Improving student learning of college Biochemistry using simulations

Author Information
Dr Maurizio Costabile
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
University of South Australia
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
City East Campus
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia, 5001
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

The University of South Australia's, School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences Biochemistry course developed and implemented an interactive simulation for the teaching of Enzyme kinetics. A total of 2 years of data following its implementation has shown dramatic improvements in student grades and in turn the simulation has helped students to learn more effectively.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

Biochemistry, “the study of the chemical compounds and reactions occurring in living organisms” is known to be challenging for undergraduate students (1). The student cohort that takes Biochemistry (BIOL 2014) is very diverse, being a core course for students in Laboratory Medicine, Medical Science and Nutrition & Food Sciences and an elective for Human Movement, Science, Science & Education and Pharmaceutical Science (single and double degree students). In addition the course is being taught at Hong Kong Baptist University for the first time in 2015. Since 2010, the number of students taking Biochemistry has increased by 42% due to the growing popularity of core programs, as well as the relaxation of pre-requisite requirements, where students only need chemistry, biology or physics. Given the broad student intake, there is a wide range in entrance scores and academic background, particularly in relation to mathematics and chemistry knowledge.
Biochemistry is taught via face-to-face lectures and practical classes but with extensive use of the online learning environment, including links to external animations. The practical classes demonstrate biochemical principles in a hands on manner, as well as teaching students how to correctly use laboratory equipment, such as a spectrophotometer. Of the three practicals, it has been my experience that students struggle most with learning the fundamental concepts of enzyme kinetics. While there are limitations associated with practical based teaching, it is imperative that teachers explore ways to overcome any disadvantages. To facilitate student learning, in 2013 I embarked on developing an interactive e-learning simulation to supplement the enzyme kinetics practical, since technology allows for the provision of blended learning modalities. The e-learning simulation consists of a background section, where the theory behind studying enzyme kinetics is presented. The simulation is an interactive animated version of the wet lab practical. Progression through the simulation requires the student to enter experimental data, with help provided if they do not know how to proceed. There is a stepwise explanation of raw data, its manipulation (unit conversions), presentation (graphing) and interpretation. Lastly, the review section contains multiple-choice questions where students test their knowledge and receive answer specific feedback. In 2014, the simulation was implemented and the impact of the simulation assessed based on student practical report performance and direct feedback via a questionnaire. Based on the evidence and feedback from the first iteration, the simulation was modified and re-implemented in 2015. The simulation was available at the start of semester and students were actively encouraged to use the simulation prior to the practical class. In addition, the simulation was a novel interactive learning approach, as opposed to the generally passive approach seen with lectures.

“I referred to the sim numerous times to help with my understanding of the prac results and feel I wouldn’t have been able to do my write up without it” (2014 Student comment)

E-learning resources are commonly used to facilitate self-directed learning. I have developed an entire E-learning simulation based around the teaching of enzyme kinetics. This involved developing the concept, learning to use the software (Articulate Storyline), troubleshooting, obtaining peer feedback, modification, implementation and assessment of its impact over a number of years. While e-resources have been shown to be a useful supplement to lecture based teaching of biochemistry (2), no reports exist with a direct focus on practical class teaching. The simulation was designed to provide an authentic experiential learning opportunity as a precursor to the wet lab practical.

“It (sim) provided the information in a new way which helps understanding” (2015 Student comment)

The simulation was developed in response to the observation over a number of years that students, particularly those with poor mathematics skills, performed poorly in the enzyme kinetics practical. The e-resource was developed as a new pedagogical model aimed to increase student engagement and to address a number of key issues. Firstly, due to timetabling constraints, some students complete the practical prior to receiving the lecture material. As a result it is difficult for them to ground the practical in context of their prior knowledge. When asked, “What were the best aspects of this simulation?” a common comment was:

“Explaining a topic that has not yet been covered in lectures before the practical class on that topic” (2015 Student comment).

