Supporting Learning in Online Anatomy & Physiology


Two research questions guided this literature review: (1) R1: How can one support a high-enrollment physiology/anatomy online course? And (2) R2: Are online labs effective for a high-enrollment physiology/anatomy online course?

Summary of Research

R1: How can one support a high-enrollment physiology/anatomy online course?

  • We found no studies that looked specifically at design strategies for online anatomy & physiology courses.  We did, however, find several articles which look at design strategies for an online science course:


    • Based on a meta-analysis of studies comparing online and face-to-face undergraduate biology courses, Biel and Brame (2016) found that well-designed online biology courses can be as effective as traditional courses in promoting student learning.  They also give three recommendations for effective online biology courses: 1) inclusion of an online orientation, 2) student-instructor and student-student interactions, and 3) course design that encourages self-reflection on the part of the learner.

    • Chen, Anderson, Hannah, Bauer, and Provant-Robishaw (2015) describe their experience collaborating in designing three high enrollment online nursing courses. They report on lessons learned in collaboratively designing large online courses which include things such as 1) setting up communication guidelines, 2) using interactive learning activities, and 3) providing roadmaps, study guides, and test-taking tips to students.

  • We also found several studies which reference the design of non-online undergraduate Biology courses.  These studies emphasize the application of active-learning principles:


    • Ueckert, Adams, and Lock (2017) conducted an action research on course redesign on a large-enrollment introductory biology course. The redesigned course emphasized the importance of learner-centered instruction, in which strategies such as active-learning strategies, think-pair-share, small-group work, web-based interactive tutorials, and shorter lectures with more interaction with the students were used. As a result, the redesigned course led to increased student satisfaction and greater consistency among different sections, which in turn, led to lower DFW rates.

    • In a study investigating the effects of active learning on an introductory biology course, Smith et al. (2017) found that the use of a case-based learning approach with authentic/research-oriented assessments helps students engage better with the contents. Students were stimulated to apply concepts learned to solve authentic problems.

    • 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 high-enrollment introductory biology class (Haak, HilleRisLambers, Pitre, & Freeman, 2011).

    • Lowenthal et. al. (2018, under review) did a research study on strategies for supporting high-enrollment courses at Boise State University.  According to survey results with online faculty at the University, several best practices for high-enrollment courses were identified including 1) Clear expectations and consistent course structure and 2) Clear communication and prompt feedback.

R2: Are online labs effective for a high-enrollment physiology/anatomy online course?  What strategies can be used in the integration of online labs?

  • Rebecca et al. (2018) conducted a study to evaluate student experience in online chemistry/organic chemistry laboratory courses. Comparing two different types of lab activities (hands-on for online general chemistry course vs. virtual for online organic chemistry course), the researchers concluded that students perceived the online laboratory experience was the same as or better than their prior experiences in the traditional setting. Also, data suggested that students who took online labs performed better than those who did not.

  • Gopal et al. (2010) conducted a study to identify if interactive technology tools can improve performance for the undergraduate anatomy and physiology lab students. In this case, they looked at an online tool designed to teach about the cardiovascular system. Statistical analysis revealed that those who used an interactive practice/test tool showed a significant improvement in their performance.

  • Diwakar et al. (2010) investigated the effects of 20 web-based virtual labs with more than 170 online experiments (content of experiments were not described in the study) in Biotechnology and Biomedical engineering disciplines for undergraduate and graduate students. Results implied that students were satisfied with the online labs, able to easily interpret the results of experiments and run the experiments without a problem. Usage case studies indicate remote labs can be a complementary educational tool to reinforce conceptual understanding, and for experiential learning.

  • Stefanie et al (2018) compared the learning outcomes between face-to-face and online anatomy classes using Blackboard Collaborate virtual classrooms. Online laboratories were offered using Blackboard Collaborate and three‐dimensional (3D) anatomical computer models. Final grades were statistically identical between the two groups.

  • University of Minnesota shares the five best practices to facilitate an online biology course with a lab. The best practices emphasize active learning strategies (e.g., authentic assessments, group learning) as well as the importance of instructional design (e.g., usability, explicit expectations, content of assessments, etc). The five best practices are: 1) Engage students in online interactive groups, 2) Create sequenced, varied, authentic assessments, 3) Build in maintainable sustainability, 4) Create a usable learning environment, and 5) Engage students in online interactive groups.

  • The use of authentic research assessments (content of assessments were not described in the study) in a face-to-face introductory biology lab course showed a significant increase in students’ understanding of the nature of authentic research and critical thinking (Gasper & Gardner, 2013).

  • Researchers stated that provision of guidance for supporting student inquiry in a science online lab is critical. Inquiry-based science courses follow a four-phase process: 1) orientation, 2) conceptualization, 3) investigation, and 4) conclusion. In a thorough literature review by Zacharias et al. (2015), effective means/tools to help students succeed in inquiry-based online science labs include 1) process constraints, 2) performance dashboard, 3) prompts, 4) heuristics, 5) scaffolds, and 6) direct presentation of information. Online labs refer to the virtual and remote labs offered through computer technology in this context.

Options for Virtual Anatomy & Physiology Labs

Suggestion for Implementations

How should this topic be implemented in an online course


List of links to references

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