Waterloo Chemistry’s flipped lab: a new model for hands-on learning

Monday, November 27, 2017

Jullie Goll.Julie Goll admits traditional chemistry labs can fall short of preparing students to work independently in the lab.

“When I was a student here and I took the labs, I didn’t prepare much. I usually walked in, read the procedure for the first time and followed the steps," she says. "I got really high marks, but when I went to work as an NSERC-USRA Research Assistant, I realized I really didn’t know as much as I should, despite all my hours in an undergraduate lab.”

Goll eventually became an instructor for the undergraduate organic chemistry laboratories at Waterloo and she too followed the traditional chem lab teaching model: students do a few calculations beforehand, then they attend a lab to do the experiment, and finish by writing a lab report.

But over time she noticed how many students were coming to labs unprepared, and following the recipe laid out for them without much thought, just as she once did as a student. The result? Lower performance, missed steps, potential safety hazards, and poor knowledge retention.

“I was still getting students in their fourth year asking me how to do procedures they’d been doing repeatedly in previous labs with me. I felt like I was failing in some way. I thought ‘If you’re still not understanding, then I’m not asking the right questions.’” says Goll.

Then came an idea that Goll had been toying with for many years.

“We were doing a flipped lecture, so why don’t we flip the lab?” Goll says she asked herself. “All the questions we want them to think about post lab, why don’t we ask them to think about prelab, and make the post lab only about data analysis?”

So Goll created one of the first flipped laboratories at the University of Waterloo and likely anywhere in Canada. Her hope is that by incorporating more flipped labs into the curriculum, chemistry students coming out of the program will be more successful in commercial labs and research settings.

“If you’re working in a research lab, that’s how you have to do things. You don’t randomly set things up. You don’t want to waste time or money. We’re preparing students for a research experience, whether it’s a fourth-year project or graduate school. Let’s show them how to become more independent in the lab from day one,” she says.

As in any flipped course, the logistics are challenging. In Goll’s flipped lab, the main component is the prelab assignment. In other words, the lab report – including the literature review and in-depth questions about the method – is done beforehand and returned to students 24 hours before the lab itself. This gives students time to process their feedback and ask questions before cracking open their lab books.

Goll, a master of organization, uses the online grading system CrowdMark, to keep papers, students and TAs on track.

“It gets rid of all the passing of papers between people while making turnaround on weekly labs possible. But not all labs can be flipped with this kind of grading logistics," Goll notes. "Extra-large classes and biweekly sections, for example, would be nearly impossible.”

Despite the headaches of grading, the proof is in the performance. Goll did her first flipped lab last spring and again in the fall and found students were better prepared and asking better questions. They’re also finishing labs on time and even early.

Thanks to prelab assignments, Goll has also starting asking students to design portions of their own experiments – something she used to dismiss in second-year labs because of safety issues and students’ lack of experience.

“We can’t expect [students] to go from our labs to a research lab and be able to design a liquid-liquid extraction if they’ve never done it before," she says. "Even though we’ve taught them to use this technique, we’ve always told them how to do it. But now we’re asking them to do it without the recipe.”

Goll admits that the flipped lab is more work on the instructors’ end, but ultimately, it’s better.

 “If the outcome is better, it’s worth it,” Goll says.

Julie Goll incorporates her flipped lab in CHEM 262L, CHEM 265L and CHEM 382L and will be incorporating it into the CHEM 360L this winter. Laura Ingram will also be using this model in the nanobiochem, nano-organic labs.

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