Assessing the effectiveness of a computer simulation for teaching ecological experimental design

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Stafford, Richard ; Goodenough, Anne E ; Davies, Mark S (2010)

Designing manipulative ecological experiments is a complex and time-consuming process\ud that is problematic to teach in traditional undergraduate classes. This study investigates\ud the effectiveness of using a computer simulation — the Virtual Rocky Shore (VRS) — to\ud facilitate rapid, student-centred learning of experimental design. We gave a series of tests\ud to biology undergraduates to determine how well experimental design and data analysis\ud was understood: 1) before any teaching sessions on this topic; 2) after theory sessions on\ud experimental design; and 3) after an additional practical session using the VRS. Due to\ud poor weather, sample sizes were small with a total of 12 students participating in all three\ud sessions. Nevertheless, marks increased significantly between the initial and final tests (1\ud and 3). The variability of marks during test 2 was also significantly higher than for the other\ud two tests. Thus some students learned experimental design effectively from the theory\ud sessions alone, while others only understood the process after the experiential learning\ud component of the VRS. Feedback from students on the process was mainly positive,\ud although some students found the VRS too abstract, indicating that the use of digital learning\ud resources may need to be supported by real experience in the field or laboratory.
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