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Meaningful Laboratory Experience

Meaningful Laboratory Experience

15 June, 2016

Laboratory work is based on the principle of “learning by doing” which assumes that students learn more effectively from hands-on experience and practical tasks. However, Coppola (2011) point out that “cookbook” laboratory instructions that need students to simply validate results through experiments that are repeated each year fail to involve students and have negligible effect on student learning.

Here are some techniques that will help you make traditional laboratory instructions more meaningful:

  1. Put the research task into a context by explaining its connection to world challenges.
  2. Outline the specific theoretical and behavioral skills that students will learn from the assigned experiment by referencing course text readings or lecture material, where possible.
  3. Show the research task as a puzzle instead of an assignment.
  4. Think about how you can make the research task more authentic; integrate flexibility into the assignment that enables room for individual hypothesis generation and discovery.

Replacing “cookbook” experiments with inquiry or discovery instruction and learning

Coppola (2011, p. 282-284) draws on Domin’s (1999) taxonomy of laboratory instruction styles to present how traditional laboratory tasks can be adapted to inquiry or discovery based instruction.

Inquiry Instruction

Instead of providing students with a predetermined outcome of the assigned experiment that they are then expected to replicate, distribute relevant information and ask them to formulate their own problem. This permits greater flexibility in experimental design and result interpretation and engenders a greater sense of student reasonability towards finishing task and replicability of measurements.

Discovery Instruction

Once you determine the learning and behavioral outcomes of a research task, you can let students to discover their own experimental procedure through guided discussion. By asking open-ended questions, steering students towards information from previous sessions and gradually guiding them towards the pre-planned experiment, you can lead your students on a journey of discovery that will personalize knowledge and stimulate their curiosity.

Problem Based Learning (PBL)

Coppola (2011) recommends using problem-based learning (PBL) in the context of a carefully chosen case study that students have to unravel over the course of the semester. Think about how you can frame the problem as a term-long investigation permitting students to develop and enhance investigative, procedural and communication skills.

Teaching Large Lab Classes

Teaching large-enrollment lab classes can be very difficult. It puts pressure on instructor time and makes it more challenging to involve students. The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan has determined the following useful strategies for effectively teaching laboratory classes.

  1. Introduce the lab using a concise, well-organized overview. Summarize salient concepts and theories and expected learning outcomes of the lab both orally and visually.
  2. If necessary, start the class by demonstrating key procedures or equipment usage, especially when students may be unfamiliar with the tools and techniques utilized for the assignment.
  3. Show background information visually. If students will need formulas or procedural steps, put them up where everyone can see them.
  4. Include moments of whole class instruction where appropriate. If more than three groups are struggling with the same problem stop the lab and give instruction or feedback to the whole class. Use this time to take other questions that students may have.
  5. Roam around the classroom. Be accessible to students. Spend several minutes talking to each group. Ask them to tell you what they are doing or if they have come across any obstacles.
  6. Stress willingness to talk outside class. Motivate students to take advantage of your office hours.
  7. Create an inclusive learning environment. Large-enrollment classes can be intimidating for students.