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Cane toad or computer mouse? Real and computer-simulated laboratory exercises in physiology classes.

The common goals of university practical programs may be placed in three categories:

* conceptual (reinforcing facts learned in lectures)

* motivational (stimulating students' curiosity, motivating further exploration as well as learning from mistakes)

* technical (learning laboratory techniques and manipulative skills) (Woodhull-McNeal, 1992).

Practical classes provide opportunities for staff-student interactions by giving students an opening to ask questions in a less intimidating environment than a large lecture theatre. Additionally, the social aspects of practical classes are very important (Lim, 2002). Practical classes in physiology, for example, encourage student-student interactions and the development of networks that can enhance their learning, so that ultimately students begin to 'talk physiology' with one another (Michael 2001).

Randall & Burkholder (1990) described the key elements of an effective laboratory class as having:

* sufficient experienced, committed teachers

* the availability of sound instrumentation

* well-designed, meaningful experimental protocols.

Hands-on practical work has been deemed an important component of a science course as it allows students to develop a variety of laboratory skills and then apply these skills to theoretical aspects (Mosse & Wright, 2000). The tactile experiences and observations offered in a practical program can reinforce learning and improve recall (Randall & Burkholder, 1990). Techniques students learn in these classes are generic laboratory skills including: ethical, safety and biohazard issues; general animal and tissue handling; dissection; microscopy; experimental design; data analysis and problem-solving.

University practical programs are expensive to run, because of the resources required and the time required of academic and technical staff. The increased cost of laboratory classes and the necessary investment in space, equipment and animals makes it more difficult to justify their expense to cost-conscious administrators (Michael, 1984; Modell, 1989). Consequently there has been a reduction in laboratory practical classes, not just in Australia but also worldwide (Baker & Verran, 2004). This progressive elimination of traditional practical classes has occurred with relatively little consideration of the educational impact of this change (Ra'anan 2005).

If traditional practical classes (wet labs) are being rationalised to reduce costs, how can students gain laboratory skills? One alternative is to replace wet labs with computer-simulated exercises. Computer-simulation programs have been promoted by instructional designers for their value in motivating learners (Adamson, 2010). These simulations give students access to experiments without being restricted by practicality, animal availability and preparation, or the time required to complete a complex protocol (Michael, 1984). These virtual experiments involve no harm to animals, and consequently no ethics approval is required; they offer experiments that can be run repeatedly with 100% success, and they require little ongoing expenditure. Computer-based simulations of actual experiments allow students to control the various experimental procedures presented. Software packages use 'real' data so the responses mimic the results gained in a comparable wet lab experiment.

The initial cost of setting up computer-simulated practicals, purchasing the hardware and software, may be high but over time they become a cheaper, and perhaps more reliable, alternative to wet labs. Computer simulations are particularly useful in modelling data that would otherwise not be possible, for example, natural selection simulation for biology (Mosse & Wright, 2000) or in generating data where the equipment is unavailable, too expensive or complex for undergraduate programs. Simulation software can also assist students to develop their computer skills (Fraser & Deane, 2000), it can give immediate feedback on a student's understanding of the material presented (Pamula, Pamula, Wigmore & Wheldrake, 2000) and it enables students to learn the theory underlying a technique, for example, ABO blood grouping, before using the technique. Computer-based practicals also assist students to become independent learners, encouraging them to take responsibility for their learning (Fraser & Deane, 2000), rather than just expecting to be told what they need to know. Many computer-simulation exercises are self-paced, so students can repeat a task until they have understood and mastered it. Repeating tasks in a wet lab is often not possible due to the limited supply of resources.

The aim of this study was to document second-year physiology students' perception of and attitudes to computer simulations when three computer-simulation practicals were incorporated into the laboratory practical curriculum.


The software program

The software program prescribed for use in the second-year physiology curriculum at Deakin University was PhysioEx[TM] 6.0 Laboratory Simulations for Human Physiology (Stabler, Peterson & Smith, 2006) produced by Pearson Benjamin Cummings Publishing. This software package consists of 13 modules containing 40 simulated physiology practicals designed to supplement or substitute for wet labs, as well as a histology tutorial. The laboratory exercises have realistic computer animations; they are interactive, self-directed and self-paced and as such can be repeated by students as often as required, at their convenience. PhysioEx[TM] 6.0 practicals give students the flexibility to alter experimental parameters and observe how outcomes are affected.


The participants were from two second-year physiology subjects offered in first semester (Principles of Physiology, N =114) and second semester (Anatomy and Physiology, N = 112) at Deakin University. These subjects are undertaken by students from a range of undergraduate degree courses: for example, biomedical science, biological science, general science, teaching, nursing and combined degrees.


