in cooperation with Kenn Foubert (UAntwerp, Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences)

Whenever you think of sciences, you think of practicals. Experiments in laboratories are often deeply embedded in scientific study programmes. And this is not surprising, as practicals give students the opportunity to practice in a controlled environment and under supervision. As a result, they learn practical skills, such as how to work safely and instrumental-technical skills. They also learn general skills such as cooperation, planning and problem-solving. Finally, practicals can help develop an understanding of the underlying theory.

In this teaching tip, we explore the world of the lab and look at two forms of practicals: cookbook experiments and guided research experiments. We address possible pitfalls in organising them and provide tips to optimise supervision.

Cookbook experiments

The most well-known form of practical is the so-called ‘cookbook experiment’, in which students follow a series of steps in a manual to achieve a predetermined goal or outcome.

A common pitfall in cookbook experiments is that students produce a result without understanding the underlying theoretical aspects. They only focus superficially on the execution of scientific processes. They lack a higher level of reflection on the lab and the connection between theory and the steps performed. This makes it difficult to achieve the objectives of the practical, and students may develop negative attitudes towards the engaging scientific environment (Ural, 2016).

Some tips to avoid this pitfall:

  • If possible, offer experiments from fields not linked to scientific research, but to industrial production environments. By the latter, we mean environments that comply with international law and where experiments are routinely conducted.
  • Make sure students come to the practical prepared (see also ECHO teaching tip, 2017, in Dutch). This increases the likelihood that students (1) make the connection between theory and lab work, (2) are more aware of what they are doing during the practical, and (3) familiarise themselves in advance with the various topics covered in the course and the lab environment (Reid, 2007; Gregory, 2012). There are several ways to encourage students to prepare. The preparation can also be done online, partly or fully, if necessary (see also ECHO teaching tips, topic ‘blended and online learning’):
    • Before going to the lab, offer exercises that tie in with the practical. These (possibly online) exercises can probe understanding of the experiment’s procedure, planning, data processing and calculations, terminology, and so on. Mandatory online exercises offer the opportunity to provide immediate feedback on the level of understanding of expected theoretical, mathematical, procedural and/or safety-related knowledge. This feedback can be automatically generated in an electronic learning environment and/or explained at the beginning of the lab.
    • Offer video demonstrations to teach basic lab skills (see also ECHO teaching tip, 2021). This allows new students (whether or not in addition to a general explanation from you as a teaching associate) to study expected lab operations individually and in detail, improving their technique. Link the videos to mandatory (online or offline) exercises to make viewing them less optional. More experienced students can use the videos as a refresher of what was previously taught.
    • Offer videos with theoretical information so that students bring the necessary theoretical baggage to the practical. This information may be a brief repetition of previous theoretical lessons. Either can be used in a flipped classroom concept, where the videos serve as a basis from which practical skills are further developed during the lab (see also ECHO teaching tip, 2019).

If students come to the lab prepare, a possible advantage is that the introduction to a practical can be filled out differently. Instead of just giving basic information, you can discuss errors and misconceptions that emerged during the preparatory exercises.

More work for the student prior to the practical also does not automatically mean a higher overall study load. Experiments may run more smoothly and/or the amount of work after the practical, e.g. when writing out reports, may be reduced (Pogacănik, 2006). Nevertheless, it is important to keep the overall study load in mind.

Guided research or research-based experiments

In a reaction to the aforementioned pitfalls of cookbook experiments, there has been a trend towards open labs for guided research experiments (Spagnoli, 2017). There are two forms of research-based experiments. In the first form, the guided research form, students formulate the process of the solution. The teaching associate guides by asking questions and by indicating which procedure/technique should be used. This also ensures that he/she/they has/have a good idea of the expected results. In the second form, the open research form, students define the problem in a given context and try to find the solution. This method is very similar to ‘real’ scientific research. The teaching associate guides the students by asking questions and motivating them in their research experiment.

In both forms, it is advisable to translate the practical into an open-ended assignment, so that there is less focus on the final product and more on the thought process. This will give students a better understanding of the purpose of the different steps. This, in turn, can have a positive effect on their self-confidence and interest (Ural, 2016). A second benefit is that students can better explain incorrect and inconsistent results. They gain a better understanding of the scientific process of trial and error, and of the procedural organisation and logic of experiments.

Besides the importance of open-endedness, there are some other concerns and tips when organising and supervising a guided research experiment:

  • Guided research experiments present additional challenges to students. They need to provide more input and think more deeply. Since they have more control over the what and how, this can lead to some feelings of uncertainty. It is therefore useful to conduct the guided research experiment in groups and have students share ideas with each other. That way, they feel less alone in the research process.
  • Commit to fostering a positive classroom climate in which both the teaching associate and students feel comfortable (see also ECHO education tip, 2020). 
  • Take a coaching approach as a teaching associate (see also ECHO teaching tip, 2021 (in English) and the screencasts ‘coaching basics’, in Dutch). When coaching, vary how strongly you guide and what you guide to. After all, the extent to which students pay attention to certain aspects depends on what you emphasise in your coaching.
  • Safety is a priority! Students should not act recklessly in the lab. Provide a safe context without necessarily providing the correct procedure.
  • Research experiments can lead to different results, so conclusions may be ambiguous for students and misconceptions may arise. A general feedback session for students can help eliminate these misconceptions.

Want to know more?

Good practices (only accessible to UAntwerp staff after logging in, in Dutch):

ECHO teaching tip (English):

ECHO teaching tip (Dutch):

BV-Databank: practicum (in Dutch)

Carnduff, J., & Reid, N. (2003). Enhancing undergraduate chemistry laboratories, pre-laboratory and post-laboratory exercises, examples and advice. Education Department, Royal Society of Chemistry, Burlington house, Piccadilly, London.

Gregory, S. J., & Di Trapani, G. (2012). A blended learning approach to laboratory preparation. International Journal of Innovation in Science and Mathematics Education, 20, 56–70.

Pogacănik, L., & Cigić, B. (2006). How to motivate students to study before they enter the lab. Journal of Chemical Education, 83, 1094–1098.

Reid, N., & Shah, I. (2007). The role of laboratory work in University chemistry. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 8(2), 172–185.

Spagnoli, D., Wong, L., Maisey, S., & Clemons, T. D. (2017). Prepare, do, review: a model used to reduce the negative feelings towards laboratory classes in an introductory chemistry undergraduate unit. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 18, 26–44.

Ural, E. (2016). The effect of guided-inquiry laboratory experiments on science education students’ chemistry laboratory attitudes, anxiety and achievement. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 4, 217–227.

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