Book Review: Teaching In Laboratories
David Boud, Jeffrey Dunn, and Elizabeth Hegarty-Hazel. The Society for Research into Higher Education and NFER-NELSON, Surrey, Great Britain, 1986.
Reviewed by Linda Johnson, former Graduate Student Associate, TRC and Department of Biology
While the title, Teaching in Laboratories, is somewhat misleading as to its content, the preface to the book clarifies its purpose and intended audience: "It is for all those who wish to design, redesign or modify some aspect of laboratory work as it is presently conducted. . . ." In truth, many of the design principles espoused in the book apply to the creation of courses in every discipline. The first half focuses on the development of a laboratory course and the remainder treats assessment of student work, discusses the monitoring of what is accomplished in labs, and defends the role of laboratories in science education.
According to the authors, the flaws in university-level laboratory classes often hinge on the lack of clearly articulated course objectives and the role that each exercise plays in achieving those goals. The authors suggest several methods, such as Aims Matrices, to allow course designers to delineate learning objectives. It is critical that the staff associated with the course, as well as the students, understand all the aims of the course.
Linking the lab exercises to the content of the lecture course is often a challenge. Boud et al. stress that the overall coherence of the laboratory course is more important than a advanced one-for-one correspondence with the lecture material. The authors detail the pros and cons of controlled exercises (cookbook-style labs), experimental investigations which have room for some student initiative, and longer-term research projects which provide maximum flexibility for student input. Certain courses, perhaps introductory level labs, may require a greater proportion of controlled exercises, and the authors emphasize that all higher-level exercises demand students who are properly prepared with the manual skills needed to do the experiment.
The chapter on sequencing and organization of labs provides several views of the appropriate evolution of ideas throughout the course. Again, these progressions-from simple to complex, known to unknown, concrete to abstract-apply to all well-designed courses. Some labs may benefit from a view that focuses on spatial/temporal/historical aspects of the discipline, while others may need to root themselves in methodology or career goals. Factors such as prerequisites and student motivation for taking the course will dictate the best-suited approach.
I found the topic of student learning assessment to be the most informative for those of us already involved with courses-particularly teaching assistants who may have little or no input into the design of the lab course itself. Boud et al. discuss the merits of criterion-referenced assessment over norm-based evaluation, and also distinguishes between the roles of assessment for student feedback and those of assessment for grading. The chapter includes some great examples of methods for evaluating projects and reports, and never underestimates the problems of finding the correct method (written exams, practical tests, reports, etc.) to effectively and validly test student learning.
The authors highlight the importance of monitoring course development and refinement to ensure that the previously outlined goals are being met. The most difficult aim to monitor seems to be promoting students' ability to utilize the scientific inquiry method. The research presented in the last chapter highlights the tendency of labs simply to verify what was already presented rather than to allow students to discover the concepts (or their misconceptions) through lab investigation. While open-ended exercises may not belong in early courses, the development of scientists requires that teachers introduce them to the process of science, not just the history of science. I appreciated the authors' attention to the fact that labs should intrigue and excite the students in addition to educating them.
in Laboratories presents effective methods for the planning and
evaluation of lab courses. The authors' tendency to write in lists can
be annoying, but their content can aid all of us involved with laboratory
design and instruction.