Online Biology Courses


This review of literature provides some insights into managing and designing an introductory biology course; both online and offline. Findings are categorized into (1) student-instructor ideal ratio, (2) student outcomes in online vs. face-to-face biology courses, (3) student performance related to the class size, (4) gender bias and (5) pedagogy. Please click here to see the detailed list of references and bibliographies.

Summary of Research

Student-Instructor Ideal Ratio

  • Of the few, one empirical study found out online teaching demanded a minimum of 14% more time than traditional instruction, most of which was spent presenting instructional content. The ideal traditional class size was 17 students while the ideal online class size was 12 students (Tomei, L, A., 2006).
  • Orellana (2006) reported that (a) instructors described their online courses as highly interactive, (b) the actual class size of the online courses was 22.8 while (c) a class size of 18.9 was perceived as optimal to better achieve the course’s actual level of interaction. Also, (d) a class size of 15.9 was perceived as optimal to achieve the highest level of interaction.
  • Researchers at Boise State University conducted a survey asking what faculty considered to be the ideal class size for an online course (Lowenthal et al., 2018). Responses ranged from 10-15 students to 51 or more students (see Table 4). The three most frequently selected responses were 21-25 students (21.7%), 31-35 students (15.2%), and “There is no ideal class size” (13%).

Student Outcomes in Online vs. Face-to-Face Biology Courses

  • Diane (2013) investigated student success and perceptions of course satisfaction in face-to-face, hybrid, and online sections of introductory biology class. Students enrolled in online courses showed higher final course grades than those in F2F or hybrid sections; students enrolled in online sections also had a significantly higher attrition rate.
  • Reece and Butler (2017) investigated if the replacement of the traditional face-to-face laboratory experience with virtual laboratories could influence students’ content knowledge, motivation to learn biology, and overall course performance. Analyses revealed no significant differences between STEM students in the face-to-face and virtual laboratories in learning gains on the content test and final course grades. A conclusion from the study is that virtual laboratories may offer an affordable alternative to resource intensive face-to-face laboratories in large-enrollment Biology I courses.

Student Outcomes in relation to the Class Size

  • revealed no significant differences between STEM students in the face-to-face and virtual laboratories in learning gains on the content test and final course grades.
  • In a six-year review of student success in a biology course using lecture, blended, and hybrid methods, Gonzalez (2014) found that the highest success rates for students were with the blended method, followed next by the hybrid method, and then by the lecture method.
  • The effect of class size on students’ final grades diminishes as the class size increases. These findings suggest that a larger impact on student performance could be attained by further trimming enrollment in small classes rather than by reducing class size overall (Johnson, I. Y., 2010).
  • Despite the efforts by students and instructors, increased class size had a significant negative relationship with perceived student learning (Walker, Cotner, & Beermann 2011).

Gender Bias

  • Eddy, Brownell, and Wenderoth (2014) found that females consistently underperform on exams compared with males with similar overall college grade point averages in introductory biology courses. In addition, although females on average represent 60% of the students in these courses, their voices make up less than 40% of those heard responding to instructor-posed questions to the class, one of the most common ways of engaging students in large lectures.


  • Students who used instructor-created videos achieved significantly higher scores (9.4%, or 2/3 of a standard deviation) than those used the class-captured lecture videos (Walker, Cotner, & Beermann, 2011).
  • The use of online interactive modules called “MathBench Biology” improved students’ quantitative skills that were independent of previous math course work. Students also showed increased comfort with solving quantitative problems, whether or not they ultimately arrived at the correct answer (Thompson et al., 2010).
  • Using class exercises that integrated prerequisite math skills achieved greater gains on integrated math/biology items (Hester, Buxner, Elfring, & Nagy 2014).
  • The use of authentic research assessments in biology labs showed a significant increase in students’ understanding of the nature of authentic research and critical thinking (Gasper & Gardner, 2013).
  • The use of both constructed-response and multiple choice questions helped students significantly improve students’ critical thinking skills (Stanger-Hall, 2012).
  • The use of daily online testing helped students achieve half a letter grade above previous semesters (Pennebaker, Gosling, & Ferrell, 2013).
  • The use of collaborative testing resulted in higher test scores on quizzes/exams, whereas students performed no differently on cumulative questions (Leight et al., 2012).
  • Metacognitive intensive writing assessments showed significant improvement on post-exam assessment for students who engaged compared with their nonparticipating peers (Mynlieff et al., 2014).

A highly structured course design, based on daily and weekly practice with problem-solving, data analysis, and other higher-order cognitive skills improved the performance of all students in a college-level introductory biology class (Haak, HilleRisLambers, Pitre, & Freeman, 2011).A brief literature review of the topic

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