Seeing is understanding: the use of online prelaboratory exercises to enhance learning in Zoology practicals


  • Susan M. Jones
  • Ashley Edwards
  • Natalie Brown


Cognitive load theory suggests that a student’s learning will be inhibited if ‘the instructional materials overwhelm a learner’s cognitive resources’ (Cook 2006, p.1076): the less prior knowledge a learner has, the more susceptible they are to overload. Cognitive load theory provides the basis for a number of instructional design rules. These include the use of multiple representations, and the use of dual mode presentations (e.g. verbal plus visual). In our first year Zoology practical classes, we have observed that many students have difficulty visualising what they will do in class from reading a set of written instructions. Thus they are less well prepared, and less able to take full advantage of the learning experiences offered by the practical exercises. When that exercise involves a dissection, there are ethical implications (ANZCCART 2005). We therefore prepared a series of prelaboratory exercises to support each of our dissection-based practical classes. These are PowerPoint shows illustrating the procedure for each stage of the dissection, with written comments and questions designed to highlight key learning concepts: they are loaded into our online learning site the week before the relevant practical. To gauge the impact of this initiative, we surveyed our students before releasing the first prelaboratory, and in the penultimate week of semester. The surveys were designed to elicit information on how well-prepared they feel for their classes, and what type of preparation they do: 68% commented that they ‘like to see or be shown what I have to do’. We also sought feedback from the demonstrators about the types of questions being asked by the students to gauge the effectiveness of the prelaboratories in helping the students conceptualise what they would be doing in class. Preliminary analysis suggests that the prelaboratories were enthusiastically embraced by the students, and that there may be enhanced learning outcomes.