The laboratory is an exciting place where students investigate, analyze, and reflect. They test and apply theories and make abstract concepts concrete.
However, the processes of investigation don’t always run smoothly, and students need guidance to make sense of their results. Here are some strategies for designing and supervising effective lab sections.
Planning a laboratory course involves making several kinds of important decisions:
- What projects/experiments will you assign?
- How can you best integrate the teaching of theory with the related labs?
- How will you balance and organize cooperative and independent study in the lab?
- What equipment will you need?
As a first step in making all of these decisions, consider both the content and the inquiry skills that you want students to master: your content goals indicate what you want to cover, while your inquiry goals should direct how your students will interact with this material and which skills they will need.
Choice of Projects
Base your choice of projects on the stated goals of the course’s lab component. In general, appropriate goals are:
- to help students understand theory by observing and verifying concepts
- to have them go through research and design processes
- to help them improve their powers of reasoning by manipulating cause-and-effect relationships
- to acquaint them with essential equipment
These goals involve higher-order thinking skills that cannot be attained without the direct, creative involvement of the student. If we routinely structure the learning to “make sense,” or to ensure a certain result, we short-circuit the processes that inquiring learners might follow and limit the skills they will develop in the process.
Projects driven fully by student inquiry require time, careful planning, and close, interactive support. The payoff for such effort is the increased level of student engagement and the development of analytical and problem-solving skills.
Consider designing experiments that build on your research to leverage the expertise you and your TAs have, as Prof. Tad Fukami did in Biology 44Y.
Integration with Theory
When planning the course schedule, it is essential to coordinate the teaching of concepts with their laboratory applications.
As you attempt to blur the line between lecture and lab, think broadly about real constraints and accept as few artificial disjoints as possible. What bridges can you build between the two? Are there aspects of your lab course that can be brought into the lecture room and vice versa? Be sure to coordinate lectures, assigned readings, and supplemental references.
Many laboratory projects are conducive to group learning, which can take place both inside the lab and outside of class, during post-lab discussions or small-group study sessions. Besides offering students the benefits of learning from each other, group work readies students for conditions in the outside world, where most scientific or technical projects involve teams of people.
Early in the course, you may want to divide your students into lab and/or study groups of two to four partners. Because different experiments require different numbers of apparatus, some weeks you may have to consolidate two of these small groups or otherwise reorganize things, but keep in mind that four is a good upper limit if you want each student to actively participate.
It is especially useful to ask the students to divide complex projects into parts and to coordinate individual tasks. If needed, a lab assistant can help with the coordination. With this approach, students can take responsibility for one part of the project while maintaining an appreciation for the design and concepts of the whole project.
Select the most appropriate equipment for each experiment and make sure that it is in working order, with clear instructions for its use available to students. The equipment should be neither so complex nor so rudimentary as to undermine the point of the procedure.
Plan Each Experiment
To ensure that lab exercises run smoothly and that students don't run into ambiguous directions or computational difficulties, follow these planning steps before every experiment:
- The professor and lab assistants or TAs should rehearse the procedure before the lab sections and review the results afterwards
- Prepare lab assignments at least a week in advance
- Try out each experiment, or have a TA try it out, before giving students the assignment sheet
- Make sure that the requirements are feasible and clearly stated and that the specific numbers chosen produce the desired results
Reviewing Each Experiment
After each experiment, your lab scheduling should include time for the instructor and/or TA to review the results of the exercise with the class. This step is essential to help the students check their individual conclusions and understand the results in relation to the theories of the course. Class discussion will also enable you to identify any problems with the lab procedures so that you can correct them for the next session.