Introductory Laboratory Courses:
for Graduate Teaching Assistants Instructing
College-Level, Introductory, Laboratory Classes
Levin, TRC Graduate Student Associate and Department of Environmental
mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We
have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the
class is a superb setting in which to teach and learn science. Students
are given opportunities to think, discuss, and address real world problems.
Learning during a laboratory period is often accomplished through personal
discovery, group discussion, and interaction with the instructor. A laboratory
experience models how scientific knowledge is constructed and how new
knowledge is related to what is already known.
It is difficult
to learn to do science, or to learn about science, without participating
in science. The purpose of this document is to offer ways to make laboratory
classes an enjoyable and successful setting in which to pursue scientific
inquiry and enhance scientific understanding. The following suggestions,
thoughts, and ideas are intended to guide you in this pursuit.
(things to consider before the lab even begins)
with the professor of the class to clarify goals for the lab course.
that lab exercises coincide with or complement lecture material.
sure you're able to clarify the links between lab and lecture material.
pre-lab activities, such as reading material and pre-lab questions,
prior to class.
the lab in advance and anticipate questions students will ask.
any necessary handouts.
Talk (possible material that can be included in your mini-lecture)
a pre-lab talk approximately fifteen minutes in length to introduce
the lab activities.
information necessary for students to conduct the lab, using both
oratory and visual cues to make your points.
Introduce new methods and terminology.
Write key terms on the board and illustrate your points with
graphs, drawings, or other visual examples to help a greater
number of students "see" the information.
and demonstrate how to use new equipment or how to do a new
type of analysis or calculation.
relevant background material.
interesting historical or current "real world" aspects
of the experiment.
Anecdotes may increase student motivation by adding new perspective
to their tasks.
Applications make the material seem more relevant and "real"
the purpose, hypotheses, methods, and potential results of the
discuss all safety precautions and concerns.
all expectations for the lab write-up.
briefly what type of information the different sections of the
lab report should contain.
your grading scheme beforehand to help students identify the critical
parts of the lab.
students to take an active role in explaining the lab material.
a team of students demonstrate the experiment (or set up the materials)
for their peers.
a student team to assist with instruction during the lab. Rotate
this responsibility for each lab assignment. Note: This will help
students think through materials they will need for an experiment,
and students will gain confidence and insight by teaching their
students to work in pairs, rotating the different responsibilities
Write-Ups (ways to get students to take lab write-ups seriously)
to the students why writing a lab report is important. For example,
is a critical tool for understanding and sharing ideas and helps
identify gaps in understanding.
report helps place the lab activity into the "big picture."
write-ups are an ideal place to practice skills honed in writing
the lab write-ups to help improve the students' science though thoughtful
Work (suggestions to keep the lab rolling)
should be able to complete the lab within the allotted time period.
students approximately how long each task requires so they can
an announcement as to when students should start cleaning up.
students document their work in a lab notebook, rather than on loose
sheets of paper.
sure lab handouts or worksheets are properly completed.
that observations are reasonable and conclusions are based on the
students to work in pairs or small groups.
each group member to take an active role in the activity.
equal participation from both men and women and minorities.
throughout the classroom.
with students to see how the lab is going.
questions that help you ascertain whether students understand
the lab material.
results from the lab exercise are not as expected, encourage speculation
on reasons for the deviations.
Discussion (how to wrap up the lab period)
students to share their discoveries with the class.
synthesize and generalize.
experiments lend themselves to tabulating results, or performing statistical
analyses. In these cases, consider discussing the following questions:
experimental observations differed among groups?
do student observations relate to scientific theory?
theories apply and how were those theories developed (history)?
do theories apply to lecture material and to real life?
would such a discovery affect other systems?
often appreciate an enhanced understanding of lecture material.
discussions during the last fifteen to twenty minutes of class
aid understanding; encourage the students to make the connections
and review how the lab activity (and its results) fit into the
Lab Reports (suggestions for providing constructive, formative feedback)
that your grading scheme is consistent with course policy.
whether students understood the lab.
whether many students missed a critical concept.
whether students drew reasonable conclusions from the data they
creative and rational but unconventional thought in application
evaluate and return lab reports in a timely manner with cogent feedback.
students improve by telling them how they could have done better.
comments in specific areas rather than on the report as a whole.
Feedback (possible ways to determine your effectiveness as a teacher)
constructive feedback on your performance as an instructor.
mid-semester feedback by requesting a Teaching Analysis Poll or
videotaping from the Teaching Resource Center.
a brief survey to provide feedback on global reactions to the
your own feedback by preparing and distributing a mid-semester
student opinions on the clarity of your presentations.
one or two changes you'll make next time to improve as an instructor.