Abstract Title
Real versus Virtual: Improving Students' learning by virtual labs


Christina Bendrik
Per Whiss
Andreas Eriksson
Anne-Christine Persson


7AA eLearning: Games, resources and platforms


Linkoping University - Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences - Linkoping - Sweden
Linkoping University - Department of Medical and Health Sciences - Linkoping - Sweden



The Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Linköping University in Sweden train students in medicine, biomedicine, biomedical laboratory sciences as well as in nursing and other health professions. Pharmacology is an important subject in many of the programs. The Faculty of Medicine and Health has been using Problem Based Learning (PBL) since 1986. In recent years the number of students has increased rapidly and there is a need to try out new and innovative learning tools.


Why use virtual labs?

Deep understanding of pharmacokinetics is crucial for patient safety  

Students often find pharmacological concepts hard to grasp

Real experiments are time consuming and expensive to carry out

Virtual laborations/computer simulations enable students to practice over and over again

With virtual laborations animal experiments can be avoided

With virtual laborations the use of hazardous chemicals can be decreased

Aim of the pilot study

To integrate a virtual lab in an existing course

To find out if students’ understanding of pharmacological concepts improve by using a virtual tool


A virtual lab software was used as a learning resource for Biomedical students

Four groups of totally 90 students carried out assignments using the virtual lab software

After completed assignment and a follow-up seminar, 35 of these students were asked to evaluate the virtual lab in a questionnaire and focus group interviews were performed in two tutorial groups with totally 16 students 


Summary of Results

 Data collection methods

In order to measure the results of the intervention different data collection methods were used.

  •   Questionnaires to all students 
  •   Focus group interviews with students
  •   Individual interviews with the participating teachers

Result from the Questionnaire

In a questionnaire to students from two Biomedical programmes, students were asked to rate perceived learning contribution of different teaching modalities in pharmacokinetics. Out of the 35 students 29 responded. The results indicated that the majority of students rated virtuel lab/computer simulation with a follow-up seminar nearly as high as lectures and tutorial groups. Results from Medical Biology students varied more than the results from Biomedical Laboratory Science programme. The main cause to low rating, as stated by several students in a section for "additional comments" in the questionnaire, was technical problems with the computer and simulation program.




















Rating of perceived learning contribution of teaching methods in pharmacokinetics by students at Biomedical laboratory Science programme (Coruse 3, n=12) and Medical Biology programme (Course 3, n=17). Rating 1 denotes very small and rating 4 denotes very large learning support. Bars show min to max with line at mean.




Results from the focus group interviews and interviews with teachers          

Focus group interviews with two tutorial groups from the Biomedical Laboratory Science programme (n=16) were carried out after the examination. Originally four interviews were planned, two from each program but unfortunately the students from the Medical Biology programme did not show up. An interview guide was used to give a time-line structure to the discussions in the group. Students were asked to report from the different learning activities and describe in detail what had been done and their thoughts about it. The students were also asked to report on how they approached the assignments and their own preparations for the seminar. How much time they had used for the virtual lab and if they experienced any trouble using the computer program also came up in the interviews. At the end of the interview they were asked to summarize and assess the different learning activities' contribution to their understanding. 

What did the students think?

  • In general the students reported that they had enjoyed the virtual lab and the way this had been integrated into the course
  • The possibility to experiment freely with the different parameters was particularly appreciated by the students
  • Most students reported having achieved a deeper understanding through the way the assignments were constructed and the virtual lab
  • Almost all students would recommend other students to use to the virtual lab program in order to get a better understanding


What did the teachers think?

  • The teachers reported that creating challenging assignments is time-consuming
  • They also spent quite some time helping students out with the computor problems
  • The teacher also reported major initial problems with the software



Summary of Work



This is how it was done

  • A computer aided learning module:  Pharmacokinetics Simulation v2.Ow, was purchased from CoAcS (Commercial and Academic Services Ltd, Bath, UK).

