Labs: Teaching Tips

Laboratory environments require many different forms of instruction: pre-lab lectures, facilitating interactions with instruments, organizing group work, monitoring safety, providing feedback to students, grading, etc.    Laboratory instructors help students make the connection between theory and practice within a discipline by guiding the students through the concepts underlying the experiments as well as their logistics. 

Prepare for the semester by clarifying procedures, roles and responsibilities.

  • Consider creating a syllabus for the lab that communicates to students the course expectations and structure.  Clarify what is being asked of students and what to expect from the course and instructor(s).   See an example lab syllabus (from the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching).
  • What is the role of TAs in this lab? Should TAs attend lectures?  Will TAs be provided with lesson plans / laboratory exercises or are they expected to develop their own?
  • Who will guide the grading of student work?  If there are different graders, how will grading be standardized?  
  • Determining polices for attendance and lateness ahead of time to save you time later on. 

Prepare for each lab session.

  • Instructors must know the lab methods thoroughly to help students with both logistical and procedural questions and connect the lab to the course learning goals.  
  • Meet with the faculty teaching the lecture component of the course to better understand the expectations of the lab and how it fits into the broader course goals.
  • Articulate what the students are supposed to learn and why to help you design the session and to share the learning goals with the students.
  • Create a pre-lab assignment to help students understand the theory and principles addressed in the lab and how they relate to the course.  Read tips for designing pre-lab assignments (from UC – Berkeley’s Graduate Student Instructor Teaching Resource Center).
  • Design an introductory lesson that connects concepts in the course lecture and pre-lab assignment to the day’s experiment. 
  • Outline lab logistics to help the students focus on the experiment’s goals and get them thinking about subsequent interpretations and data analysis. 
  • Design questions that prompt student discussion (e.g. “What do you understand from X?” rather than “Do you have any questions?”). Guiding questions can encourage students to think one step further, consider the relationship between the activities and the lab’s goals or keep them heading in the right direction.
  • Summarize the major points of the exercise at the end of the laboratory period.

Provide useful feedback for the students when grading.

  • Identify your grading criteria (e.g., create a rubric).  Have the students refer to the criteria or rubric as they create their laboratory report.  This can also provide a reference later should the student have questions about their grade. See example lab report rubrics (from the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching).
  • Consider both the content (e.g., data, results, interpretations, conclusions) as well as the form (presentations, organization, graphs, clarity of writing) as you develop your criteria. 
  • Decide how to weight the student’s analysis and interpretations of the results (identification of patterns or contradictions, specific, plausible and well supported explanations for their results) vs. the student obtaining the “right answer”. 

 Read more about teaching labs.