Two weeks theory, followed by two weeks lab

“Be flexible and have a sense of humour.” That is my philosophy of life, and I am thankful for it as it has helped me through a very busy year of transition in my chemistry classroom. My grade 11 and grade 12 academic chemistry classes are a welcoming place to be, so with this in mind I decided to try something new — two weeks of theory followed by two weeks of intensive labs.

My chemistry course is subdivided into four curriculum units, each having an initial teaching/learning theoretical component followed by a practical lab component. Basically, the first two weeks of each unit have the lessons that have mostly teacher-driven theory and then during the two weeks that follow, students get to apply this to vigorous, real-life lab work.

During the two week lab component, students are given a "checkbric" with all lab activities and suggested timelines. Lab work includes computer-based simulation labs, "cookbook-type" labs, student-created experiments and the analysis of dry data. The students usually work in groups of up to four students. Students then collect data in their lab data-collecting books (nothing fancy here, just a properly set-up Hilroy notebook). Lastly, after the various experiments are performed, students submit a final copy of each of the labs, including the accepted methods of presentation: procedure, observations, results, analysis etc. A full lab write-up is generally not done here because I have the students do that elsewhere in the curriculum.

I have a practical lab assessment at the end of the semester because we do so much lab work. For example, as a final assignment students are asked to work in partners to create soap.

Potential reasons one may consider to follow this system include but are not limited to the following:

  1. Students get a meaningful chance to apply their theory to a practical situation;
  2. If there is a shortage of equipment, (e.g., I have only one electronic pH meter) the teacher can rotate the groups through over the course of two weeks;
  3. Students are able to approach the teacher in small, easily manageable groups for extra help;
  4. When students are in the lab during the day they can devote their evenings during the two week module to the theory.

Some potential concerns with this approach include the following:

  1. The teacher must be supremely organized. I prepare carts beforehand for each course and it takes time to get all the solutions and equipment prepared.
  2. Lab time is a busy time with what can be a bewildering array of different things going on — hence "be flexible and have a sense of humour".
  3. Some students find this new approach a great challenge in terms of organizing themselves and their notes whilst working independently;
  4. The system involves a great deal of trust between teacher and student because much of the time the students work independently.

In conclusion, I would strongly recommend to all teachers interested in this approach to work in as many experiments as possible. When I took my students to the University of Waterloo and University of Guelph to perform labs, they were well prepared. This reassured me that my students will be ready to go when they enter university or college in the future.

Special notes

  1. Safety protocols for all of the labs must be taught before any work can be done; be sure to have your students include a written record of safety in their lab data-collecting books;
  2. If students are required to create their own procedure they must do so in writing the day before they perform the lab. This enables the teacher to forestall any anticipated difficulties.