Getting Started with Laboratory Instruction
Preparing for a laboratory course
- Start by articulating the learning outcomes. What skills and knowledge do you want students to gain as a result of participating in the lab?
- For each experiment that you assign, ask yourself the following question: What is the “real world” significance of the methods taught and the theory illustrated?
- Take into account the following points when planning the lab:
- How will you introduce each session? How long will you talk about theory and objectives before letting students start? How can you reinforce the relationship between the lab experiment and course lecture material, where appropriate?
- Will the experimental procedures require a demonstration from you? If so, what will you show and what will you leave up to the students to discover?
- Who will be in the sessions? Are the students novices or are they already familiar with standard lab procedures?
- What safety information will students need? How will you provide it?
- How will you incorporate diversity and create an inclusive learning environment so that all students will feel comfortable participating?
Working with TAs effectively
Laboratories may be part of a large lecture course with lab sections being led by a team of TAs or they may be stand-alone courses where TAs help out during the session. In both cases it is important to work effectively with your TAs to create a seamless learning experience for the students.
The following are some strategies:
- Communicate course goals and learning outcomes.
- If the lab is part of a larger lecture course, invite TAs to attend the lectures and introduce them to the students.
- Set a support network among TAs that motivate communication and cooperation.
- Hold regular meetings to discuss teaching strategies and any issues TAs may be having. Make sure that everyone is on track and offer support if the need arises.
- Motivate a peer review process by having TAs observe and provide feedback on each other’s lab.
- Offer to sit in on TAs’ lab sessions to provide feedback on their approaches.
Planning for the first session
- Lay the foundation. Students come into lab sessions with different levels of experience. The first lab session should go over basic procedures and lab etiquette. Since students come into lab sessions with different levels of experience, it is important that in the first lab session, the procedures and lab etiquette should be presented. The following should be discussed: the main objectives, learning outcomes, expectations about attendance and lab reports , grading procedure and active engagement. An inclusive environment should be created.
- Create engaging content. Think about how you can make the lab exciting for your students. Are there any interesting historical or current anecdotes related to the experiments in this course? What are the “real world” aspects of the experiments? Putting the experiments into a context and explaining their importance encourages students and gets them excited about the course. Assign pre-lab exercises that ask students to read about the theoretical background and practical implications of the experiments.
- Get to know your audience. Getting to know students and their reasons for being in the class can help you relate with students and knowing your students’ backgrounds can inform your teaching. Have students write a short biography or answer a few questions for you to collect and review.
- Establish rules for lab safety: Most departments in the sciences cover general lab safety during orientation, but make sure to reiterate these safety procedures during the first session. Replace the traditional list of “do’s and don’ts” of laboratory safety with a safety video or a stimulating demonstration. Senkbeil & Crisp (2004) describe several interesting safety demonstrations for science laboratories.
- Discuss research ethics: Often times, students are so concentrated on procedures and results that they forget the ethical dimensions of research. Utilize the first lab session to discuss ethical implications of research, including data handling, laboratory management, and confidentiality. Give examples of controversial research to stimulate debate. If the experiments involve human subjects, make sure that all the students go through IRB training.
- Make it fun to participate. Students in a laboratory setting may not have the time to interact with colleagues outside their lab group. Icebreakers designed as ‘get to know you’ activities or ‘get to know more about the class’ activities are a great way to create a sense of community and support network among the students, motivating them to learn from peers throughout the semester.