Laboratories are now found in many discipline areas across UTS, including nursing, computing and design, as well as science. All labs have one thing in common: they allow students to explore the practical implications of their discipline in a 'safe' environment.
Goals for Student Learning in the Laboratory
It is very helpful when teaching in a laboratory class, to reflect on the goals for student learning in the class. You will find there are formal statements of goals in many subjects and as well there may be quite detailed statements of specific objectives.
You may find some of the statements of general goals useful to prompt your reflection. The following statement of goals for student learning in laboratories is modified from Klopfer (1971) and Ramsden (1992).
Students come to labs to:
- explore their knowledge, comprehension and conceptual understanding of a subject,
- become 'socialised' into the culture of a discipline (eg understanding the process of scientific inquiry involving ideas such as observing and measuring, problem solving, interpreting data, and applying knowledge and methods),
- develop manual skills ( such as correct procedures for 'aseptic technique' or applying a sterile dressing in nursing),
- learn how to communicate in the language of the discipline.
Monitoring Student Participation in Group Work
Clear statements that everyone is expected to contribute, made at the start of group activities, may help. The question of assessment of group work should be explicitly discussed. How will marks be allocated, a mark for each different type of work done in the laboratory, a mark for a group report equally divided amongst students, different marks for different sections, a component of peer assessment, moderation by the teacher or another technique?
Groups of 3-4 students working together may develop "leaders", "followers" and "hangers-on". In some groups the active participants will be unwilling to be used in this way and will confront the non-involved students. If nothing is said directly, the active, involved students feel bad about the situation. One option is to give the active students "permission" to confront those who are trying to get personal credit for other people's work. Another is for the group to develop some negotiating skills. It is reasonable for the teacher to prompt the "followers" to think for themselves.
Policy on Lab Reports, Assessment
Before you start teaching, check with the course co-ordinator about policy on lab reports and advise students in advance. What reports are required, how many, what type, how long, what criteria, how will good performance be recognised? Could you show students some model reports with performance at distinction, credit, pass and fail level, noting the key characteristics? When are reports are to be submitted, what are the penalties for lateness and how will you enforce these?
Put Demonstrators in the Picture
Staff who teach in the laboratory are typically not those who originally designed the experiments or activities and they can be uncertain about the aims of experiments or activities.
Do you have demonstrators responsible to you? If so, written instructions can be useful in putting them "in the picture" about what is expected of them, leaving them to fill in the details and teach in their own way, whilst carrying the message that a certain amount of preparation is needed. This also opens a vital communication channel between staff and demonstrators, enabling them to consult about any unclear instructions. The most important information in the notes defines the aims of the experiments and shows how the laboratory fits into the curriculum.
Many UTS courses have developed virtual laboratories to be used in conjunction with face to face approaches. There is a wide variety of virtual labs from manoeuvring and observing 'real objects' in a remote laboratory in real time or carrying out experiments and testing (for example in Engineering), examining patients and prescribing care (Acupuncture), statistical simulations (Maths) to using computer simulations of chemical or physical reactions.
As with all teaching methods teachers must consider how virtual laboratories may enhance the quality of student learning through interaction and interest. If virtual laboratories become an integral part of the course then teachers must ensure that students have access to computer time. A variety of virtual laboratory material can be found on the web. Examining some of these laboratories may give you some ideas for the construction of your own virtual laboratory, the range and scope of student interaction available, and ways in which students can receive feedback on their work.