Exemplar: Dr Fiona Bird - Introduction to microscopy

At La Trobe there are some excellent practices of teaching and learning using flexible, online and blended approaches. This exemplar has been chosen to develop awareness and knowledge of how subjects and courses can use learning technologies to engage students and increase learning outcomes.

Learning under the virtual microscope

Dr Fiona Bird
Life sciences zoology

The challenge

Microscopy is an essential technical skill for biology students to master because they will use it throughout their undergraduate course and potentially in their working life.

Allocating time for students to practice laboratory skills such as microscopy is essential, and students are often not given the opportunity to develop that skill to an effective level. If students develop these essential skills independently, before they are required to apply them to new problems, then better learning outcomes are achieved with better use of laboratory time. The interactive, online module Introduction to Microscopy enables students to learn the components, function and correct adjustment of a compound microscope, and develop these, and develop these essential skills prior to their use in the laboratory.


The new Introduction to Microscopy online module was co-developed by Fiona Bird (Zoology) and staff at the University's Flexible Teaching and Learning Team (CTLC), to increase efficiencies in the use of costly, laboratory space and to reinvigorate a laboratory based exercise which was becoming increasingly difficult to run in a teaching laboratory with minimal and poorly performing audio-visual equipment.

The module combines explanatory text, video footage, static images and audio recordings to explain how a microscope works, explain magnification and describe the function of the different parts of the compound microscope. The module also contains problem solving exercises which allow students to interactively adjust a virtual microscope to achieve the best quality image possible.

What was done

The online module was introduced into the curriculum of the first year biology subject Animal Diversity, Ecology & Behaviour in 2009 and a comparison of student learning of microscopy was made between the interactive, online module and the existing laboratory based exercise which had been used for many years.

Critical success factors

The virtual microscope in the online Introduction to Microscopy module enabled independent learning that could be effectively brought to application and laboratory work. Overall, the virtual microscope in achieved better learning outcomes than the traditional laboratory exercise. This finding agrees with other studies that have shown that virtual laboratory exercises, such as dissections and experiments, can result in conceptual learning outcomes equivalent to wet laboratory exercises. 

Future plans

Embedding the online module in the curriculum of all four first year biology subjects will streamline the teaching of microscopy at La Trobe University and provide additional opportunities for students to practice and consolidate their knowledge of how to use a microscope. Flexible delivery of this learning resource (via the University's learning management system) will allow students to revise as needed through the year. 


Bird, F.L. (2010). A comparison of the effectiveness of an interactive, online module versus a laboratory based exercise which introduces microscopy to first year biology students. Proceedings of the 16th UniServe Science Annual Conference, University of Sydney, 29 September - 1 October, 2010. pp 13-17.