In the final practical class in second semester, two students were invited to participate in a voluntary and anonymous survey relating to their experiences with, and perception of the usefulness of, the computer-simulated practicals. Both the wet labs and computer-simulated practicals were held in a laboratory with demonstrators present to assist small groups of no more than four students with the actual recording of the data and interpretation of results. Rather than replacing wet labs, the computer simulations provided practical exercises where insufficient resources or equipment were available. Two practical classes using only PhysioEx[TM] 6.0 computer simulations (namely neurophysiology of nerve impulses and chemical processes of digestion) were run in first semester, and a third exercise (renal systems physiology) was completed in second semester.

Students' attitudes to and perceptions of the computer-simulated exercises were surveyed by a questionnaire (1) consisting of 12 closed questions plus an additional question where students were asked to respond to series of statements on a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 indicated strong disagreement and 5 indicated strong agreement with the statement. Some statements within the final question were designed to elicit similar information to check for inconsistencies in students' answers to the preceding questions.

The first four questions requested demographic information and asked whether the student had previously used computer simulations at university. Questions 5-8 asked the students what they liked and disliked about computer-simulated practicals and the more traditional wet labs. Options were provided so the student could tick as many boxes as they considered appropriate, and provision was made for any additional comments. Question 9 asked students about the use of computer simulation software for revision of other topics, for example, histology, where they did not complete a computer-simulated exercise in a practical class. Question 10 asked them about histology and their understanding of the organs and tissues discussed in lectures. Students selected 'Yes' or 'No' to answer these questions and gave reasons for their answers in the space provided. Questions 11 and 12 asked what skills they had learnt from the computer-simulated practicals. Students were then asked to list these skills.


This survey was voluntary and anonymous. Students were invited to complete the questionnaire in their own time and submit their responses in a sealed envelope as required by the Deakin University Human Ethics Committee (EC 197-2006). Data and comments were recorded using Microsoft Excel and descriptive statistics calculated using SPSS (v. 16.0 SPSS Inc, Chicago, IL, USA).


Over the two years, a total of 166 responses were collected from a total of 226 students giving a response rate of 73%. Of these responses, 71% were from female students and 29% were from male students. The majority of students (64%) were between 16 and 20 years of age and were enrolled in the Bachelor of Biomedical Science or Bachelor of Biological Science at Deakin University.

Responses to questions

Had you done any computer simulated practical classes at university prior to completing them in these two physiology subjects? Of the students who participated in the survey, 92% indicated that they had never experienced a computer-simulated practical before this class, in this or any other subject undertaken as part of their undergraduate degree.

What did you like about the computer-simulated pracs? A summary of responses selected is presented in Table 1. Participants liked the computer-simulated practicals because they could repeat exercises, results were guaranteed and the exercises were very visual. Sixty-seven of the 166 students (40%) considered the program useful for revision, and 63 participants (38%) liked the computer simulations because they could not make a mistake. Eighteen students made comments in the 'Other' category. Computer simulations rated well because the instructions in the PhysioEx[TM] 6.0 booklet were easy to follow and demonstrated exactly what was needed; students could work at their own pace; they could manipulate the software to see other results of their own choice; if a mistake was made it was easily fixed; and they didn't have to clean up because there was no mess.

What did you like about the wet labs? A summary of responses is presented in Table 1. Participants enjoyed the wet labs but completely different reasons were given. They liked the 'hands-on' experience of working in a laboratory: performing dissections and seeing the results. Seventy-nine students (48%) answering this question indicated that they enjoyed working in groups. Only four participants did not like anything about the wet labs. Nine students placed comments in the 'Other' category. These comments included: 'things didn't always work and you learn more by making mistakes'; 'interesting, easy to remember'; and 'the challenge of relating theory to practice'.

Which type of prac did you prefer, the wet lab or the computer simulation? Participants were given options of 'wet lab', 'computer simulation' or 'enjoyed equally', and the responses were 48.8%, 3.6% and 47.6% respectively. The computer simulations ran in a physiology laboratory during routine practical times, with demonstrators present, so it is possible that students answered this question based on whether or not they liked practical classes in general. This was supported by the following comments:

* 'Both bring different aspects to the learning experience'

* 'Simulations offered a clean and no mess prac with guaranteed results'

* 'Both wet lab and computer simulated pracs were fun and really enhanced my learning'

* 'It was great to see what was going on rather than having textbook based learning only'

* 'I liked the option of doing both, even though they were very different. They both were fun and equally explained the topic.'

