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Teaching Labs

Laboratory instruction allows students to engage in practicum experiences and authentic discovery, apply theory to practice, and explore different methods of scientific inquiry while addressing current debates in the field and generating new knowledge.  

Getting Started with Laboratory Courses

  1. How can you prepare for a laboratory course?
  2. How can you work with TAs effectively?
  3. What should you plan for the first session?

Teaching and Learning in Laboratory Courses

  1. How can you make the laboratory experience more meaningful for students?
  2. How can you replace “cookbook” experiments with more engaging techniques?
  3. How can you teach large lab classes?
  4. How can you grade individual versus group contributions?
  5. How can you provide effective feedback?
  6. How can you improve students’ report writing skills?

Getting Started with Laboratory Instruction

1. How can you prepare for a laboratory course?

  • Begin by articulating the learning outcomes. What skills and knowledge do you want students to gain as a result of participating in the lab?
  • For each experiment that you assign, ask yourself the following question: What is the “real world” significance of the methods taught and the theory illustrated? 
  • Consider the following points when planning the lab:
  • How will you introduce each session? How long will you talk about theory and objectives before letting students start? How can you reinforce the relationship between the lab experiment and course lecture material, where appropriate?
  • Will the experimental procedures require a demonstration from you? If so, what will you show and what will you leave up to the students to discover?
  • Who will be in the sessions? Are the students novices or are they already familiar with standard lab procedures?
  • What safety information will students need? How will you provide it?
  • How will you incorporate diversity and create an inclusive learning environment so that all students will feel comfortable participating?

2. How can you work with TAs effectively?

Laboratories may be part of a large lecture course with lab sections being led by a team of TAs or they may be stand-alone courses where TAs help out during the session. In both cases it is essential to work effectively with your TAs to create a seamless learning experience for the students.

Here are some techniques:

  • Communicate course goals and learning outcomes.
  • If the lab is part of a larger lecture course, invite TAs to attend the lectures and introduce them to the students.
  • Establish a support network among TAs that encourages communication and cooperation.
  • Hold regular meetings to discuss teaching strategies and any issues TAs may be having. Ensure that everyone is on track and offer support if the need arises.
  • Encourage a peer review process by having TAs observe and provide feedback on each other’s lab.
  • Offer to sit in on TAs’ lab sessions to provide feedback on their approaches.


Here are more strategies for working effectively with TAs.

Related CTE Faculty Seminar Session Materials

CTE Collaborating Effectively with TAs pdf (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)

3. What should you plan for the first session?

  • Lay the foundation. Students come into lab sessions with different levels of experience. The first lab session should go over basic procedures and lab etiquette.
  • Explain the main objectives and learning outcomes of the course.
  • Outline all expectations about attendance, participation and group work.
  • Discuss expectations about lab reports.
  • Clarify your grading procedure, highlighting the important parts of the lab experience.
  • Set expectations for active engagement.
  • Create an inclusive environment.
  • Create engaging content. Think about how you can make the lab exciting for your students. Are there any interesting historical or current anecdotes related to the experiments in this course? What are the “real world” aspects of the experiments? Putting the experiments into a context and explaining their significance motivates students and gets them excited about the course. Assign pre-lab exercises that ask students to read about the theoretical background and practical implications of the experiments.
  • Get to know your audience. Getting to know students and their reasons for being in the class can help you connect with students and knowing your students’ backgrounds can inform your teaching.  Have students write a short biography or answer a few questions for you to collect and review.
  • Establish rules for lab safety: Most departments in the sciences cover general lab safety during orientation, but be sure to reiterate these safety procedures during the first session.  Replace the traditional list of “do’s and don’ts” of laboratory safety with a safety video or a stimulating demonstration. Senkbeil & Crisp (2004) describe several interesting safety demonstrations for science laboratories. 
  • Discuss research ethics: Often times, students are so focused on procedures and results that they forget the ethical dimensions of research. Use the first lab session to discuss ethical implications of research, including data handling, laboratory management, and confidentiality. Provide examples of controversial research to stimulate debate. If the experiments involve human subjects, make sure that all the students go through IRB training.
  • Make it fun to participate. Students in a laboratory setting may not have the time to interact with colleagues outside their lab group. Icebreakers designed as ‘get to know you’ activities or ‘get to know more about the class’ activities are a great way to create a sense of community and support network among the students, encouraging them to learn from peers throughout the semester.

Related CTE Faculty Seminar Session Materials

CTE Icebreakers pdf (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)

Resources for Lab Safety Demonstrations

Lab Safety Demonstrations Senkbeil, E.G. & Crisp, P. (2004)

Teaching and Learning in Laboratory Sessions

1. How can you make the laboratory experience more meaningful for students?

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 require students to simply validate results through experiments that are repeated each year fail to engage students and have negligible effect on student learning.

