The Impact of Laboratory Exercises in Achieving ULOs in Online Astronomy Classes

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Brief Abstract

Fully online classes use simulated labs in an attempt to provide a traditional learning component in the online classroom and help students actively engage in the learning process. This session will discuss the impact of online lab exercises in enhancing student understanding of core concepts taught in Introductory Astronomy courses. 

Extended Abstract

Even before the COVID-19 global pandemic emerged as a potential watershed moment in higher education, debate has raged over the effectiveness of online versus face to face learning experiences. The literature largely supports similar learning outcome achievements between virtual and traditional classrooms, although student perception of instructors and course quality is often higher for traditional face-to-face classrooms (Johnson, 2000). Similarly, comparisons have shown no statistical difference in achievement of learning outcomes regardless of face-to-face, hybrid, or fully online delivery (Lovern, 2010). Specific studies have further focused on the learning impacts of virtual versus hands-on laboratory experiences (see (Darrah, 2014), (Corter, 2011), and (Brinson, 2015)); studies have shown that virtual is as effective as hands-on learning experiences, if not more effective in some situations. However, previous studies often examined virtual laboratories conducted in a university laboratory setting, not in a truly remote, fully online learning experience.

Our study seeks to add to the body of STEM education knowledge by expanding on previous work in two key areas. First, we wish to examine in more detail the contribution of a laboratory to mastery of theoretical concepts in online learning. Secondly, we are comparing essentially the same course: the only difference is whether the course contains additional content for a laboratory experience. With this foundation in mind, we are interested in determining the impact the presence or absence of a virtual laboratory experience has on achievement of student mastery of course concepts. In other words, rather than studying the impact of lab format, we wish to see the contribution of a laboratory in general. As the literature indicated no direct correlation to this question, we designed our own study focused on this research premise:

Hypothesis: Including simulated laboratory exercises in online Introductory Astronomy classes increases student mastery of core concepts taught in the class, thus enhancing the learning experience.

Question 1: Does the inclusion of online laboratory exercises significantly increase student mastery of core concepts?

Question 2: Do online laboratory exercises increase perceived student mastery of core concepts, as reported by the students?

Question 3: Do online laboratory exercises increase student enjoyment of a class?

This study evaluated student mastery of core concepts in the Introductory Astronomy classes which include online laboratory exercises compared with classes which do not include a laboratory experience. The study focuses on student outcomes from two courses, completely identical in scope and sequence; the only difference between them is the inclusion of online laboratory exercises in one course. Students in both classes completed a 15 question anonymous online quiz during the first and last weeks of class. The results were analyzed statistically in order to determine if there is a demonstrable increase in mastery of the concepts tested in the courses that include the laboratory exercises. Students in the course with simulated laboratory exercises also completed an online Likert-style exit survey for the course to evaluate student enjoyment and perceived benefits of doing the labs.

We will present results from 9 months of study, representing multiple independent course offerings. Preliminary results indicate both qualitative and quantitative support for simulated labs facilitating better student mastery of course outcomes when compared to the absence of a laboratory experience. We believe the results of our study contribute to a better understanding of the role and effectiveness of virtual laboratories in STEM education in terms of both achievement of learning outcomes as well as student satisfaction. During this session we hope to facilitate a discussion focused on the role and impact of simulated laboratory exercises in online STEM education as well as share lessons learned from using various simulation tools. The focus will be on student attainment of learning outcomes as well as course satisfaction rather than a comparison of simulations or vendors.