When participants were asked 'Would you like to see the practical component changed to wholly computer simulations?' the overwhelming answer was 'No' (97%, 161 of a total of 166 responses). The reasons given are summarised in Table 2. The majority of responses indicated that students wanted 'hands-on' experience and thought this was important for developing skills that they would use in future jobs or further study.

Interestingly, the way the computer simulation did not allow you to make a mistake was considered a disadvantage by four participants, who stated that they needed to make mistakes in order to learn.

The majority of participants (152) liked the wet labs because they got 'hands-on experience', they 'liked seeing the results' (117) and completing dissections (114). Based on their written comments, students considered wet labs to be more memorable and more realistic and felt they learnt more from the experience. Some participants described the computer-simulated exercises as 'repetitive and boring.'

Participants commented that it was good to break up the laboratory schedule and participate in different types of activities, acknowledging that they were different learning experiences. Another positive comment was that the computer-simulated practicals allowed students to complete many experiments in a short space of time. Computer-based practicals were also considered less stressful, because students knew they were going to get a result and, if a mistake was made, then it was easy to correct by simply resetting the simulation. But many students commented that computer simulations oversimplified the techniques and skills involved.

Only 3.6% of participants preferred computer simulations to the wet labs. The reasons stated were that computer-simulated 'pracs were quicker, easier with just as much information,' 'helpful for revision' and that there was 'no mess and nothing died'.

When asked if they used the PhysioEx[TM] 6.0 software for revision of principles taught in lectures, 69% of participants answered 'No'. When asked why, the answers given included 'Didn't think of it' (21%), 'textbook and lecture notes provided sufficient detail' (23%). Strangely, 7% responded that they were unaware of the resource, despite having purchased a copy of the program.

When participants were asked what they felt they learnt in the wet labs that they could not obtain from the computer-simulated pracs, the most common responses written by students (Table 3) included dissection skills; having hands-on experience in the lab using laboratory equipment and gaining general laboratory skills; and being able to visualise structures using light microscopy. Some students believed that being able to make mistakes in the wet lab was an advantage: 'learn from mistakes--more fun when it's a hands-on experience'; 'wet labs create a more hands on, thought provoking experience where you learn more'.

The majority of respondents believed they learnt little from actually doing the simulated practical but they enjoyed spending time in the laboratory. Comments on the computer simulations included 'not much learning because just clicking buttons while the computer does the work'; 'boring and too repetitive'; 'it was like primary school'; 'computer simulations are less memorable and therefore less useful--you don't retain what you're learning'.

Finally, students were asked to respond to 14 statements on a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 indicated strong disagreement and 5 indicated strong agreement with the statement. The three most strongly supported statements (Table 4) were these:

* Hands-on experience with animal tissue is essential for all students studying physiology.

* Being able to use a microscope is an essential laboratory skill.

* Wet labs assisted my understanding of the structure of organs/tissues.

These statements had the least support:

* Computer simulations convey little sense of the real experiment.

* Examining the histological structure using PhysioEx[TM] 6.0 software was better than using a microscope.

* Computer simulations in PhysioEx[TM] 6.0 software are difficult to use.

The students' responses indicated that those who were surveyed preferred using a microscope for examining histological structures, and considered that computer simulations did not convey the sense of a real experiment but were easy to use. Other statements indicated beliefs that teacher-student interaction was an important aspect of laboratory practicals, that computer simulations did not allow students to make mistakes, but they did support self-paced learning. Again students' responses indicated that computer simulations could not replace practical experiments when learning physiology.


There were two major observations from this study:

* Students stated that, while they enjoyed both wet labs and computer-simulated exercises, their overwhelming view was that the wet lab provided the more memorable and stimulating learning experience. In fact, many participants believed they learnt nothing from the computer simulations used.

* The majority of participants believed that computer simulations conveyed little sense of a real experiment. The computer simulations used were not seen as facilitating learning from mistakes or problem-solving.

The computer-simulated practicals used in this study meet the conceptual and motivational goals of a practical program by reinforcing facts learnt in lectures, and they may have prompted further exploration of the exercises. But, based on the facts that few participants discovered (63%) or used (69%) the revision material included in the PhysioEx[TM] 6.0 package, it appears that students were not motivated to investigate all the material available. Additionally, the computer simulations used did not enable students to learn from their mistakes or design their own experiments to test hypotheses--the software did not allow them to perform the exercise incorrectly and, because no generic laboratory or manipulative skills were acquired, technical goals were not achieved.

