In cooperation with Linny Baeten (Department of Chemistry, UAntwerp)

Lab practicals are an important component in a large number of higher education courses. They are essential for training future scientists in fields such as pharmacy, (veterinary) medicine, health sciences, industrial or exact sciences. After all, they teach students vital skills.

In this series of tips, we focus on the preparation and supervision of lab practicals as a teacher. We give tips and tricks on the following aspects: purpose of the practical, function of the practical, monitoring study pressure, activating prior knowledge, importance of feedback, individual versus group work and learning material.

What is the purpose of the lab practical?

Lab practicals can serve several purposes. The main focus is on learning skills. These may include:

  • skills linked to scientific research. For example, performing certain measurement techniques, making a scientific report, analysing chemical compounds, and so on.
  • skills specific to a particular profession, such as pharmacist, (veterinary) doctor or physiotherapist.
  • generic skills, such as problem-solving or working in a team (see also: generic competences UAntwerp).

Of course, the goal of the practical influences how you conduct it, where you focus your guidance and what you have the students do. For example: If students (also) have to learn to write a scientific report, it is obviously important to bear this in mind and provide extensive feedback based on predefined criteria.

What is the function of the lab practical?

As well as having a specific purpose, practicals can also fulfil different functions, sometimes even several at once. Here are a few:

  • Sometimes a practical is simply the most appropriate form of work to achieve certain goals. A practical often has specific characteristics: it provides (repeated) practice in a variety of situations, under supervision and with opportunity for feedback. These characteristics mean that learning, for example, psychomotor skills (such as performing a physiotherapy technique) or communication skills (such as explaining things to a patient) is best done through a (type of) practical.
  • In addition, a practical can act as a form of support where theory is illustrated or brought to life. The dissection room practical in medical school is an example. Here, the aim is often not to teach surgical skills, but rather to show students what parts of the human body really look like. The illustrative nature of a practical can also take the form of students having to perform a certain test themselves, making it more visible and therefore -hopefully- better understood and remembered.
  • Sometimes a practical acts as 'discovery learning'. Here, students learn certain principles or theories by discovering them themselves, not through having them explained.
  • Finally, a practical can serve to promote integration between theory and practice.

The function of your practical can also have an effect on how the practical and your support look best. For example: If the practical focuses on the 'discovery learning' function, you need to design it to encourage self-discovery and you can, for example, give space for students to formulate possible hypotheses themselves and then conduct experiments to test them. Your role as a teacher then is to support and guide this process of discovery.

How do you monitor study pressure?

Student time is also precious. Participation in practicals, often for different course components, soon fills up agendas. You should therefore take the following considerations into account when thinking about the study pressure of practicals:

  • Explore whether and how students should prepare. Is (extensive) preparation necessary or can it be done without? Include preparation time when calculating the total student workload.
  • Limit extensive practical reports unless they are necessary in the context of, for example, 'learning to report research results'.
  • Are time-consuming activities, such as lengthy routine calculations or measurement procedures, necessary? Do these have to be done to achieve the goals or can they be done without?
  • Can certain practical elements be offered in a more time-efficient way without sacrificing quality and effectiveness? For example, do students need to be able to actually perform certain actions themselves or can you simply demonstrate them in front of the whole group or by means of a screencast?

How do you ensure that students have the necessary prior knowledge?

Students do not always enter the practical with the necessary prior knowledge. This is sometimes due to a coherence issue: for whatever reason, the coordination between practical and theoretical/preparatory education is not ideal. For example, the practical is scheduled before the corresponding theoretical part or the theory was covered much earlier, meaning the knowledge is no longer fresh in the students’ minds.

So it is important to know what prior knowledge your students bring to the practical. You can check this in several ways:

  • Are you dealing with a homogeneous group of students, all having taken the same preparatory course units as a result of the course sequence prerequisites? Then you can find out what (normally) their prior knowledge will be by looking up the final competences of these course units.
  • A more active way to gauge prior knowledge is to have students complete an entrance test. It is best to provide feedback and corresponding remedial opportunities with such tests, so that students can brush up their prior knowledge of a specific area. You could even consider allowing students to participate in the practical only if they pass the test.

The latter is already an initial method to ensure that students start the practical with the necessary prior knowledge. Other approaches include:

  • Prior to the practical: asking students to prepare (ECHO teaching tip 'How to get students to come to class prepared?', 2017, in Dutch). Preparation can serve both to activate previously acquired prior knowledge and to provide new insight.
  • During the practical: give an introduction in which you briefly reiterate expected prior knowledge, have students go through supporting learning material and/or make a (related) starting assignment covering the most essential aspects. The disadvantage of providing such tasks within the practical is that they take up valuable practical time. The advantage is that you can keep your finger on the pulse and respond quickly to any questions or ambiguities that might get in the way of a smooth-running practical.

