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How much time and energy are you willing to invest? Buying new equipment and tinkering with the lab write-ups will probably improve the labs, but much more is required to implement substantial change. Changing the way that students learn involves rethinking the way the lab is taught, writing new lab handouts, setting up a training program for teaching assistants, and perhaps designing some new experiments.
What support will you have? Solicit the interest and support of departmental colleagues and teaching assistants.
Are the departmental and institutional administrations supportive of your project and willing to accept the risks? Determine how likely they are to provide the needed resources.
Are you prepared to go through all of this and still get mediocre student evaluations?
Helping Teaching Assistants to Teach in the Laboratory
All teaching assistants perform the laboratory exercises as if they were students to determine operational and analytical difficulties and to test the instructional notes and record-keeping procedures.
Teachers discuss usual student questions and misconceptions and ideas for directing student learning.
Teachers review procedures for circulating among student groups to ensure that each group gets attention. Groups are visited early to help them get started. Each group is visited several other times, but at least midway through the lab to discuss preliminary results and interpretations and toward the end of the lab to review outcomes and interpretations.
Teachers review the students' notebooks or reports and then meet to discuss difficulties and misconceptions. Discussions of grading and comments that might be made are important because these procedures can influence student performance and attitudes on subsequent exercises.
The various methods by which students report their lab work have different pedagogical objectives. The formal written report teaches students how to communicate their work in journal style, but students sometimes sacrifice content for appearance. Keeping a lab notebook, which is graded, teaches the student to keep a record while doing an experiment, but it may not develop good writing and presentation skills. Oral reports motivate students to understand their work well enough to explain it to others, but this takes time and does not give students practice in writing. Oral reports can also motivate students to keep a good notebook, especially if they can consult it during their presentation. In choosing this important aspect of the students' lab experience, consider how your students might report their work in the future.
Teaching Labs with Teaching Assistants
Many benefits of carefully planned laboratory exercises are realized only if the instructional staff is well prepared to teach. Often the primary, or only, lab instruction comes from graduate or undergraduate teaching assistants or from faculty members who were not involved in designing the lab. Time must be invested in training the teaching staff, focusing first on their mastery of the lab experiments and then on the method of instruction. It is a fine art to guide students without either simply giving the answer or seeming to be obstinately obscure. Teaching assistants who were not taught in this way can have difficulty adapting to innovative laboratory programs, and the suggestions below will you help you guide their transition. A good part of the success of a course depends on the group spirit of the whole team of instructor and teaching assistants. Many such groups meet weekly, perhaps in an informal but structured way, so that the teaching assistants can provide feedback to the instructor as well as learn about the most effective way to teach the next laboratory experiment (see sidebar).