Secondly, some students lack the understanding of underpinning mathematical calculations and concepts. Since the practical has several aspects that require mathematical manipulations, students who find this challenging tend to perform poorly, as well as failing to grasp the underlying concepts. The simulation provided students with alternate ways to perform calculations (Fig 2 Top) as well as applying the calculations to key data generated in class (Fig 2 Bottom). Lastly, many students do not prepare sufficiently prior to attending the practical. The simulation attempted to address this by providing extensive background information for those students who had not yet had the lecture content. It was aimed at quickly bringing the students up to speed with the relevant material. In addition, the multiple-choice questions in the review section provide students with an opportunity to practice and test their understanding of fundamental concepts:

“The explanation of calculations prior to attending the wet lab session provided a clearer understanding of the calculations and concepts before commencing the practical” (2015 Student comment)

Another benefit of the simulation is that it allowed every student to actively take control of the pace of his or her learning as indicated by this student comment about a benefit of the simulation:

“Do it in your own time and from home” (2014 Student comment)

University resources are often created in a stepwise manner. A student must complete one task to move onto the next. This ensures that students are brought along and no one is outside of their depth. However, students do not all have the same level of knowledge nor do they work at the same pace, which can limit their progression. Thus a teaching approach should provide students with structure so as not to get lost, but not at the price of inhibiting students with a relevant background or those who learn more quickly. The difference between what a learner can do without help and what they can do with help is referred to as the “zone of proximal development”3. The simulation allows both of these aspects to be addressed. The simulation can be accessed as often as required by the student (up to 3 times by individual students in 2015), at their own pace with freedom to choose which aspects of the simulation they wish to make use of, since it is self-directed learning.

In 2013, the effectiveness of the e-learning simulation was assessed using only the enzyme kinetics simulation. Depending on the student’s level of prior knowledge, they could skip the background section and move straight into the simulation, which was designed to take 45-60 min to complete. The e-learning resource provided a flexible and personalised learning opportunity for students as they had direct control on which aspect of the content they accessed, when and how often they used the simulation. This approach is also consistent with the University’s direction in relation to digital learning. The simulation is both scalable (once developed it can be easily copied, manipulated and expanded) and sustainable (the University has the software, staff are trained and the resource is owned by the University) allowing for the provision of a flexible and personalised learning experience. The process is also seamless, since the simulation is loaded directly onto the Learn Online environment, integrating with the analytics.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

The impact of implementing the enzyme kinetics simulation on student performance in 2014 and 2015 was compared to 2011-13 student cohort performance in the formal practical report. There was a significant increase in mean score in both 2014 and 2015 compared to the previous cohorts (Table 1 and Fig 2). These differences may have been due to differences between cohorts; however when practical report scores from 2014 and 2015 are compared, there were no differences in either the median or interquartile range between the two cohorts, indicating similar performance by the differing groups. As a result the differences in student performance are likely to be due to the impact of the new educational approach. Importantly in both 2014 and 2015 there were significantly fewer students in the lower 25th percentile compared to the previous cohorts. These data clearly demonstrate that the simulation specifically helped weaker performing students who previously may have failed the written practical report due to their lack of understanding of central concepts. It is also clear that the benefits of the simulation were both consistent and reproducible, with similar improvements in student results seen in 2014 and 2015. Academics importantly focus on all students, but the weaker students require greater assistance to fully grasp fundamental concepts and in turn require greater support. It is clear from this intervention that it has been successfully and consistently applied in this course. Based on the positive results seen with the 2014 and 2015 cohorts, in mid 2015 I received support from the Digital Teaching Equipment fund for the additional “development of interactive simulations to enhance student teaching and learning of undergraduate Biochemistry and Immunology”. When asked, “What were the best aspects of this simulation?” 32, 26 and 19% of respondents in 2015 indicated that the fundamental math’s theory; multiple choice questions and background information were the best aspects of the simulation in their free text comment section. Some comments included:
“It included a lot of background information and revision that is useful for the practical, especially mathematical equations. It was also much more engaging and less time consuming than looking through notes and a textbook” (2014 Student comment)
“I liked the quiz at the end which tested what I had just learnt and helped reinforce points” (2015 Student comment)

