Staff Perceptions of Bioscience Teaching Labs

Teaching lab sessions are major components of bioscience education. They are resource-intensive sessions, but remain under-studied, and more research is needed to maximise their potential. My study on staff perceptions of bioscience teaching labs aims to address this.
Staff Perceptions of Bioscience Teaching Labs

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Featured article:

Coyte, E. (2023) Staff goals, challenges, and use of student inquiry in undergraduate bioscience teaching laboratories. FEBS Open Bio.

They say you never forget your first, and I fully expect that’ll be true for me and this paper. It’s been quite a journey and I must say I’m proud and excited to see it published in FEBS Open Bio! You can watch the video abstract above for an overview, or read the paper for the full findings. But in this article, I’m going to focus on the route to publication, then outline some key decisions I made along the way. 

The route to publication, a two-part story

Part 1: Dissertation

This paper started out as a dissertation for an Educational Research Master’s which I was taking part-time alongside (but independent from) my content development work at LearnSci

The Master’s was run in a Social Sciences and Law faculty at the University of Bristol. My background is biochemistry, and moving from natural sciences to social science did take some significant mental shifts. There were new terms and concepts to explore as with any new discipline, as well as the fascinating complexity of researching the thoughts and behaviours of other people.

My dissertation year was 2020/21, an extremely busy time for so many as the higher education sector urgently pivoted to fully online learning. Fitting in the dissertation alongside this was certainly intense at times, but I made it through, and felt pretty proud of it by the end.

Part 2: Publication

Upon seeing the word “publishable” amongst the dissertation feedback, I decided to give it a shot. This was admittedly after a break of a few months - much-needed before I could bring myself to start hacking down the wordcount by about 50% and reassembling it into a new journal article form! 

As I was contemplating embarking on this journey, I presented the study’s findings at a conference where I also learned about the Bioscience Educators’ Network. They have a great mentoring system which helped inspire me into action with its support and enthusiasm. I highly recommend the network, whatever your career goals are. Mel Lacey’s mentorship throughout the publication process provided knowledge, confidence and enthusiasm, I am so grateful! Incidentally, I would highly recommend her paper on publishing pedagogical papers for those with a biological science background.

Staff perceptions of bioscience teaching labs - graphical abstract. Image credit: Sian Jefferson
Graphical abstract for my paper. Image credit: Sian Jefferson

Decisions along the road: six “whys”

As with any big project, there are plenty of decisions to be made along the way. I’ve picked out six major ones which I hope will explain some thought processes that build towards the outcome. These relate to the overall topic, specific aspect within this, research questions, methodological approach, chosen methods, and choice of journal.

1) Overall topic: Why bioscience teaching labs?

This was one of the easiest decisions personally, because supporting practical laboratory teaching in bioscience has been the central component of my career. I have supported these sessions directly during my time as an Assistant Teacher in a biochemistry teaching lab, and indirectly via my work at Learnsci creating resources to support these sessions, alongside a wide range of academic partners. Despite their ubiquity, teaching labs are still relatively under-studied learning environments, so I felt this was a domain to which I could contribute.  

2) Specific aspect: Why staff perceptions?

When reviewing the bioscience teaching lab literature, I noticed the majority of studies described interventions at individual institutions. These are valuable contributions, and logical choices for staff members with access to student cohorts. However I struggled to find cross-institutional studies focussing on  staff perceptions in this context. These matter, because what staff think and feel impacts what and how they teach, which of course impacts the student learning experience. If staff study their students, who studies the staff? 

As I do not teach students directly, but had accumulated a network of teaching staff contacts over the years via work and social media, I considered myself reasonably well-placed to investigate this particular aspect of teaching labs.

3) Research questions: Why goals, use of student inquiry and challenges?

For goals: Despite teaching labs’ ubiquity, there is a long-standing need to define the overarching goals which staff have for their students in these sessions. Put bluntly, why are students there? Beyond the experimental aims, how do staff hope their students will benefit from their time in the lab, making best use of these resource-intensive sessions? Without defining teaching lab goals, it will be very difficult to determine whether they are being achieved.

For inquiry: Teaching labs are active learning environments, providing a unique opportunity for investigation and inquiry. Inquiry shifts the student from learning about science to doing science, as they begin to make their own decisions about experiments. I was interested in student inquiry levels across UK bioscience teaching labs, and staff perceptions on this topic.

For challenges: Whatever staff aspirations are for teaching labs, whether they can be translated into the student experience will depend in large part on the challenges and barriers encountered. I was interested in exploring what these might be, and how much they varied amongst participants.

Please see the published article for the complete research questions and more information.

4) Methodological approach: Why mixed-methods? 

I found a mixed-methods approach appealing as a way of answering my research questions. This pragmatically combines quantitative and qualitative methods, benefitting from the scope and breadth achievable via quantitative methods, with the rich depth possible through qualitative methods.  

There are many ways of carrying out mixed-methods research, but I decided to use a quantitative method first, directly following up and building upon it with a qualitative method. I selected this approach because some literature framework and survey questions had been developed in US chemistry education contexts which I could adapt for my own as a starting point. I could then follow up on interesting aspects to explore qualitatively, with a dataset available at hand. 

5) Methods: Why questionnaires and semi-structured interviews?

As a Master’s student during a pandemic with a limited window of time for data collection and zero potential for travel, my choice of methods were somewhat limited. However I was able to use questionnaires and interviews; tried and tested methods available which proved successful especially in combination. Future studies on this topic could incorporate other methods such as documentary analysis of lab manuals or laboratory observations. 

Questionnaires were an efficient and effective method of sampling staff perceptions from a wide range of different contexts. In 5 weeks I was able to get 79 responses. Participants could volunteer an email for being contacted for a follow-up interview, and I ended up doing 6 of these over the space of a few weeks after the questionnaire closed. These interviews offered deeper insight into what staff members were thinking on the topics at hand, and raised a number of additional but relevant points which weren’t covered in the questionnaires. For analysing the interviews, I used reflexive thematic analysis, following Braun and Clarke. 

I am so grateful for the staff who took the time to respond to the questionnaire and especially those I interviewed. I know how busy teaching staff are, but this research could not have happened without their contributions. 

6) Journal choice: Why FEBS Open Bio?

This is my first academic paper so I was initially a little apprehensive about this decision, but after some research, things quickly became clear. I compiled a list of journals which published science education content, especially those in bioscience, and compared my options. Selecting a journal fairly early on in the process helped provide a target to aim for when remodelling the dissertation.

FEBS Open Bio was my first choice; I’d heard positive things about their publishing process from people I knew, and was enthused by the fact the Education Section publishes Open Access for free, as FEBS covers the costs. Publishing with FEBS Open Bio was a straightforward process and everything was clearly explained, and I’m very happy to have been accepted. 

What next?

Following the completion of my Master’s, I moved into the role of Educational Research lead at LearnSci. This involves liaising with any academic partners who express interest in studying the impacts of LearnSci resources on student learning and confidence, as well as applying findings from the pedagogical literature to our approach and resource developments.  

As I say in the published article: “As more educational research is done, we can gain a deeper understanding on how best to use these prevalent but resource-intensive sessions to train the next generation of scientists and other professionals.” I believe there is rich potential in further studying staff perceptions of bioscience teaching labs research. There are many aspects I simply did not have scope to cover, such as the role of assessments in teaching labs, and the role of online learning. Additionally, the influence of practice contexts such as accreditation status, institution type and cohort sizes could be explored more explicitly. 

If you’re interested in extending the work in any way, or even collaborating, do feel free to reach out!

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