Virtual Labs: Are they as effective as face to face lab instruction?

Article Title: Investigating the Effectiveness of Virtual Laboratories in an Undergraduate Biology Course.

Name of Reviewer: Shaaban Fundi


            In his article entitled “Investigating the Effectiveness of Virtual Laboratories in an Undergraduate Biology Course”, Flowers asserts that most research has shown virtual labs to be highly effective with benefits equal to and in some cases better than physical laboratory activities (Dalgarno, Bishop, Adlong, & Bedgood, 2009; Dobson, 2009; Swan & O’Donnell, 2009, as cited in Flowers, 2011).  Studies by Allen & Seaman (2010) and Chen, Lambert, & Guidry (2010) indicate that web-based learning can positively impact student learning outcomes and promote student engagement.  However, a study by Stuckey-Mickell & Stuckey-Danner (2007) found that students perceived virtual labs less favorably than traditional, physical labs. To explore this potentially negative perception, Flowers conducted a study among university biology students to obtain their perceptions regarding the ability of virtual labs to teach them how to correctly use laboratory equipment and follow correct laboratory procedures. 

Study design and results

            For his study, Flowers recruited 19 undergraduate students from an introductory biology course.  The course included five virtual laboratories and five traditional face-to-face laboratories.  In the virtual labs, students designed experiments using computer mouse manipulations. Students’ understanding of scientific materials was assessed following their completion of the virtual labs. In addition, students completed a questionnaire at the end of the semester.  This questionnaire utilized Likert scales to measure students’ perceptions of the effectiveness of virtual labs at teaching biology concepts compared to traditional labs. Results indicate that the majority of students perceived that they learned more biology concepts from the virtual labs compared to the traditional labs and that they preferred to participate in virtual labs. However, students felt virtual labs were less effective at teaching them how to operate lab equipment compared to traditional labs.


            The findings from the Flowers’ study are consistent with many other published studies from college settings which have found that students prefer this mode of learning over traditional labs. Students also perceive higher learning gains when participating in virtual labs.  Some topics, however, are more effectively taught in a traditional laboratory setting including the proper use of lab equipment. As I think about how to apply these findings in my own classroom, I realize that I need to strike a balance between virtual and traditional labs in order to provide the most benefit to my students. I plan to use virtual labs to help teach scientific content, especially when traditional labs are either too expensive or dangerous for my students to complete, and use traditional labs to demonstrate the proper usage of lab tools and equipment.

            This study also gave me some ideas for my own research. I am starting to realize that I do not need an overly complex study design such as a randomized control trial for my dissertation.  Instead, I can use a relatively simple study design like the one used in this article to answer the question of whether virtual labs are a beneficial tool for teaching chemistry to high school students.  This more simple design will be more feasible for me to implement.  In addition, I plan to employ a survey with Likert scale items like the one used in this study to collect and analyze students’ perceived learning gains and their perceptions of virtual labs compared to traditional labs.         

In conclusion, I have obtained a number of ideas for my own dissertation after reading the five articles for this class.  I will continue to review the literature to identify and explore other possibilities for my dissertation research and to add to my arsenal of evidence-based teaching strategies. All in all, this exercise has opened up many possibilities for me as an educator and as a researcher.


Flowers L. Investigating the effectiveness of virtual laboratories in an undergraduate biology course.  The Journal of Human Resource and Adult Learning,2011; 7(2): 110-116.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s