A deliberate approach to improving lab courses

A deliberate approach to improving lab courses

Impetus to change lab courses     

Prof. Heather LewandowskiA few years ago, Heather Lewandowski, associate professor of physics at the University of Colorado-Boulder and Fellow at JILA in experimental atomic, molecular, and optical physics, was noticing a problem. She often recruited undergraduate students to work in her lab, but felt that the students were lacking some fundamental lab skills – skills that should have been developed earlier.

She began looking into the lab courses, where she expected these skills would have been developed, and found that they were not teaching the transferable lab skills she was looking for. On top of that, course evaluations showed that students did not like the labs. At all. One day, she discussed with one of the strongest students whether they would pursue experimental physics after their degree. To her shock, the answer was no: the student said that the lab course had shown them that they were definitely not cut out for experimental physics.

This was enough impetus to make some change. Recently, Heather visited the Stanford Department of Physics to discuss and present the changes she has made as a result.

Three-step process to transform courses

Her team at CU-Boulder applied a three-step process for course transformation: identify the learning goals (What should students learn?); scientifically assess learning (what are students learning?); and develop curriculum (What instructional approaches improve student learning?).


Three coordinating aspects of the CU and CW Science Education Initiative course transformation model. (Zwickl, et al. (2013). Am. J. Phys. 81(1), 63–70.)

Three coordinating aspects of the course transformation model. (Zwickl, et al. (2013). Am. J. Phys., 81(1), 63–70.)

To do this, Heather directed her education efforts to improving these courses. She hired a physics education postdoc and they began interviewing a number of faculty in the department to try to narrow down the diverse set of goals for instructional labs. They focused on trying to prepare students to conduct experimental research in the future, asking, “What skills will they need to be competent researchers in my lab?”

They funneled the goals into four big ideas: Modeling, Design, Communication, and Technical Lab Skills. (This work has also contributed to the American Association of Physics Teachers’ endorsed set of goals for physics lab curriculum.) In her talk at Stanford, Heather said that it’s important to know what your goals are, but equally important to know what your goals are not. For example, deciding what their goals were not motivated Heather’s team to abandon formal lab reports as part of their course.

Changes to the lab course

In the course, they designed a suite of activities and video tutorials to teach some of the technical skills. Screencasts, especially, are useful to show students how to perform analysis or other tasks on the computer. In a screencast, the instructor uses software to capture the screen as she works through an activity, while also recording an audio voiceover explaining what she’s doing and why she’s doing it. A screencast can also be used for writing out solutions or derivations (called pencasts in this case) with audio explanations.

The team also put a lot of other work into structuring each of the activities to make sure they contributed towards developing all the goals, and did not require students to spend time or effort on things that were not goals.

Because Heather’s previous conversations with students had showed that they had strong negative feelings about the labs, and those feelings were negatively affecting their attitudes about experimental physics, she wanted to measure whether different course structures could change these attitudes.

Accordingly, she and her team developed the E-CLASS (The Colorado Learning and Attitudes about Science Survey for experimental physics), which asks students how much they agree or disagree with a number of statements about experimental physics. Many items probe their beliefs and perspectives about doing physics experiments (such as “When doing an experiment, I try to understand how the experimental setup works”). Each item asks for the student’s personal beliefs as well as what they think an experimental physicist would say about their research, to probe the distinction between what students do and what experts do. There are also specific questions that target students’ personal attitudes (such as “I don’t enjoy doing physics experiments”).

This survey is now being used to study the impact of different lab curricula and programs. At the University of British Columbia, for example, the survey was used to compare students’ attitudes after taking a traditional ‘cookbook’ lab course and an inquiry-oriented course. The researchers found that students’ opinions went down over the traditional course, but stayed neutral (and increased on some key items) in the inquiry course. Other research has shown that students generally hold more expert-like views about what experimental physicists would do than about their own views about doing experiments in class. Information about how to use this survey can be found through the University of Colorado Boulder Science Education Initiative website.

Lessons learned

Taking a deliberate (and scientific) approach to improving your courses can be a fruitful, albeit time consuming, task. This does not mean that you have to develop a validated survey instrument to assess your learning goals. Instead, start with these three steps:

  1. Write out the long list of what you want your students to be able to do by the end of the course.
  2. Don’t forget to keep in mind the things that you don’t need them to learn in your course.
  3. As you design each activity, assignment, and test, go back to that list to make sure the goals are being covered and no additional goals are creeping in.

   Natasha HolmesNatasha Holmes is a postdoctoral scholar in the Stanford Department of Physics.





Holmes, N.G., Ives, J., & Bonn, D.A. (2015). The impact of lab course learning goals on student attitudes about experimental physics. 2014 PERC Proceedings [Minneapolis, MN, July 30-31, 2014], edited by P. V. Engelhardt, A. D. Churukian, and D. L. Jones.

Zwickl, B. M., Hirokawa, T., Finkelstein, N., & Lewandowski, H. J. (2014). Epistemology and expectations survey about experimental physics: Development and initial results. Physical Review Special Topics - Physics Education Research, 10(1), 010120.

Zwickl, B.M., Finkelstein, N., & Lewandowski, H.J. (2013) The process of transforming an advanced lab course: Goals, curriculum, and assessments, American Journal of Physics, 81, 63.

See also

Thinking About Your Course Goals

Course Goals - Examples from Stanford Syllabi

How to Create Physicists  This Stanford physics professor redesigned her lab to help students think like scientists.