  • The module was installed and tested in the students' computer hall

  • Teachers prepared a number of assignments in a compendium for the students

  • Theoretical lectures and a PBL tutorial group work in pharmacokinetics proceeded the virtual labs

  • Teachers demonstrated one case in the virtual lab simulator for the entire class.

  • Students used thier textbooks and the Swedish official pharmacopeia to carry out the virtual lab simulations and to answer theoretical questions in the compendium individually or in small groups

  • The virtual lab work was followed up in a seminar for reflection and further analysis of the lab results



The results from the questionnnaire were more varied with a lower mean-rate on computer simulation and follow-up seminar for the Medical Biology students as compared to the Biomedical Laboratory Science students. This difference could be explained by the fact that Biomedical Laboratory Science students got a more thorough introduction to the simulation program and scheduled supervision to go ahead with the computer simulation and assignements in the compendium.

"The tail that wags the dog"

Furthermore this new approach did not result in better scores in the final examination for medical Biology students. This might be explained by the well known observation that students direct thier studies to what they think will be examined (Ramsden P,  2003).











Perspectives for the future

In order to increase students understanding of pharmacological concepts we need to change our current setup. Preferably, the students should start with solving easy introductory assignments on their own. A follow-up seminar should then be conducted where the students receive new tasks that enable them to apply their newly gained basic knowledge in more complex settings.


Take-home Messages


Lessons learned

  • Students enjoy experimenting on their own
  • Well-prepared  guidelines are essential
  • It’s important to aligne the virtual lab with other teaching modalities
  • Reflection on action is nessesary for deep learning
  • The technique must work all the time
  • Students who actually do the lab learn more then those who don't !

Reis M et al: Läkartidningen 2013 vol 110 p 2156-2157.

West and Veenstra: Austalian Journal of Education 2012 vol 56 p 56-57

Lisha J: Journal of Pharmacology and Pharmacotherapeutics 2013 4:(2):86-90

Morgan DL: Focus groups as qualitative research vol 16: 2:d edition; Sage Publications 1997

Ramsden P: Learning to tech in highet education: 2:d ed, 2003.


This study was supported by Linköping University Education Development Department for which we are most grateful.

We would also like to thank the univesity's IT-unit for thier support and patience when helping us to install and adjust the soft ware.We would also like to give a special thank to the CoAcS for helping our IT-technicians.

Last but not least we would like to thank all the students who participated in the study and gave us their time and insightful comments!

Thank You!




A recent study indicate poor understanding of basic pharmacological concepts among health care professionals (Reis Margareta et al: Läkartidningen 2013 vol 110 p 2156-2157). In this study newly graduated doctors and nurses were tested on their ability to apply pharmacological concepts in a clinical situation. The results were alarming and the authors suggest that students should be given better opportunities to achieve understanding of basic concepts.

In an article by West and Veenstra (Austalian Journal of Education 2012 vol 56 p 56-57) virtual labs are tested as an alternative to real laboratory work in physiology. The results show that students enjoy both types of laboratory work but that students suggest virtual labs as a complement to practical classes.

In a recent review made by Lisha in the Journal of Pharmacology and Pharmacotherapeutics 2013 4:(2):86-90, it is shown that computer assisted learning (CAL) of pharmacology  has many advantages particularly when it comes to increased understanding of complex concepts. Other advantages are also highlighted such as the decreased use of animals. The disadvantages that are often mentioned are lack of practical skills training and the dependence of computer support.




Summary of Results
Summary of Work

The programme can simulate several different routes of administration and allows the student to investigate how different pharmacokinetic parameters affects drug concentration in plasma (Figure 1 and 2).


Left. Screenshot showing the administration of four different intravenous bolus doses while keeping the volume of distribution (Vd) and the coefficient of elimination (k) constant.

Right. Screenshot showing the effect of different coefficients of elimination (k) while administering the  same single oral dose and keeping the bioavailability (F), volume of distribution (Vd) and coefficient of absorption (ka) constant.





Take-home Messages
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