Different tools have been used to facilitate the teaching and learning process in different areas of knowledge. Practical activities represent a form of teaching in which students not only listen to theoretical concepts but are also able to link theory and practice, and their importance in the biological sciences is notable. Sometimes, however, there is neither the time nor the resources to promote laboratory practices in physiology classes. In this sense, home-based practical activities may be an interesting alternative. Here, different approaches of practical activities were used and students’ perceptions of the contributions of home-based practical activities (HBPA) and laboratory-based practical activities (LBPA) for physiology learning were collected. After each approach, the students evaluated the activities through an anonymous questionnaire. A total of 49 students completed the questionnaires, and the results demonstrate that both HBPA and LBPA were considered important contributors to physiology learning but that this contribution was more significant in the case of LBPA (χ2 = 4.356, P = 0.037).
laboratory practices are widely used in the teaching of scientific concepts in biology and other sciences, and they increase students’ interest, motivation, scientific practical skills, problem-solving abilities, and understanding of the nature of science (13). Practical activities are an interactive method of teaching and are important for ensuring that students are not only listening to the concepts but also actually understanding the topic and associating theory and application (19).
Human physiology is one of the basic sciences that is essential for professional practice in health and biological science, in addition to biochemistry, neuroscience, molecular biology, immunology, pathology, pharmacology, and others. The contents of physiology will be essential in students’ future professional practice and to promote critical thinking and decision making, to associate information, and to make the student/professional capable of precisely differentiating the physiological from the pathological (8). However, undergraduate students in health and biological areas may experience difficulties with basic and complex topics in human physiology. These difficulties increase the importance of using practical approaches to help students in understanding physiology (6, 19).
It is known that, for ethical reasons, animal experimentation is no longer used in practical classes. In 1994, Samsel et al. (18) proposed a new approach to teaching practical physiology, using computer simulations to teach cardiovascular physiology, instead of animals. Since then, more strategies have been proposed to replace the use of animals for teaching purposes (2, 16). Nonetheless, practices occasionally need to be adequate according to the available resources and the structure of the laboratory/room/university, which has made professors use alternative methods of practical teaching (16, 18) or other methods instead. Some inexpensive methods, such as the use of video clips (11), puzzles (17), and other games (4), can be interesting alternatives. All of these strategies require creative work and planning by the professor and also should be based on evidence to ensure that professors are improving the teaching process (14). However, although these alternatives are valid and help students’ learning, they do not actually replace practical work.
So practical activities are important in the teaching of human physiology, but sometimes it is hard promote this type of teaching at some universities. Sometimes the university does not have either the laboratories or time in the curriculum for this. Considering this reality, we propose to compare the effectiveness of home-based (HBPA) and laboratory-based practical activities (LBPA) in physiology learning according students’ perceptions. Household practices can be performed in a shorter period of time and also at the student’s convenience; these are a great advantage because students in the health area sometimes must spend a considerable amount of time in lectures (15). Thus, we proposed two types of physiology practical activities (HBPA and LBPA) to undergraduate students of human physiology courses and evaluated their perception about these two different approaches. According to our knowledge, this is the first time that the use of HBPA was evaluated and compared with LBPA.
The practical activities considered here were developed with students in the Human Physiology course, which was taught in the first year of nursing, and physiotherapy undergraduate courses at Federal University of Pampa, Uruguaiana campus (Brazil). This proposal was referred to the Institutional Education Committee for evaluation and was approved (IRB no. 10.078.14).
Home-based practical activities were used in the first half of the semester (6 wk, 1 h/wk); in the second half, the practices were performed in the university’s physiology laboratory (6 wk, 1 h/wk) with the presence of the professor and the tutor (Fig. 1). None of the proposed practices used animals, and all of the practices were safe to perform.
Regarding the home-based practical activities (HBPA), first the students received instructions in a guide containing the aims and the materials and methods of each experiment so that they could then guide themselves through it. To perform the experiments, the students were oriented to work by themselves alone or in small groups and afterwards to note their results and answer the discussion questions proposed by the professor in the guide.
The laboratory-based practical activities (LBPA) worked in the same way; however, in this case, the professor and the teaching assistants were with the students in the laboratory during the experiments.
Home-based practical activities.
Considering the period of the semester, the themes of the HBPA included different experiments regarding cell membrane transport, electrophysiology, and neuromuscular synapse. It is important to highlight that the proposed practical activities could also be developed in the laboratory.
In the activities concerning cell membrane transport, the students could view the process of osmosis to study the importance of the environment for the morphological and functional characteristics of the cell, understanding the mechanisms of molecule and ion movement through the membrane. For these practices, simple materials that the students could buy at a supermarket (such as sugar, salt, potatoes, and eggs) were necessary. They were supposed to take photos and notes to describe the experiment in a report that was then supposed to be delivered to the professor.
In the activities concerning electrophysiology, the students could view the properties of nervous system cells and the bioelectric potential of the membrane. They were supposed to describe the different ionic channels of the cellular membrane and the differences in ion concentration between the intra- and extracellular environments using an online freeware program that permitted the students to manipulate the membrane and environmental conditions and observe the results (link for the website used: http://nedbook.adam.com/pages/ipweb/systems/systems/nervous1/index.html).
