Learning to use a microscope

Learning to use a microscope


Learning microscopy is a competency that is a fundamental part of most biology courses. Microscopes have several controls, each of which can be set to various positions. As a result, there are many possible combinations of settings, almost all of which are wrong and degrade the image! Yet, an experienced microscopist will take only 30 seconds to set up a microscope correctly.

Teaching the theory and practice of setting up the microscope can take an hour or more and this needs to be followed by appropriate practice and remediation. Closed-circuit television systems can aid in the teaching process but do not solve the more basic problems.

What appears on the television system is not the same as each student sees in their microscope. The novice microscope user does not know exactly how images should appear and how much difference from the television image is tolerable so the student cannot necessarily flag a problem. And the teacher cannot check every microscope at each stage of setting up. Furthermore, microscopy is often taught very early in courses, when students are still new to the institution and reluctant to be too conspicuous.

This tutorial uses a virtual microscope to teach basic operation of the microscope. Each control is described, its effect is shown with an explanation of why it needs to be adjusted and the student is then shown how to set the control correctly, finally being asked to set it correctly (judged by the computer).

On completion of the tutorial, there is an interactive test which judges not only the correct final settings but that these have been carried out in the correct sequence and following correct procedures. The system stores a report on each student’s performance.

Some days later, a laboratory session commences with a brief hands-on ‘refresher’ tutorial using a real microscope.