How and when do you provide feedback?

Giving feedback is a very important part of a practical (see also ECHO teaching tips, topic Assessment and feedback). After all, students only learn fully when they receive feedback and gain insight into where they stand in terms of expected competences. What is vital, of course, is that you give quality feedback (ECHO teaching tip 'Feedback matters! High quality feedback', 2022).

Be sure to consider the following:

  • To what extent is it necessary for students to receive direct feedback on certain actions? For some exercises, it may be necessary to have someone looking over their shoulder; for others, it may be enough to walk around and take a look from time to time.
  • It is not possible, of course, to always be with every student. Therefore, also consider alternative modes of feedback, such as:
    • having students evaluate themselves. As a teacher, provide the necessary support here in the form of a checklist, performance criteria or an interim test. By providing feedback and remedial opportunities with this test, you give students leverage to assess and improve themselves.
    • engaging fellow students ('peers') in the feedback process (ECHO teaching tip Reliability of peer assessment', 2017). This can be done in various ways, for instance by having students work together and help each other or by having students explicitly take on the role of feedback-givers. For the latter, make sure it is clear what that role entails and what feedback is to be given.
  • Students are often expected to make a report of the practical, so feedback on this is also obviously useful. Some tips for this:
    • Decide what the purpose of the report is. For example, is it about learning to describe the process gone through and/or learning to correctly represent the results obtained? Make sure your feedback is focused on the purpose of the report, because that is where you want to achieve a learning effect.
    • Consider whether students need the feedback as a function of a subsequent practical (report). If so, prompt feedback is important. To make it feasible (even with larger groups), consider giving only group feedback and/or feedback on key areas of improvement. Working with a numbered list of common mistakes and corresponding feedback can also be useful. By noting the applicable numbers when reviewing the reports, you can give students relatively quick (fairly) targeted feedback.

Do you have students work individually or in small groups?

To decide whether to let students work individually or in (small) groups during the practical, you can use the following pointers:

  • To what extent is it appropriate for practical reasons to have students work in groups? For example, if only limited material is available, it is difficult to allow all students to work individually.
  • To what extent do you want to teach students to cooperate regarding the skills central to the practical (see also ECHO teaching tip 'Supporting collaborative competences: 'Teaching students to work together', 2018, in Dutch)? Does this constitute an important learning objective, e.g. as a function of their future role as professionals?
  • To what extent does the 'group aspect' actually add value for students to carry out the practical assignment? Tasks they can do equally well individually will do little to motivate them to work on together as a group (ECHO teaching tip 'What makes a group assignment successful?', 2022).
  • Can you ensure that all students are able to achieve the practical objectives, even when working in groups? To what extent can you validly assess this? For example, is it possible to give an (additional) individual assignment (such as making a report) that gauges the achievement of the predefined learning objectives?

What learning materials do you provide?

A lab practical often requires different types of learning materials. Consider:

  • Typical practical material such as devices, models or replicas. If there is not enough of such material available for all students to work individually on a given assignment at the same time, you may consider having students work in small groups (see above) and/or provide a rotation system.
  • The course information or a study guide with information on aspects such as the aims of the practicum, expected prior knowledge, general procedure, feedback process and assessment criteria.
  • Learning materials that provide the underlying learning content, such as a few chapters from a textbook or syllabus that impart the theoretical basis. Through this material, students can refresh or brush up on necessary prior knowledge (see above).
  • Supporting learning materials, describing the concrete assignments, explaining and solving common mistakes and/or - in the case of so-called 'cookbook practicals' (ECHO teaching tip 'The world of the lab: from cookbook experiments to guided research', 2023)-the operations to be performed are listed as a step-by-step plan.

In practicals where computers and laptops are forbidden in the classroom for safety reasons, you should of course provide all necessary learning material offline. In other practicals, you can also offer (part of) the learning material online if necessary. It gives the opportunity to incorporate interactive elements such as a quiz or screencast, which motivate students to engage with the material. Online material also has the advantage of being time- and location-independent and easier to update.

It is best to let the level of detail of the learning material depend on how familiar the students are already with the content and actions that will be central during the practical and on what you, as a teacher, offer in terms of live on-site support during the practical.

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