Participants in this study enjoyed computer simulations because they were convenient, always worked and could be done without supervision. The majority of participants believed that computer simulations conveyed little sense of a real experiment. Several commented that their learning experience was enhanced when things went wrong: they wanted an opportunity to use their knowledge and problem-solving skills, which they rated highly as learning tools. This concurs with Ra'anan (2005), who found that, while computer simulations may be considered effective in introducing students to basic physiological concepts, there is evidence that students acquire a more thorough understanding through the more challenging experience of wet labs.

Based on written comments recorded in this study, students undertaking practicals in the wet lab appreciated the challenge of doing dissections and using their own preparations to record data. This gave them a sense of anticipation, achievement and ownership. The wet lab gave them an understanding of how delicate or robust animal tissue is, something that cannot be conveyed in a computer simulation. While the computer simulations used in this study are of a high standard, they did not offer the tactile experience and opportunity to develop manual dexterity that students require as part of their undergraduate physiology training. Additionally students considered what they saw and experienced in the wet labs more memorable--knowledge they felt they retained.

Before the introduction of computer-simulated practicals, some topics did not have a supporting practical class to reinforce and contextualise the physiology theory presented in lectures. Interestingly, in the two years before the introduction of the computer-simulated practicals, and two years after their introduction the percentage of students gaining distinctions (70-79%) or higher distinctions (80% or greater) does not differ greatly (Table 5). The percentage of students achieving a credit (60-69%) increased and the percentage of failures decreased. There are many possible reasons for these changes, and we do not suggest that improvements in achievement can be solely attributed to the introduction of the computer-simulated practicals. But the data do raise the question whether computer simulations might benefit the weaker students who require greater reinforcement of concepts covered in lectures by allowing them to work at their own pace, repeating the simulations until they gain a better understanding and thereby enhancing their learning.

There is no question that some laboratory exercises are better suited to replacement by computer simulations than others. Mosse and Wright (2000) stated that computer simulations were only useful when students had some knowledge of the topic being covered by the simulation. Rodriguez-Barbero and Lopez-Novoa (2008) recorded positive feedback from both staff and students when using a computer simulation program for teaching circulatory physiology to medical students but teachers in the medical school commented that a minority of their students experienced difficulty in adopting a self-directed learning approach. The students participating in this current study did not express any concern about the self-directed learning approach of the PhysioEx[TM] 6.0 computer simulations.

A combination of wet labs and computer simulations providing different learning experiences appears to be most advantageous to students, rather than completely replacing practical classes (Michael, 2001). In the future, computer simulation software could be developed to include three-dimensional imaging to further enhance visual impact. A variety of scenarios could be incorporated into the simulation, encouraging students to design their own experiments and thereby keeping them concentrating and engaged, rather than reliant on the program to provide a perfect result every time. The addition of computer simulations may provide a valuable supplement to the practical component of the course enabling a greater variety of topics to be covered and by providing excellent pre-laboratory information. Michael (2001) and, later, Morgan, Cleave-Hogg, Desousa and Lam-McCulloch (2006) found that simulations provided a valuable learning experience, bridging the gap between theory and practice. This conclusion was based on their finding statistically significant improvement in student performance in written tests taken after using computer simulations in physiology classes. Dobson (2009) also supports the conclusion that well-designed virtual laboratories can instruct students as effectively as hands-on laboratories.

Inspiring and motivating students is far more important for long-term success than simply delivering information (DiCarlo, 2009). Whether through hands-on wet labs or with the aid of computer-simulated practicals, it is important to encourage students to develop an interest in lifelong learning. The challenge for educators is to choose or develop appropriate computer simulations that provide intellectual challenges, are engaging, relevant and as close to reality as possible--complementing and extending, rather than replacing, traditional wet lab practical programs.


Adamson, R. (2010). Creating simulations for an 'Introduction to Research Methods' course. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 26(7), 917-931.

Baker, N., & Verran, J. (2004). The future of microbiology classes--wet, dry or in combination? Nature, 2, 338-342.

DiCarlo, S. E. (2009). Too much content, not enough thinking and too little fun! Advances in Physiology Education, 33, 257-264.

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Mosse, J., & Wright, W (2000, 28 April). Mum can't come to the phone right now--she's in the laundry doing a rat dissection. Flexible delivery of laboratory programs in the biological sciences. Proceedings of evaluating the new teaching technologies workshop. Uniserve Science conference, University of Sydney.

Pamula, F., Pamula, Y, Wigmore, G. J., & Wheldrake, J. F (2000, 28 April). The use and benefits of computer mediated learning in teaching biology. Proceedings of evaluating the new teaching technologies workshop. Uniserve Science conference, University of Sydney.

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Jan West

Anneke Veenstra

Deakin University

(1) On request, a copy of the instrument will be supplied by the senior author.

