Motivation; virtual laboratories; science education; introductory biology


The objective of this study was to evaluate and compare the effects of face-to-face and virtual laboratories in a large-enrollment introductory biology course on students* motivation to learn biology. The laboratory component of post-secondary science courses is where students have opportunities for frequent interactions with instructors and their peers (Seymour & Hewitt, 1997; Seymour, Melton, Wiese, & Pederson-Gallegos, 2005) and is often relied upon for promoting interest and motivation in science learning (Hofstein & Lunetta, 2003; Lunetta, Hofstein, & Clough, 2007). However, laboratory courses can be resource intensive (Jenkins, 2007), leading post-secondary science educators to seek alternative means of laboratory education such as virtual laboratories. Scholars have provided evidence that student achievement in virtual laboratories can be equal to, if not higher than, that of students in face-to-face laboratories (Akpan & Strayer, 2010; Finkelstein et al., 2005; Huppert, Lomask, & Lazarowitz, 2002). Yet, little research on virtual laboratories has been conducted on affective variables such as motivation to learn science. Motivation to learn biology was measured at the beginning and end of the semester using the Biology Motivation Questionnaire © (Glynn, Brickman, Armstrong, & Taasoobshirazi, 2011) and compared between the face-to-face and virtual laboratory groups. Characteristics of the two laboratory environments were measured at the end of the semester by the Distance Education Learning Environment Survey (Walker & Fraser, 2005). Interviews with 12 participants were conducted three times throughout the semester in the phenomenological style of qualitative data collection. The quantitative survey data and qualitative interview and observation data were combined to provide a thorough image of the face-to-face and virtual laboratory environments and their impacts on students* motivation to learn biology. Statistical analyses provided quantifiable evidence that the novel virtual laboratory environment did not have a differential effect on students* motivation to learn biology, with this finding being supported by the qualitative results. Comparison of the laboratory environments showed that students in the face-to-face labs reported greater instructional support, student interaction and collaboration, relevance of the lab activities, and authentic learning experiences than the students in the virtual labs. Qualitative results indicated the teaching assistants in the face-to-face labs were an influential factor in sustaining students* motivation by providing immediate feedback and instructional support in and out of the laboratory environment. In comparison, the virtual laboratory students often had to redo their lab exercises multiple times because of unclear directions and system glitches, potential barriers to persistence of motivation. The face-to-face students also described the importance of collaborative experiences and hands-on activities while the virtual laboratory students appreciated the convenience of working at their own pace, location, and time. According to social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986, 2001), the differences in the learning environments reported by the students should have had ramifications for their motivation to learn biology, yet this did not hold true for the students in this study. Therefore, while these laboratory environments are demonstrably different, the virtual laboratories did not negatively impact students* motivation to learn biology and could be an acceptable replacement for face-to-face laboratories in an introductory biology course.


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Graduation Date





Butler, Malcolm


Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


College of Education and Human Performance

Degree Program

Education and Human Performance








Release Date

August 2015

Length of Campus-only Access


Access Status

Doctoral Dissertation (Open Access)


Dissertations, Academic -- Education and Human Performance; Education and Human Performance -- Dissertations, Academic

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