A virtual experiment improved students' understanding of physiological experimental processes ahead of a live inquiry-based practical class

Maria del Mar Quiroga, Julia K. Choate

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


Physiology is commonly taught through direct experience and observation of scientific phenomena in "hands-on" practical laboratory classes. The value of such classes is limited by students' lack of understanding of the underlying theoretical concepts and their lack of confidence with the experimental techniques. In our experience, students follow experimental steps as if following a recipe, without giving thought to the underlying theory and the relationship between the experimental procedure and the research hypotheses. To address this issue, and to enhance student learning, we developed an online virtual experiment for students to complete before an inquiry-based practical. The virtual experiment and "live" practical laboratory were an investigation of how autonomic nerves control contractions in the isolated rabbit ileum. We hypothesized that the virtual experiment would support students' understanding of the physiological concepts, as well as the experimental design associated with the practical. Anonymous survey data and usage analytics showed that most students engaged with the virtual experiment. Students thought that it helped them to understand the practical physiological concepts and experimental design, with self-reported time spent on the virtual experiment (and not on lectures or practical class notes) a significant predictor of their understanding. This novel finding provides evidence that virtual experiments can contribute to students' research skills development. Our results indicate that self-paced online virtual experiments are an effective way to enhance student understanding of physiological concepts and experimental processes, allowing for a more realistic experience of the scientific method and a more effective use of time in practical classes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)495-503
Number of pages9
JournalAdvances in Physiology Education
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2019


  • Computer-based simulation
  • Gut physiology
  • Online simulation
  • Virtual experiment
  • Virtual laboratory

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