In the activity concerning neuromuscular synapse, the purpose was to observe and understand the phenomenon of synaptic potentiation. The students were supposed to perform the task in pairs according to the following steps: 1) one of the students was supposed to be next to the wall with the outside of his/her arm leaning against it; 2) the student would attempt to raise the arm in abduction against the wall, continuing to attempt this movement for 1.5 min (the other student would monitor the time); and 3) when this time had elapsed, the student was supposed to completely move away from the wall, leaving the arm relaxed. At this stage, the arm normally does abduction without voluntary command, which could be explained by the accumulation of acetylcholine due to synaptic potentiation. This is another example of the HBPA that were developed.
Laboratory-based practical activities.
The LBPA included topics such as skeletal muscle contraction, somatic motor responses, reflexes, and voluntary movements. It is important to highlight that the proposed practices could also be adapted according to the HBPA model. These practices required simple materials, such as a reflex hammer (which could be substituted for by another adapted instrument), a dynamometer (which could be substituted for by a tennis ball), a stopwatch, and others. As with the HBPA, the students were supposed to make a report to deliver to the professor. The difference here was that the professor and the teaching assistant were guiding the students, who were working in small groups, and all of them were performing the experiments simultaneously and could ask questions at any time. Simultaneously, the professor and the teaching assistants stimulated critical discussions and the development of hypotheses to explain the results observed over the course of the experiments.
It is important to highlight that, although different themes and experiments were used on HBPA and LBPA, they were proposed to be equally difficult/easy.
Evaluation of the proposed methods of practical activities.
After each step, the students evaluated the activities through an anonymous questionnaire (Fig. 1). The questionnaire applied to evaluate the HBPA is detailed in Table 1, and the questionnaire used to evaluate the LBPA is detailed in Table 2. In the second evaluation, questions comparing the two types of practical activities were included.
After obtaining the responses, to compare the students’ perceptions of the HBPA and LBPA, questions A, B, and D, which were common to both evaluations, were analyzed through chi-square test (χ2). For analysis of the chi-square test results, we used the contingency table (2 × 2) and considered the answer of “partly” as “no”. The differences were considered significant at P < 0.05. The remaining results are described and presented as a percentage or as the total number of responses (n) in each option.
A total of 49 physiology students completed the questionnaires, 19 from nursing and 30 from physiotherapy undergraduate courses. The mean age of the participants (n = 49) was 22.18 (± 5.80) yr. The mean age for the males (20.4%; n = 10) was 22 (± 5.52) yr, whereas that of the females (79.6%; n = 39) was 22.31 (± 6.04) yr.
Home-based practical activities.
Most of students thought that the HBPA contributed to their learning of the physiology contents (74.5%; n = 36), and 55.5% (n = 27) affirmed that the proposed activities were not so easy, but they were also not difficult to execute (Table 1). When questioned about the experimental guide that they received, 27 students (55.5%) thought that the instructions provided in it were easy to understand (Table 1). A total of 79.6% of the students (n = 39) affirmed that the discussion questions proposed after the HBPA contributed positively to the learning process (Table 1). Additionally, 31 students (63.3%) characterized the activity as interesting, 32 (65.3%) reported that the activities allowed for a better understanding of the physiology contents, 10 students (20.4%) considered the activity to be fun, and 20 students (40.8%) reported that the activities stimulated their curiosity and desire to better understand the science (Table 1).
Finally, 34 students (69.4%) affirmed that they were able to visualize the presence of physiology in their lives after the HBPA (Table 1).
Laboratory-based practical activities.
A total of 44 students (90%) thought that the LBPA were important, and 45 (91.8%) considered them to be easy to execute (Table 2). Considering the presence and assistance of the professor and the teaching assistant, 45 (91.8%) students answered that their presence was essential for the class (Table 2). When asked whether the issues proposed for discussion contributed to their physiology learning, 93.8% of the students (n = 46) answered yes (Table 2).
Comparison of HBPA and LBPA.
Considering the contribution of the activities to physiology learning, the contribution of LBPA was considered more significant (χ2 = 4.356; P = 0.037). Concerning the level of difficulty in the execution of the activities, we observed that the LBPA were considered (χ2 = 34.423, P = 0.000) easier.
Regarding the contribution of the questions proposed for discussion at the end of the activity, the students thought that the questions proposed for the LBPA contributed more to their learning than the questions proposed for the HBPA (χ2 = 4.346, P = 0.037).
In the last questions of the second questionnaire, where a comparison of the two types of practical activities was made (Table 2), 38 students (77.5%) affirmed that the LBPA were the best form of practical activities, and 13 students (26.5%) considered that alternating between LBPA and HBPA was the best physiology practical approach (Table 2). Regarding the advantage of the preferred practical activity, 32 students (65.3%) highlighted the presence of the professor and/or the teaching assistant, and 20 (40.8%) noted the laboratory environment as an important advantage of the LBPA. On the other hand, of the students that indicated that they preferred to alternate between LBPA and HBPA, six students (12.2%) noted as the main advantage the convenience of meeting the working group and five students (10.2%) the optimization of time (Table 2).
