Thursday, February 25, 2010

Lab Set-Up, bane of my existence

I'm ashamed to admit it, but I like lecturing a lot better then teaching labs. Lectures always seem to go pretty smoothly. I may flub up an explanation (be unclear, not tell it wrong) every now and again, but generally I feel pretty confident in lectures, especially in courses in which I know the subject matter well.

I hated teaching labs when I first started, and now I'm ambivalent about it. Small Religious U sells to the students that the profs teach the labs, a huge advantage to them over bigger schools where the grad students teach the labs. I really do agree with that. When in lab, I have a lot more insight to share with the students about their results than me at the beginning of my training. Moreover, after many, many student evaluations, I am convinced that labs are where students really learn well. They really should be my focus and I should start thinking of lectures as support for labs, not vice-versa.

But the set-up! In Pet class, which I've been teaching for a while, I can easily get stuff set up and predict how the experiment will go, but THIS semester, I find myself scrambling a bit for the first section just because I'm not playing with a full deck. Nonetheless, the stuff always works, and the pedagogical value is clear.

But for new lab set-ups, such as in the Advanced sabbatical replacement class, I find it impossible to predict all of the things that are needed and how the traffic flow will go. I always feel like I am scrambling during lab to get more stuff ready or something. It feels like a disorganized mess to me.

Here's an example: I read the lab, gathered everything I thought I would need. I asked for help in making solutions that were toxic, and the do-it-all retiree delivered for me. But I forgot, just simply didn't read far enough, or skimmed over the requirements for one piece of equipment. So I had to run and go get it during class. The students may not have noticed, but I was beating myself up about it.

Additionally, there were two tasks that they needed to do in the same space. In reading the prep for the lab, I really failed to realize that I would have to have them do one task, stop and clean up, then begin on the other task. I would have loved to have figured that out from the prep reading. Then I could have been explicit in the announcement/ instructions. It involved me making announcements and giving instructions on the fly during lab (which often means I repeat it because students' attentions are divided).

In research, I've solved this cognitive "flaw" by making explicit protocols and checklists and carefully following them and modifying as necessary. But until I teach a class sevearal times (and am careful to write everything down immediately after lab), I just don't get that done for teaching labs. I hate it, but haven't been able to change it well.


  1. nota bene: I KNOW that the perfect solution would be to do all the labs ahead of time myself. I have resigned myself to knowing that will simply not happen. It's time prohibitive during the school year- I teach 6 hours of labs each week (one repeated 2 hour section), and there simply isn't an additional ~ 4 hours per week to pre-run the labs.

  2. Don't beat yourself up over this. As long as the students get to do things it works out. Good for you for seeing how much more the students learn when they are active learners in lab.