My approach to laboratory work — and everything else

A student cannot learn what he or she doesn’t understand

an open lab book circled and an X going through itYou may have heard me rant against formal lab reports.1 
I have no time for this waste of time. Having high school students copy a list of equipment/chemicals, regurgitate a recipe and write what they were supposed to observe strikes me — and my students — as pointless.

And marking them is BRUTAL. 

The grammar mistakes, the spelling errors, the awkward syntax… not to mention the handwriting. 

I’m too old… 

With respect to formal lab reports, the marginal cost of everyone’s time, energy (and frustration) versus everyone’s marginal benefit makes them look pretty sad. Let students write formal lab reports at university, when they will be able to handle it — and maybe see the benefit.2 (That said, best advice for technical writing: One idea per sentence.3)

Laboratory work is a complement to lessons; it makes the chemistry come alive. If a student is having trouble with the lessons, a laboratory activity isn’t gonna make things any easier. 

Here’s how I approach laboratory work in order to make it a successful — and efficient — vehicle for understanding, which will lead to effective learning:

We start by talking about why the lab is important — why we are spending our valuable time on it; we talk about the procedure — I rarely provide a recipe. Through Socratic dialogue, students create this. We talk about data that need to be collected; we talk about what to do with these data. 

To make things crystal clear, I cater the pre-lab discussion to successful completion of the pre-lab questions. Pre-lab questions include everything from preparing a data table, to sample calculations. Correctly answered pre-lab questions will prepare a student for a successful lab experience — not an exercise in frustration. 

In the post-lab discussion, we go over all (or almost all) of the post-lab questions. We talk about how to carry out calculations, if applicable. To avoid students simply submitting my board-work for credit, I do not allow note-taking4 or photography — students need to engage by listening, answering and asking questions. Further, I encourage collaboration outside of class — but each student submits his own work.

The pre- and post-lab discussions insure that everyone understands what he’s doing — and how to do it. This eliminates, or at the very least, greatly reduces frustration.

I’ll say it again: Students can’t learn what they don’t understand. Give ’em understanding in class; use pre- and post-lab questions to grow understanding into learning. 

I’m not sayin’ that I spoon-feed correct answers. I don’t. But I guide student thinking. This approach is win-win. Students understand, which leads to learning. 

And I don’t lose my sanity when I mark them… 

Michael Jansen holding a babyMichael would like to introduce his granddaughter, Laine Kathryn Jansen. One more reason to procrastinate . . . 

References and notes

  1. M P Jansen, Formal Lab Reports Must Die, Chem 13 News, December 2014/January 2015
  2. And when someone else will mark it
  3. This nugget of solid gold from the late Professor Reg Friesen, founding editor of Chem 13 News
  4. An extremely rare occurrence in my classes