Facilitating Labs

Male Asian American student on grass assembles physics experiment


Most of the laboratory teaching by TAs at Stanford takes place in introductory-level laboratory courses. As a lab TA, you are really a facilitator, a person who is there to help people learn; if you keep that in mind, you will help make the laboratory a pleasant learning experience for students and a rewarding teaching experience for yourself.

Lab Basics

  • Each lab session typically lasts two hours and fifty minutes a week (three Stanford “hours”), during which students usually complete one experiment.
  • Some sections also include a one-hour discussion section.
  • Some of your lab section time may be devoted to explaining some of the finer points (and pitfalls) of the experiment or to addressing students’ questions on homework or lecture material.

Preparing for Your Lab Section

  • Find out what orientations, written materials, or procedures your particular department has for graduate students assisting with laboratory courses. In many cases you will have to complete a formal lab safety program before working or teaching in a lab.
  • Meet with the professor and other TAs to establish a regular method for preparing and reviewing labs each week.
  • Familiarize yourself with the laboratory room you’ll be teaching in, including the layout and equipment.
  • Find out the location of the first-aid kit, basic first-aid rules, and the procedure for getting emergency assistance. Then make sure the students know them, too!

Your First Lab Section

  • Go over the grading methods and requirements of the course.
  • Make sure the students know the procedures and rules for writing up and submitting their results.
  • Show students how to handle and care for the laboratory equipment they will be using.
  • Introduce students to any safety procedures and precautions.
  • You may want to let your students divide themselves into smaller groups of two to four lab partners. The exact number of lab partners per small group will depend on the actual class size, the number of experimental apparatus available for each lab session, and the wishes of the course professor.

Helping Lab Run Smoothly

  • Come into the lab well in advance and actually do the experiment yourself. Your students will come across a number of stumbling blocks in even the best-designed experiments; both you and they will benefit if you are as prepared as possible to help them over these difficulties by knowing the tricky or confusing parts of the experiments.
  • Shortly before class begins, make sure the lab is properly set up for the day’s experiments. For example, check water-bath temperatures and make sure all required apparatus is on hand and warmed up, if necessary.
  • Have students construct a flowchart of the procedures for each day’s experiments before coming into lab. Then, begin each lab period by reviewing the lab protocol and anticipating potential pitfalls.
  • As students conduct their experiments, circulate among the various groups and see how they are doing. Do not wait for them to approach you, especially in the first few weeks, since they may be hesitant to ask. This also gives you a chance to learn their names.
  • Because all labs and apparatus are shared, laboratory courtesy is important. Be sure to have your students clean up the lab benches before leaving. You may want to check and “okay” bench spaces as people leave.
  • If a piece of apparatus breaks, set it aside with an appropriate sign and notify the laboratory supervisor as soon as possible. This way the damaged equipment can be put back into service quickly, an important consideration when a limited number of pieces of equipment have to be used by a large number of students over a few days’ time.

Increase Student Learning

  • A few strategic questions, such as: “Once you plot these points on your graph, how are you going to find the best straight line through them?” or “Why do they tell you to make measurements with the current going both ways through the coil?” will help you figure out what the students understand and on what points they are still a little hazy.
  • You can also relate the experiment to current topics of research and embellish otherwise “cookbooky” labs by asking students to think about how their results (or the ones they hope for) relate to a larger, more basic scientific question. In a biology lab, for example, rather than having the students just identify plant pigments and learn a technique, you might also ask them to think about how the different properties of pigments relate to the evolution of plants’ coloration.
  • Another way to enliven experiments is to have students present short (five to ten minute) talks on related topics, perhaps for extra credit.
  • Offer supplemental readings and resources for students interested in learning more about a topic.