The results from implementing the simulation and the positive effect on student performance have been disseminated at multiple levels. These include to the School of Pharmacy and Medical Science (Laboratory Medicine and Pharmacy teaching days), Division of Health Sciences (Lunchtime teaching conversation, 9/9/14), University, (contributor to the Digital Learning Strategy summit, October 9, 2014) which has helped guide the development of the digital learning strategy. As part of the broader University dissemination strategy, the enzyme kinetics simulation is currently being used as an exemplar of innovative practice on the University Digital learning strategy webpage. The results have also been presented to the broader academic community as part of a teaching conference oral presentation (HERGA4, 2014). The development of the simulation has also led to the building of a culture of innovation within the School of Pharmacy and Medical Science. I have consulted with several staff about my approach and its suitability in their teaching context and in 2014, a simulation was developed and implemented in 2015 as a novel way of teaching respiratory physiology Feedback from the staff included:
“Student marks were better for sections where there had been underpinning tutorial questions which included the simulation” Dr Parkinson-Lawrence, 2015
Students could also see the benefit of using simulations in other courses, with 63% of students (2015) either agreeing or strongly agreeing with the statement “approach should be expanded and used in other courses”.
“I really think this supported my learning and it should be used for all practicals not just enzyme kinetics” and “It’s very helpful and I really hope it will be expanded to other subjects” (2015 Student comment)

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

The simulation principally addresses the pillar of Learning effectiveness. Based on the results presented, it is clear that student results have improved each year the simulation was implemented. In addition there was a complete elimination in failing students and and overall increase in mean score for the practical component. Student feedback (as indicted throughout) was highly positive to the beneficial impact of the simulation towards their learning.
The simulation cal also relate to the other 4 pillars which will be described below.
The simulation is available to all students through the Biochemistry teaching homepage. This provides students with24/7 access to the simulation both before as well as after the practical class. This is particularly important when students are preparing for end of semester examinations.
Faculty satisfaction
As the developer of the simulation, the positive impact of the simulation has given me much satisfaction. It is always a wonderful feeling to see that a teaching initiate can have such dramatic effects on student learning. In addition, this demonstration of a novel teaching approach (at UniSA) has encouraged other staff to trial simulation in their courses (e.g. Physiology) also with good success.
Once developed the simulations can be used a broadly as required. In addition they can be readily adapted into new simulations base on the existing simulation. This can help to reduce developmental costs associated with new endeavours.
Student satisfaction
As illustrated throughout the application, the vast majority of students were highly in favour of the simulation and could clearly see the benefits to their learning throughout the course. In addition, many students requested for additional simulation to be developed both within this course as well as across courses. This is currently being developed with a total of 12 new simulation nearing completion and waiting to be deployed in 2016.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

The only equipment required to access the simulation is a computer, laptop or tablet device. These are ubiquitous, providing easy access to staff and all students who wish to make use of this teaching tool.

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

Assuming a teaching institution does not have access to the software, a software license for Storyline Articulate is required, which is currently $1398. A standard Windows based PC is then required to run the software. If the simulation is developed by a member of staff, then there will be a cost associated with their time being involved with the simulation. In the case of the simulation, the author took approximately 50 hours to develop and test the simulation. It should be noted though, that the applicant had no prior experience and had the begin "from the ground up". The other alternative is to outsource the development of the simulation to a learning content developer which would significantly decrease the time required as well as increase the quality of the final product. It is estimated that a simulation simulation could be readily produced for under $5000. Once developed, the resource can then be modified and expanded in the development of other simulations further reducing future costs.

References, supporting documents: 

1: Wood, EJ. 2010. Biochemistry is a difficult subject for both student and teacher. Biochem Ed. 18:170-172.
2: Varghese, J., Faith, M & Jacob, M. 2012. Impact of e-resources on learning in biochemistry: first-year medical students’ perceptions. BMC Med Ed. 12:21-30.
3: L.S. Vygotsky: Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes, p. 86.
4: Costabile, M. 2014. Assessment of an e-Learning simulation for the teaching of enzyme kinetics. Changing Horizons: Local Learning for Global Impact. HERGA, Adelaide Conference, September 25.
5: LeBlanc, E.J. 2013. Designing Interactive eLearning for Your Students. In R. McBride & M. Searson (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2013 (p. 684). Chesapeake, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).
6: Ramsden, P. 2003. Learning to teach in higher education. 2nd Ed. London: Routledge Falmer.

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Senior Lecturer Maurizio Costable
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