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

  • Put the research task into a context by explaining its relevance to world challenges.
  • 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.
  • Present the research task as a puzzle rather than an assignment.
  • Think about how you can make the research task more authentic; incorporate flexibility into the assignment that allows room for individual hypothesis generation and discovery (See next question).

2. How can you replace “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 illustrate 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 pertinent 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 task completion and replicability of measurements. 

Discovery Instruction

Once you identify the learning and behavioral outcomes of a research task, you can allow 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 motivate their curiosity.

For examples of how to adapt a traditional task to inquiry or discovery instruction, see Svinicki & McKeachie (2011, pp 280-289).

Problem Based Learning (PBL)

Coppola (2011) suggests 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. Check our page on PBL for more information on this technique.

3. How can you teach large lab classes?

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

  • 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.
  • If necessary, start the class by demonstrating key procedures or equipment usage, especially when students may be unfamiliar with the tools and techniques used for the assignment.
  • Present background information visually. If students will need formulas or procedural steps, put them up where everyone can see them.
  • Include moments of whole class instruction where appropriate. If more than three groups are struggling with the same problem stop the lab and provide instruction or feedback to the whole class. Use this time to take other questions that students may have.
  • Move 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 encountered any obstacles.
  • Emphasize willingness to talk outside class. Encourage students to take advantage of your office hours.
  • Create an inclusive learning environment. Large-enrollment classes can be intimidating for students.


Here are more strategies for teaching large classes.

4. How can you grade individual versus group contributions?

Lab work often requires students to work in groups. How can you grade the final group product while taking into consideration contributions made by individual students?

  • Lay out the grading criteria at the start of the course, explaining how individual and group contributions will be weighted.
  • Assign tasks where clear division of labor is possible and ask students to write out who is responsible for each part of the assignment in their lab reports. Individual grades will depend on how well the students complete their parts and the group grade will be an average of these grades.
  • Require groups to submit peer evaluations with the final product. This will let you know how much each student contributed to the group and alert you to any potential problems.
  • Have students work in groups but ask them to submit individual reports.
  • Use grading rubrics and distribute the rubrics to the students to show them different components of their grade.

5. How can you provide effective feedback?

Students appreciate instructor feedback, especially when it identifies gaps in their understanding, is supportive, and explains how they could have done better.

  • Approach student feedback as a dialogue; have the student reflect on your comments and develop solutions together.
  • Adopt a non-judgmental, balanced and supportive tone while giving feedback; let the student know that you want to help.
  • Grade the students on the process and thoughtful analysis instead of focusing on getting the right answer.
  • Take advantage of student lab reports to identify problems and help guide the student with constructive grading comments.
  • Try not to overwhelm the student; select few key issues and help the student work through them one at a time.
  • Comment on what the student could have done better instead of on what the student did wrong.
  • Make sure that the student receives feedback with sufficient time to learn and improve before submitting the next assignment.
  • Use grading rubrics to provide detailed comments and share this rubric with the student before they hand in the assignment.
  • Incorporate peer and self-assessments.

6. How can I improve students’ report writing skills?

Although the main focus of laboratory courses is the experiment, it is equally important that students learn to write good scientific lab reports. Below are some things that you can do to help your students improve their report writing skills.

  • Explain to students the importance of writing good lab reports; discuss how writing can help them convey their ideas and think through their lab exercise and how it will be a useful skill in their professional lives.
  • At the start of the course, distribute an example of a good lab report and talk about its strengths.
  • Outline the writing standards that you expect from your students.
  • Lay out the criteria that you will use when grading the reports.
  • When developing your criteria, think about how you will weigh the substance of the report (data, results, analysis) versus the presentation and organization of the material (graphs, tables, spelling and grammar).
  • Make sure you return the graded lab reports with thoughtful comments and constructive feedback with sufficient time for students to learn from before submitting their next report.
  • Announce that you will be available during office hours to help students with report writing.
  • Refer students to the Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines if they require additional help.


Here are more strategies for designing writing assignments.

References

Coppola, B.P. (2011). Laboratory Instruction: Ensuring an Active Learning Experience. In M. Svinicki & W.J. McKeachie's McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, research and theory for college and university teachers. (13th ed.) Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning

Senkbeil, E.G. & Crisp, P. (2004). Demonstrations for teaching laboratory safety. Chemical Health and Safety, 11(4), 17-24

University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. GSI Guidebook. Part Six: Leading Laboratory Sections. Retrieved from http://www.crlt.umich.edu/gsis/gsi_guide.php

University of Virginia Teaching Resource Center. (2007). Teaching introductory laboratory courses: Suggestions for graduate teaching assistants instructing college-level, introductory, laboratory classes. Retrieved from: http://trc.virginia.edu/Publications/Teaching_Concerns/Misc_Tips/Teaching_Labs.htm