Jan West is Associate Head of School (Teaching & Learning) in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at Deakin University, Burwood Campus. Email:

Anneke Veenstra is a Lecturer in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at Deakin University, Burwood Campus.
Table 1 Responses recorded when participating physiology students
were asked what they liked about computer-simulated practicals and
the wet labs

                      Responses                          Responses

Question               n     %     Question               n     %

What did you like                  What did you like
about the                          about the wet labs?

Could repeat it       122   73.5   Hands-on experience   152   91.6

Guaranteed results    86    51.8   Seeing the results    117   70.5

Very visual           83    50.0   Dissections           114   68.7

Useful for revision   67    40.4   Working in groups     79    47.6

Couldn't make a       63    38.0   Fun                   74    44.6

Fun                   55    33.1   The laboratory        40    24.1

Working alone         11    6.6    Other                  9    5.4

Other                 18    10.8   Nothing                4    2.4

None                   2    1.2

Table 2 Summary of reasons given by students that computer simulations
should not replace wet lab practicals

Question                                                 Students

Would you like to see the practical component changed
to wholly computer simulations? If no, why not?

Hands-on experience                                         66

Skill development                                           38

Wet labs are fun                                            13

Wet labs increase understanding                             12

Very visual                                                  8

Already enough computer tasks in the course                  7

Found the computer simulations boring                        6

Remember concepts better                                     4

Need to make mistakes to learn                               4

Unique experience                                            3

Interaction with group members                               2

Table 3 Responses recorded when participating physiology students were
asked what they could learn from wet labs that they could not learn
from computer simulations, and vice versa

                       Responses                            Responses

Question               n     %     Question                 n     %

What could you learn               What could you learn
from wet labs that                 from computer
you could not learn                simulations that you
from computer                      could not learn from
simulations?                       wet labs?

Dissection skills      79   47.6   Nothing                  34   20.5

Hands-on experience    40   24.1   Computer skills           7    4.2

Use of lab equipment   36   21.7   Greater depth of          7    4.2

Basic lab skills       35   21.1   Analysis of data          6    3.6

Visualisation of       34   20.5   Use of equipment          4    2.4

Experimental design/   18   10.8   To follow instructions    4    2.4
data analysis

To work in a group     17   10.2   Experimental design       3    1.8

Generating own         12   7.2    Write hypotheses          3    1.8

Safety procedures       9   5.4    Self-directed learning    2    1.2

A lot                   2   1.2    Encouragement             2    1.2

Nothing                 2   1.2    Don't know                4    2.4

Table 4 Second-year physiology students' responses to statements about
practical classes in descending order of support (N = 161)

Statement                                                   Mean   SD

Hands-on experience with animal tissue is essential for     4.6    0.6
all students studying physiology

Being able to use a microscope is an essential laboratory   4.6    0.6

Wet labs assisted my understanding of the structure of      4.6    0.6
the organ/tissue

An important aspect of laboratory practicals is that        4.3    0.7
teacher-student interaction is encouraged

Undergraduate laboratory experiments do not exploit         4.0    0.9
animals unnecessarily

Computer simulations allow students to learn at their       3.9    0.8
own pace

Computer-simulation programs cannot replace laboratory      3.9    1.0
practical experiments when learning physiology

Computer-simulated pracs always worked and didn't allow     3.8    0.8
you to make mistakes

I enjoyed trouble-shooting any problems that occurred in    3.7    1.0
the wet labs

PhysioEx[TM] 6.0 was a useful tool for revision             3.4    0.9

The PhysioEx[TM] 6.0 software was good value for money      3.3    1.1

Computer simulations convey little sense of the real        3.0    1.1

Examining the histological structure using the PhysioEx     2.9    1.0
[TM] 6.0 software was better than using a microscope

Computer simulations in the PhysioEx[TM] 6.0 software are   1.5    0.6
difficult to use

Table 5 Distribution of second-year physiology students' final marks
before and after the introduction of computer-simulated practical

                                  Percentage of physiology
                                   students awarded grade

                             n    distinction   Distinction

Two years before the        149       32            24
introduction of computer-
simulated practicals        100       22            28

Two years after the         78        39            24
introduction of computer-
simulated practicals        111       27            20

                            Percentage of physiology
                             students awarded grade

                            Credit   Pass   Fail

Two years before the          19      15     9
introduction of computer-
simulated practicals          13      28     8

Two years after the           23      10     4
introduction of computer-
simulated practicals          29      16     6

Note: Total mark percentages may not sum to 100 due to rounding.
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Author:West, Jan; Veenstra, Anneke
Publication:Australian Journal of Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2012
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