Monday, 24 April 2017 09:37

Assessing Student Learning in the Introductory Microbiology Lab

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Published in Teaching Microbiology
Photo: Cdbrice00 at English Wikipedia Photo: Cdbrice00 at English Wikipedia

Written by Merrilee Anderson, Ph.D.

Assessing student learning is a vital part of the educational process. Most colleges and universities recognize its importance and have developed tools like rubrics for written assignments or specialized assessments for active learning strategies. In an introductory microbiology lab, one common goal is to increase student skills with the microscope, including the ability to properly stain a bacterial specimen. But what is the best way to assess improvement in these skills? We can test students in the traditional manner, perhaps by having them label a microscope diagram or identify cells or structures in a histological image. However, this doesn’t account for the ability to use the equipment properly and effectively. Nor does it engage the student in active learning, which increases student performance in science courses.

Mount Aloysius College, like many small undergraduate institutions, faces several challenges to changing “traditional” laboratory assessments in the introductory microbiology course. These include a lack of prerequisite coursework, a mix of biology majors and nonmajors in the same course, and multiple sections taught by different faculty members, including adjuncts. We’ve had great success in our anatomy & physiology series by naming an anatomy & physiology coordinator who fosters similar experiences across multiple sections of the course – this is something we are considering implementing for introductory microbiology. As my department considers changes to our biology curriculum overall, we plan to implement better assessment of the laboratory experience and focus on measuring hands-on lab skills. In preparing to do this, I have been gathering best practices related to assessing student performance in microbiology.

Several resources that tackle this issue have been published by ASM’s Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education (JMBE), including “Task Books as an Assessment Tool for Demonstrating Basic Lab Skills in a Microbiology Course.” The Task Books approach requires the student to demonstrate proficiency on a checklist of laboratory skills, and allows for repeated attempts until success is shown. A second resource, “The Recording of Student Performance in the Microbiology Laboratory as a Training, Tutorial, and Motivational Tool” describes the use of Student Performed Digital Recording to enhance the skills and motivation of students to correctly demonstrate the Gram stain technique. It was a useful supplement to other course resources, particularly for peers to analyze errors. 

Has your institution developed a method with an active learning component or active assessment for the laboratory? Submit it to JMBE! Educators can relay the benefits and challenges presented by using active learning assessment in the laboratory.  

What are your experiences in using active learning assessment? Are there gaps in the active learning literature related to microbiology? Let us know in the comments below.  


Dr. Merrilee Anderson has served in a variety of teaching and administrative roles since she began working at Mount Aloysius College in 2000.  She enjoys searching for diatoms, teaching undergraduates, and learning from her colleagues in the Allegheny Branch of ASM.



Bethany Adamec is a Science Education Specialist at ASM, where she communicates about ASM’s work in student and faculty professional development, supports the ASM Education Board, and works with colleagues to promote evidence-based education reform.