Experimenting with Labs

How can I help my students get the most out of their lab experiences?
—J., Tennessee

A lab that follows a step-by-step “recipe” does not challenge students to think much. Allowing them to design their own experimental procedures and identify variables and controls is a very powerful teaching method.

General advice:

  • Safety is always first! Educate students about this.
  • Teach students how to ask a scientific question.
  • Integrate questions throughout the lab to guide and elicit thinking.
  • Remind any student who asks, “Is this right?” that there is no “right” or “wrong” answer, just data to be collected and analyzed.
  • Peer review and group self-evaluations often motivate students to work more diligently.

Before the lab:

  • Test labs yourself well ahead of time to identify issues including safety, equipment needs, most likely errors, possible substitutions, and potential bottle-necks. Time the lab and add extra time for students to set up and clean up!
  • Have students read over instructions and ask/answer questions.
  • Teach the skills students will need (titrating, measuring, cutting, and so on).
  • Assigning students to groups may minimize socializing.

During the lab:

  • Have students set out and put away equipment
  • Provide a timeline with milestones for the period
  • Circulate, observe, and check on progress

After the lab:

  • Conduct a post-lab debrief. Discussing errors and contradictory results are excellent teaching moments.
  • Reflection and writing typically have more ‘minds on’ value than filling in blanks.
  • Pay attention to the process more than the product.
  • Give students examples and a list of resources to complete reports.
  • Explain expectations for reports, give exemplars and a list of resources. Provide a scoring rubric.

Hope this helps!

Photo Credit: MR1882 (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

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One Comment

  1. Harry E. Keller
    Posted January 29, 2018 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Those are good ideas. Here’s a quick list of what I consider the really important parts.

    1. Do not tell the students what results to expect beforehand.
    2. Do have a post-lab session wherein students can present and discuss results.
    3. Provide lab experiences that work and that you have prepared and tested yourself.
    4. Do not mark off for incorrect results as long as the student explains them.
    5. Do not substitute simulations for investigating the real world.

    You can use online real experiments with hands-on measurement to extend, prepare for, or, occasionally, substitute for actual, physical, in-person labs.

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