labster and the numbers speak for themselves, with 80% of the students taking the labs, even though they aren’t compulsory. That’s really rare. But students talk together and share their positive impression on this innovative teaching tool. They tell each other that they should take the virtual labs, because they’re fun, well designed, and they really help you understand the content of the module.”
Virtual labs as a part of the future
Teaching at a university where there are few mandatory lectures, and where it is very much up to each individual student to decide how they want to learn, Dr. Matallana-Surget has seen how students make use of a wide variety of learning tools, and how many of them choose to learn via online learning tools.
“There are students in my class that I rarely see. Sometimes even the best students! Some of them don’t come to lectures (we record our lectures so students can listen to lectures anytime) and they only attend compulsory practicals. They listen to the lectures online, they read the chapters that are assigned, sometimes they watch complimentary videos on YouTube, and they use Labster.”
Dr. Matallana-Surget pointed out that there were also obvious benefits to this type of learning; one of them centred around the idea that online learning tools could provide remote or working students access to education.
“I believe we’ll see more and more online learning tools developed in the future, where students can learn from home. Virtual labs make it possible to reach more students. For example, adult students who are working during the day are given the option to study in the evenings and/or during weekends.”
All in all, it was quite clear to Dr. Matallana-Surget that Labster provided a unique learning experience to students. Also one that she would have enjoyed when she was studying, and which she hoped to be able to use even more in the future.
“I just wish I had Labster when I was a student! I think that Labster really changes everything. I tried the VR goggles for the first time two years ago. I really think VR is the next step. With those headsets, you turn your head and look around at the DNA molecules, and visualize translation mechanisms with all the proteins involved. I think it’s great for any student at any level - not just for the students who find topics difficult, but also for the best students. And I hope we will use this new tool in the future.”