UniServe€Science News: Newsletter of the Science Software Clearinghouse Vol. 2, November 1995

Computers in first year teaching: Biology at University of Sydney

Mary Peat is the Director of First Year Biology at the University of Sydney and is the Co-director of UniServe*Science

Traditionally, science-based courses utilised lectures, laboratory sessions, workshops and tutorials for their teaching modes. At the University of Sydney we were no exception. However, with an increasing diversity in the background and ability of our incoming students, we are presented with the dilemma of how to engage all our students in appropriate active learning. Whatever we presented to them some would have done it all before, some would be comfortable with our offerings, and some would have little understanding at the end of the year. This dilemma of diverse student background has been faced by most large biology departments around Australia and a variety of solutions is in place. Some departments have streamed students, creating more homogeneous groups that are more easily managed. Some have invested time and money into creating self-paced learning environments. More recently many departments have embraced computer technology.

At Sydney we still have a large first year class, although there is a move towards more streamed course offerings. In Biology 1 there are currently more than 800 students enrolled in different Faculties, with a wide range of university entrance scores. The format for the course is three lectures a week and a three hour laboratory session (60 students in each class). We have no budget for the more expensive teaching formats of workshops or tutorials, although the junior academic staff who are assigned to first year offer a `duty tutor' service and the lecturer of the week gives a voluntary tutorial.

We have been using computers in our teaching since the introduction of PLATO in 1984. More recently the School of Biological Sciences has increased its use of computers in teaching and has installed a Macintoshreg. teaching network in the laboratories. In late 1992 the First Year Biology Teaching Development Group was set up to develop materials for the course. To date we have utilised the com-puter network for student self-registra-tion, which gives us an enormous saving in administrative time; for delivering and marking multiple choice quizzes during the formal laboratory sessions; and for offering students interactive modules associated with the course.

The modules being developed (in Authorware(TM) Professional) fall into one of four categories -- tutorial, pre-lab instruction, revision, and self-assessment. The tutorial modules are designed to present information in an exciting and interactive manner to students and are designed to be resources for students to use in conjunction with paper-based materials. They contain a large amount of information to explore, at a variety of depths. They enable biological processes to be illustrated in an animated manner which would otherwise not be available in the laboratory by other means.

Pre-lab modules are introductions to the use of laboratory equipment which would have previously been given by the teaching staff to small groups of students. The students are able to practise on the `computer equipment' before using the laboratory-based equipment. Revision modules review practical material previously seen in the laboratory but do not offer any new materials. The emphasis is on visual stimuli utilising our vast collection of images, 35 mm slides, and prepared microscope slides. The student self-assessment modules enable students to take a series of formative tests and exercises aimed at helping them monitor their level of understanding. These modules help to promote deep learning approaches and offer students an enjoyable feedback and reinforcement session.

Evaluation of materials

Since 1992 we have held discussion with staff and students, observed the students using the modules and surveyed students perceptions of the introduction of a variety of computer-based materials. Feedback from both staff and students is used to identify problems and mistakes in the modules.

In 1992 student perceptions of the introduction of computers in teaching were investigated using a questionnaire. This study of 118 students out of a class of 1200 was limited to students' perceptions and did not attempt to evaluate changes in performance after using computers as an instructional tool. The results show that 28% of students had previously used computers often; 67% of students had previously used computers occasionally; and 4% of students had never used computers before. Despite this, 90% of students used the computers in our laboratory classes and of these 92% had no difficulty in using the programs, navigating through them, and using the mouse. 83% of these students thought that the programs increased their understanding. 53% of the students found the animations of most use in their understanding of the topic while 23% of students found the self-help questions of great use.

In 1994 the use of computers for laboratory quiz delivery and marking was investigated. 350 students were surveyed using a questionnaire. The results showed that 74% of students preferred using a computer for the quiz rather than filling out a paper-based question sheet and waiting a week for feedback on performance; 47% of students requested more control over the order in which they answered the questions; 78% of students wanted the opportunity to review answers and make changes; 80% of students requested more feedback on incorrect answers; 66% of students preferred the inclusion of graphics in the questions; and 55% of students found the quizzes a useful guide to their progress in biology. This user feedback was used to modify the program used in 1995.

Testing the effectiveness of a mini-tutorial was carried out in 1995. The tutorial was written to address an overcrowding situation with respect to demonstration materials. Students were given a pre-test (Quiz 1) on the content of the module before using it and a post-test (Quiz 2) one week after using the module and again ten weeks later (Quiz 3). 110 students were involved, with half of them using a computer-based module and half of them using paper-based materials. The results showed no significant difference in the academic achievement of students. Students are not disadvantaged by this teaching method, and the problem of congestion in the laboratory has been addressed.

Mean score for paper-based material Mean score for computer-based module
Quiz 1 3.17 +/- 1.24 SD 3.80 +/- 1.06 SD
Quiz 2 4.18 +/- 1.43 SD 4.24 +/- 1.96 SD
Quiz 3 3.98 +/- 1.28 SD 3.82 +/- 1.15 SD

The future

We believe that biologists around Australia should collaborate and cooperatively develop small modules that can be incorporated into first year biology courses. We need to set an agenda for this and define the areas of expertise among the developers. The project New Technologies in Biology Teaching, funded by DEET in 1994, produced a catalogue of some of the known Australian made biology software. This catalogue material will shortly be available through UniServe*Science.

Mary Peat


The work described has been funded by the Apple University Development Fund, a CAUT Teaching Development Grant, the Faculty of Science's (University of Sydney) Teaching Development Fund, and by University of Sydney 1993 `Quality Money'. Some of the content of this paper was presented at the Apple University Consortium Technology `95 Conference in Perth in July 1995.

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