Practical courses teaching

Teaching an undergraduate practical course has to be one of the most challenging things a person in the academic realm has to do. For the most part, most of the things one teaches in the lab are stuff we have already done or are doing as part of our PhD thesis. So, it’s supposed to be easy… right?

Preparing for your lab session

The manual. Even if we get the detailed version of the lab manual, there’s always going to be constant need of adjusting, adding, editing, trimming of this teaching tool in order to prepare for the lab session. There is no definitive lab manual (at least not a perfect one). In my opinion, for a lab manual to really work, it has to do two things: capture your student’s attention and concisely cover the lab session’s aim. And the first one is the hardest.

In short, what you need to do is never stop revising the manual. Science is a never-ending story, constantly evolving. So even if the main focus of the practical session doesn’t change much –the basic requirements of undergrad science students are almost always the same-, you have to find new and improved ways of approaching the session’s aim. This will keep you and your students up to date and will surely help getting their attention (old lab techniques, although high in historic value, are unpopular among young undergrads).
The problem with this is, as almost always, the economic issue. If you’ve ever taught in a government-funded lab you know what I’m talking about. You probably have limited access to the newer gizmos and are restricted in the use of almost all of the novel techniques. Science is very expensive, so you have to get creative.

The session

A great lab session depends on how much your students already know about the underlying theory. Even if you have the latest technology, it won’t do much good if they don’t know what they’re trying to demonstrate or why they’re repeating hundred-year-old experiments. Isolated data are un-interesting and useless if you don’t have the theoretical background to make sense of it all.

A great lab session always begins with theory.

Even if your students have a separate theoretical course, I strongly recommend going over the background theory just minutes before the practical session begins. There are many ways you can do this: the standard power point slide approach; a Q&A discussion; short oral presentations by the students or by setting up a journal club tailored for each topic. In my experience, the Q&A strategy works wonders because it fuels up very interesting discussions between students and encourages them to be critical and curious.

The teacher. And it all comes down to you?

If you’re teaching an undergraduate science lab, most of your students probably already have a healthy curious nature (if not, then they certainly have no business in science). So your job, I think, is not only to teach, but also to inspire. Let’s face it, most of the time young teachers have to go over the theory ourselves each time we begin the semester. We’re faced with questions we don’t always know the answer to and sometimes we’re overwhelmed with very complicated topics that we have to make digestible for the students. The thing is, we have to get over ourselves: we won’t always have the right answer, but we must make sure to give the students all the tools to seek the right answers. I like to thing of us as tour-guides, providing the undergrads with the right web pages, the most helpful research articles, and the benefit of our experience to interpret their results.

One thing I have found very helpful for inspiring my students is the use of analogies. Science students need to grasp very abstract concepts in order to understand complex processes as a whole, and this is when comparisons between ordinary things and science concepts come in handy.

Here’s where you really need to get creative. You can find a bunch of analogies in popular science books or you can begin to build your own (just be careful not to fall into commonplace phrases).

A good analogy is simple, straightforward and relatable: use it wisely.

Evaluating your student’s progress

Standardized grading is an open topic of discussion in today’s educational departments all over. And this is even more complicated if what you’re trying to evaluate is a practical skill. What’s more important for a practical course, the student’s ability to perform a dissection or her underlying knowledge of the task in hand? Predictable as it may sound, I think both. But how to grade it?
In my experience, grading separately works great. That is, do short, monthly written exams directed at evaluating their theoretical knowledge, but include questions about the protocols and materials used in past practical sessions. Then you can qualitatively estimate their practical skills by observing closely during the lab session and doing a few practical skills tests.

What not to teach: the dos and don’ts of practical course teaching

• Don’t take theory for granted. Always assume your students didn’t understand the background and go over it every time before each practical session.

• Do ask your students to come prepared for the practical session. Ask them to draw a flow-chart by hand.

• Don’t be informal during the lab sessions. The use of every-day language can be useful for constructing analogies, but don’t forget to use the scientific, rigorous, exact language when teaching. This will help your students expand their science vocabulary and prepare them for more advanced courses.

• Do make sure your students are familiar with the laboratory’s rules. This will help avoid accidents and keep the laboratory in good shape.

• Don’t get stuck! If you have the time (and resources) to teach your students more than one protocol, by all means do it!

• Do teach by example. Even if your students are well beyond their teen years, remember that they are still learning and will pick-up on your bad habits.

• Don’t get boring. Science is awesome but it can be quite arid sometimes. If one teaching approach doesn’t work… try another! Every once in a while ask some of your students about your teaching methods to get feedback and help you become a better teacher.


Carolina Álvarez-Delgado, PhD

Our book suggestion for practical teachings:


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