Our results highlight the importance of practical activities in facilitating the learning of human physiology, as verified previously by other authors (1, 10, 12, 20). As expected, the students generally prefer the LBPA to the HBPA mainly because of the presence of the professor and/or the teaching assistant. However, the students considered the HBPA very well and agreed that this type of activity contributes to their physiology learning and understanding. Furthermore, they considered the HPBA interesting and a good tool to help them to perceive the presence of physiology in their everyday lives. Thus, we can affirm that, when LBPA are not possible because there is neither time in the course curriculum nor the appropriate room or laboratory at the university to develop these types of activities, HBPA are a possible and easy alternative that can be considered to improve the teaching/learning process. Regardless of the type, i.e., either HBPA or LBPA, the idea is that practical activities allow students to discuss issues relating to theoretical classes and their applicability to everyday life and professional life and to exercise their capacity for critical analysis.
When using HBPA, the professor needs to decide how much the students are able to learn by themselves and how much they will need guidance, giving the students the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to become self-directed learners, making the students more responsible. It is important to develop these abilities with undergraduate students because it seems that those who are already accustomed to the traditional curriculum have more difficulties in being successful in more active teaching and learning processes (19) and the lack of autonomy can impair not only the behavior but also the learning and development of the social skills of the student (21). Also, to promote HBPA, the professor can use different methods that could improve the comprehension of the contents, for example, stimulating the practices by having two or more students together at “home,” which could promote more discussion.
Our results demonstrate that, according to the view of the students, practical activities are important for the teaching and learning of physiology. These findings agree with previous studies that confirm that simply telling someone information does not guarantee that learning will occur (7). In this sense, currently, we can note efforts in science education to end the learning method of rote memorization of unrelated facts and to search for methods that emphasize a better conceptual understanding of the basics, considering that the development of basic skills is as important as learning (19). Both of the methods of practical activities proposed here were able to help in the learning of physiology and had positive results according to student perceptions. The use of HBPA can be an effective tool as an alternative methodology when laboratory-based practical activities are not possible. Our findings corroborate Gopalan and Glasheen (9), who used a similar methodology involving home study that was proposed to students before class. These authors found that this approach helped students know how to study, helped them better understand the concepts of physiology, and improved their participation during class.
The use of practical activities in physiology is not a new idea; instead, it is an old and common practice, but it is very effective in contributing to better learning theoretical content, sparking the interest of students and thus making them able to understand questions and the situations of their everyday lives. Thus, practical activities can be considered to be fundamental for the acquisition of new skills, which are required in these courses, and these experiences can help strengthen students’ conceptual understanding of the content (5). In our experience, most students considered the LBPA to be easier than the HBPA, but this does not mean that HBPA are not efficient. Although the experiments were designed to be equally easy/difficult, it is important consider that different contents and experiments were used in HBPA and LBPA, so it is not implausible that one had been more difficult than the other. But this finding may be related to the presence of the professor and the teaching assistant, who assist in the implementation of activities during the experiments, in addition to the fact that LBPA become an opportunity for collaborative learning that encourages students to form self-explanations, explicitly articulating their own understanding (3). In turn, HBPA are well evaluated by students and can be an alternative when the laboratory is not available or the course does not include practical time.
In the present work, the different methods of the practical activities proposed were applied at different times of the semester and to the same group of students; for this reason, the practical activities used in the HBPA and the LBPA were different (different experiments and different themes). This is a limitation of our study; however, this design permitted the students to directly compare the HBPA and the LBPA because they experienced both.
It is important to highlight here that all of the practical activities used in this work were adapted to avoid the use of animals. The aim of this report is not to describe them, but many examples of alternative practices can be found in the Sourcebook of Laboratory Activities in Physiology section in Advances in Physiology Education.
Practical activities can be considered an important tool for elucidating and improving students’ understanding of physiology. LBPA are preferred by students over HBPA, but both HBPA and LBPA were considered important contributors to physiology learning.
No conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise, are declared by the authors.
B.-H.S.d.N., C.D.C.A., and P.B.M.-C. conception and design of research; B.-H.S.d.N., C.D.C.A., R.G., M.V.S.d.L., and P.B.M.-C. performed experiments; B.-H.S.d.N. and P.B.M.-C. analyzed data; B.-H.S.d.N., C.D.C.A., R.G., M.V.S.d.L., and P.B.M.-C. interpreted results of experiments; B.-H.S.d.N. and P.B.M.-C. prepared figures; B.-H.S.d.N., C.D.C.A., R.G., M.V.S.d.L., and P.B.M.-C. drafted manuscript; B.-H.S.d.N., C.D.C.A., and P.B.M.-C. edited and revised manuscript; B.-H.S.d.N., C.D.C.A., R.G., M.V.S.d.L., and P.B.M.-C. approved final version of manuscript.
We thank all of the undergraduate students that contributed to and participated in the development of the described actions and the Federal University of Pampa for the support and cooperation with the proposed work.
- Copyright © 2017 the American Physiological Society