Customer Story

Digitizing a Print Biology Lab Manual Using Top Hat


Total percent of the final grade that comes from Top Hat questions


Number of semesters using an interactive Top Hat lab manual


Number of print lab manuals converted to Top Hat

Indiana University East campus is shown.

The Challenge

Translating an in-person lab manual to a fully asynchronous online setting

The pandemic may have accelerated the shift towards online course materials, but students favored digital learning tools long before. It’s an ongoing trend Mary Blakefield, Associate Professor of Biology, has observed throughout her 25 years at Indiana University East. In 2020, her mixed-majors course with lab—Introduction to Biological Sciences II (BIOL-L102)—was piloted online for the first time to meet student demands for flexible learning. But as Blakefield quickly learned, it was next to impossible to make her online lab just as interactive as her in-person one. “My ultimate goal is for students to have a good experience in Biology,” she says. 

The print materials used for her in-person lab component couldn’t easily be converted to an online format. Plus, paper assignments only created an administrative nightmare. Blakefield initially began her online pilot by posting worksheets and asking students to print and complete their work by hand, scanning and returning their assignment. Managing several weekly submissions made for a less than ideal experience for both her and her students. One year later, a campus visit from a Top Hat representative made Blakefield aware of a more sustainable, impactful way to host her virtual lab. It’s what led her to convert her original print resources to an interactive, digital-first format using the dynamic courseware platform—promoting the interactivity and accountability that her static resources simply couldn’t offer.

The Solution

Converting a static print lab manual to an interactive digital resource

Making learning enjoyable. Offering interactive examples to put biological processes into practice. Automating grading. Blakefield shared these objectives with Top Hat’s Learning Solutions team at the beginning of the digital-to-print conversion process—and all three became a reality with her new Top Hat lab manual. After the team drafted a sample chapter using her assigned materials, Top Hat provided training for Blakefield to swap out questions, diagrams and media to keep her manual up-to-date at all times.

Blakefield no longer struggles to gauge how students are faring academically. The real-time insights from the new lab manual are largely to thank. For example, students enjoy learning how desert mice adapt to their environment through embedded videos. Her class can also demystify theoretical concepts—such as natural selection—using illustrations, multiple-choice and discussion questions spread across chapters. The best part for a busy educator? Question responses are automatically graded, while responses to short-answer questions allow Blakefield to provide individualized feedback through the easy-to-use gradebook.

The Results

Turning online students into accountable and active learners

Converting a static, print lab manual to a dynamic resource with Top Hat has given Blakefield and her students greater autonomy than ever before. Blakefield uses automatically-generated poll scores to tailor her lessons accordingly. “There are some areas that take students by surprise, such as evolution which uses a bit of algebra. After using this lab manual, I was able to identify specific knowledge gaps. I could put in more practice questions to shore up weaker areas. Now, a higher percentage of students are answering correctly,” she says.

The students who learn purely online and at their own pace are now given an incentive to complete their lab readings and assigned questions. Although polls and short-answer questions within the manual account for 21 percent of the final grade, Blakefield reduces the pressure by giving students multiple attempts to answer each question without penalty. The manual also grants students additional flexibility in their learning process. “Some students join a bit late in the semester and are able to catch up because they can complete modules on their own time. Top Hat also adapts really well to online students in different time zones,” Blakefield shares.

Blakefield is committed to helping her STEM colleagues move away from expensive print material and toward interactive alternatives. In Summer 2022, she converted a second print lab manual, used in Introduction to Biological Sciences I, to Top Hat’s dynamic courseware platform. While the course is offered in person, students are no longer expected to purchase a printed lab manual. Instead, students use the digital lab manual to record data, upload photos of experiments and answer questions directly on their personal devices that they bring to class. After nearly two-and-a-half decades at her institution, Blakefield couldn’t be more content with the improvement to accountability, interactivity and engagement she’s seen. And her students couldn’t be, either.

“After using this lab manual, I was able to identify specific knowledge gaps. I could put in more practice questions to shore up weaker areas. Now, a higher percentage of students are answering correctly.”

Mary Blakefield is shown.
Mary Blakefield Associate Professor of Biology at Indiana University East
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