you ever wondered what constitutes a good lab course? Could your
lab course be described as effective? Would students find your lab
course stimulating and enjoyable? What motivates students to come
prepared for lab? What do students find most frustrating in lab
courses? We asked an undergraduate student panel of science majors
these and other questions to get the scoop on what they feel defines
the most effective lab courses.
good lectures and organization are essential for an effective lab.
Additionally, students appreciate instructors and teaching assistants
who are open to questions, approachable, accessible (particularly
by e-mail), and "willing to go the extra mile". Students tend to
be motivated by the amount of time and energy obviously invested
by the instructor/teaching assistant and often want to avoid disappointing
such a teacher. If the teacher is clearly disinterested, so are
the students. The threat of pre-lab quizzes is usually not an effective
way to get students to come prepared for lab. If a student is having
a busy week or hasn't otherwise left time to prepare for lab, he/she
is likely just to gamble that there will not be a quiz that week.
Our panelists agreed that written assignments due at the beginning
of lab (i.e. pre-lab "write-ups") usually force students to be prepared.
Quizzes, on the other hand, are best reserved until after lab to
let students know what they've learned and what they still have
to learn. One caveat regarding pre-lab written assignments: if pre-lab
"write-ups" and lab reports are due on the same day, students are
likely to be less thorough on the pre-lab assignment.
that are outdated or "fill-in-the-blank" do not help students prepare
or perform well. Students prefer handouts if current lab manuals
are not available. Current materials also let the students know
that the teacher has recently thought about the topic at hand. An
effective lab manual clearly outlines the process and lists the
steps of the exercise. Details regarding each of the steps should
be contained separately in text.
considering new and innovative lab exercises will be happy to know
that students tend to judge the success of a lab exercise based
on what they learned, not on the results they obtained. They appreciate
gaining "hands-on" experience and learning a process. Our panelists
agreed that when their success was based solely on yield (i.e. grams
of substance X obtained) or output, the exercise was less productive
for learning. Instead, students feel that part of the learning process
is also understanding why certain results might not be obtained.
In a similar vein, our panelists suggested that upper-level labs
should be discovery-based instead of "cookbook" style, to give students
more applicable experience.
reported two primary frustrations during the execution of a lab
exercise. The panelists commonly experienced situations where there
was a lack of equipment or too many students in a section given
the available equipment. Second, they feel that working in large
lab groups is a hindrance to learning. Students prefer to work in
lab courses, grades are based largely on post-lab reports. However,
our panelists reported that in most of their lab courses, they were
not formally taught how to write a lab report nor were the teacher's
expectations made explicit. Most learned by trial and error what
was expected. In addition to the obvious remedies for these problems,
our panelists suggested that the grade for the first lab report
of a course should not be averaged into the final grade, but, rather,
should be used to show the student where he/she needs to make improvements.
are concerned about variation in grading across multiple sections
of the same lab course. Many students believe that the difficulty
of quizzes varies from section to section, that the stringency of
grading quizzes and lab reports also varies widely, and that each
teaching assistant has his/her own curve with some T.A.s curving
grades more than others. Our panelists made a number of suggestions
with regard to these issues. First, a team of two or three T.A.s
might be responsible for writing and grading the quizzes for all
the students in the course for a particular week. Second, T.A. training
for the course might include a workshop on grading students.
noted that it would help students if the materials from the lab
and lecture course coincided. If this is not possible, however,
they feel the lab T.A. should have a syllabus of the lecture course
and be attuned to when certain topics are covered in the lecture
course. Most feel that it is not necessary for the T.A. to attend
the lectures, though it would promote a common language between
the instructor and the T.A.s.
our panelists said they have experienced both good and bad lab courses
during their tenures at the University. In their favorite courses,
they learned a great deal and had fun while doing it! The most effective
courses embodied many of the characteristics discussed here. Was
your course one of their favorites?