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How I Successfully Implemented Virtual Labs in My Majors and Non-majors Microbiology Course

Published March 10, 2022


I teach two different Microbiology courses – an upper-level course intended for junior and senior Biology majors and a 2000-level Applied Microbiology course intended for sophomore Nursing and Allied Health majors. In both courses, I have utilized McGraw Hill Virtual Labs both as a stand-alone lab when lab was virtual and as a supplement to in-person labs. During both occasions, I have found the Virtual Labs to provide students with an authentic experience that requires them to think critically about the procedure and an understanding of not only how to do the lab but why they are doing each step of the lab.


How I Use the Virtual Labs My initial adoption of the Virtual Labs was in response to the COVID pandemic and a need for an acceptable replacement for in-person labs. I have kept them because they work so well as a pre-lab for students to prepare them for in-person labs. This is especially helpful in my 2000-level Applied Microbiology course where there is limited in-person lab time. Assigning Virtual Labs as a ticket students must complete before coming to the in-person labs reduces the amount of instruction required during the lab and increases the time available for students to complete the lab requirements and practice their lab skills. Additionally, Virtual Labs can provide students with lab skills that can be difficult to complete in an in-person lab based on materials availability and safety. For example, my students will complete Virtual Labs on the acid-fast stain and the endospore stain in place of in-person labs as these are more difficult techniques and can require the use of organisms or reagents that we are not able to easily use or procure.

A typical Virtual Lab assignment will consist of the lab simulation complete with pre-lab information and post-lab follow-up questions. There are awesome additional customizable pre-lab assignments that can be tailored to the Virtual Labs. These are particularly useful if the Virtual Lab is a complete stand-alone for an in-person lab and/or when there is no lab manual provided for the students. When used as a pre-lab, my Virtual Lab assignments are each worth 20 points. Students may have between 1-3 Virtual Labs to complete in a typical week depending on the schedule.


My Students’ Feedback The following are quotes about the Virtual Labs from student evaluations: “I really enjoyed the lab simulators as a supplement since we weren’t able to actually be in lab. They were thorough and gave a good example of how to complete certain techniques.” “At first, I was concerned about taking an online Microbiology lab, and I was afraid that I would not learn much, but I believe that I learned as much as I would have in a normal in-person lab!” “I thought our virtual labs were really beneficial. I found them less confusing than an in-person lab and I think what we learned in lab really helped me apply what we learned in lecture to real-world situations.”


My Students’ Performance I have noticed that students who have completed the Virtual Labs prior to coming into lab are more efficient and prepared during the lab. Frequently, students can be heard saying comments like, “Oh, this is just like we saw in the Virtual Lab,” or “I remember this part from the Virtual Lab we watched.” The quality of student performance has also increased. Students complete the in-person labs more accurately and with fewer mistakes when they are required to complete the Virtual Labs before the start of lab. I believe the engaging nature of the Virtual Lab simulation provides a better pre-lab instruction for the students than any in-person lecture or demonstration could do.


Virtual Labs Best Practices My suggested tips for best practice are as follows:  

  • Think about what your learning objectives are for each lab. Once you have those down, run through the Virtual Lab simulation and consider if you want to assign an adaptive pre-lab and what specific post-lab questions do you want your students to be able to answer.
  • Make sure your students have sufficient time to complete the Virtual Lab prior to attending your in-person lab session. I also recommend assessing what concepts of the Virtual Lab are confusing for students either by using the instructor reporting dashboard or having a location on your LMS where students can ask any questions they have after completing the Virtual Lab before coming to the in-person lab session. These areas of confusion can be directly addressed during the in-person lab.
  • Be flexible with your lab content and consider using Virtual Labs that cover experiments you have not previously used for in-person labs. There are many Virtual Lab options, and I have enjoyed expanding my lab schedule to include Virtual Labs that we have not previously utilized for safety or equipment reasons. This means adjusting the lab content and schedule. Do not be afraid to do this! It can be very worthwhile for the students to have these experiences, even if they are done in a solely virtual setting.


Click here to get more information on the Virtual Labs for Microbiology!


About the Author

Dr. Brittany Gasper, Associate Professor of Biology – Florida Southern College Dr. Gasper received her B.S. in Biology from Hope College, another small liberal arts school, in 2005. She went on to receive her Ph.D. in Microbiology from Purdue University in 2011. After graduating, she accepted a visiting assistant professor position at Florida Southern College for a year and after that began an assistant professor position in 2012. She is an unapologetic Microbiologist who thinks bacteria are way more interesting than humans! While she finds all areas of Microbiology interesting, her recent research has focused on the molecular biology and genetics of osmotic stress response in the organisms Salmonella typhimurium and Chromohalobacter salexigens . She is also interested in Biology education research and is always interested in new teaching techniques. Dr. Gasper is a member of the American Association for Advancement of Science, the American Society for Microbiology, and the Society for Biology Education Research.

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