Art & Science of Learning, Spotlight on Teaching

“Teaching” an Upper Level Lab Course

Test tubes and other recipients in chemistry lab

by Michael Lewis, Associate Vice President for Faculty Development and Associate Professor of Chemistry

I’m currently teaching an upper-level lab course, Biochemistry Laboratory I.  The course is required for Biochemistry majors, and given current demand for the course from students in the program, these are the only students in the course; we do not have the room to accept Chemistry majors, or majors from other Departments, in the course.  Most of the students in the course are Juniors, although there are also a few Seniors.  There are two sections, each one with twelve students, meeting once per week for a three-hour lab.  The primary purpose of this blog post is to talk about the challenges I’ve faced teaching this course.

Let me start by saying I think the course is going fine.  The students are almost always present, they generally hand their lab reports in on time, and they appear to be engaging in the material and learning the techniques.  The end of the previous sentence captures the challenge I face with this lab course: the students “appear” to be engaging in the material and learning the techniques.  I truly can’t say for certain if this is the case, and there a number of factors that go into the ambiguity.  The primary reason is that a teaching assistant takes care of most of the in-lab period.  I give an overview of the principles being covered at the beginning of each lab period, and I walk around a few times during the lab period, but the students are generally busy performing the day’s experiments.  Furthermore, the teaching assistant performs the lab the week prior to the students, and handles most of the technical issues.  Thus, there really isn’t time to probe the students’ knowledge of the principles during the lab period.

The second reason I struggle gauging the students’ learning is that the course doesn’t have any exams.  The students are quizzed at the beginning of each week’s lab to make sure they have prepared for the experiments, but it is only a short quiz.  Otherwise, the students are graded on their lab reports, and this accounts for most of the student evaluation.  Furthermore, grading the lab reports accounts for most of my time spent on the course.  Grading accounts for much more of my time in this lab course than it does in a lecture course.

There are other minor factors that make it difficult to discern student learning in this lab course; however, like the two issues above, there are no easy solutions.  This is the first time I’ve taught a lab course in six years, and before I teach another one I plan on putting thought into these issues ahead of time.  The easiest approach would likely be to decrease the number of lab reports in order to add exams, but I’m not sure if this is a feasible solution.  The course is only one credit hour and the time input for the students is already heavy.

I know this is a blog post basically relaying my frustrations with “teaching” a course where I don’t feel like I have a good grasp on the student learning, and there aren’t any firm solutions offered; however, that is where I am with this course.

If you have ideas or strategies for teaching lab courses, please share them in the comments section.

Image source: Flickr image courtesy of Horia Varlan