Teaching a Lab: Tips on Balancing Structure and Best Practices

06 Aug 2018 6:00 PM | Anonymous

By Jennifer Parada, M.A., Northern Arizona University

Laboratory courses represent a unique aspect of undergraduate education because they allow for direct application of course content and the scientific process (Beck, Butler, & Burke da Silva, 2014; McKeachie & Svinicki, 2013). Both of these aspects (i.e. direct theory application and scientific inquiry) are highlighted in the current American Psychological Association guidelines for the undergraduate psychology curriculum (American Psychological Association, 2013). Thus, lab courses that are well-taught increase student comprehension and application of essential psychological theories, increase critical thinking (Luckie, Aubry, Marengo, Rivkin, Foos, & Maleszewski, 2012), and increase a general interest in science (Freeman et al., 2014; Misseyanni, Marouli, Papadopoulou, Lytras, & Gastardo, 2016). For instructors, who are often graduate students, teaching a lab is a unique experience that allows for greater freedom to experiment with and apply various instructional styles (e.g., expository, inquiry-based; Domin, 1999). This freedom of experimentation is not always available in traditional lecture courses, and especially for graduate students who are given general teaching assistant assignments intended to support faculty through grading, proctoring exams, hosting office hours, etc.

Being that lab courses yield multiple benefits to students and freedom for graduate student instructors, I have gathered some structural tips and best practices on teaching a lab:

1) Weekly Quizzes

Although there might be high-stake assessment requirements for certain labs (e.g., a poster presentation for a research methods lab, a neuroanatomy exam for a biopsychology lab), frequent low-stake assessments are an excellent way to keep students engaged with lab content and track their mastery. The use of short, weekly quizzes that cover content from the previous lab are a semi-effortless technique to do just that. Ideally, the content covered on the quizzes is independent of lecture (although there will likely be overlap because of the supplementary nature of laboratory courses). For example, in my upper-division behavioral neuroscience lab, quizzes for the neuroanatomy unit are often composed of pictures of brain structures, which students must identify along with questions associated with the structures’ functions.

2) Mini Lectures

After weekly quizzes are completed, I suggest providing a mini lecture intended to review relevant content that students will be implementing during the assigned lab. In other words, use mini lectures to prime students on the relevant topics they will need to thoroughly comprehend in order to successfully complete the lab. Students should be well aware of the goal of mini lectures to avoid confusion or frustration during the lab activities (Kenwright, Dai, Osbourne, Gladman, Gallagher, & Grainger, 2017), see a direct connection between lab activities and learning outcomes, and develop increased comfort asking clarifying questions before beginning the lab activities. As the name suggests, mini lectures should last 10-15 minutes, which also helps prevent lab periods from becoming an additional hour of lecture.

3) Lecture Note Handouts

Another best practice to ensure student engagement during lab periods is the use of lecture note handouts. Lecture note handouts should be a skeletal outline of the topics covered during the mini lecture (think of this as a fill-in-the blank method of notetaking). These handouts provide a framework of the lecture topics for students and guide their notetaking (McKeachie & Svinicki, 2013). I typically staple the lab directions to the note handout to ensure that the background information and the lab activity are found together for review, as well as to encourage students to utilize the lecture notes while completing the lab.


4) Fostering Teamwork and Additional Exploration of Course Content

The last two structural tips involve fostering teamwork in the lab and providing encouragement for additional exploration of course content. Students teaching other students through groupwork yields various positive outcomes for students such as active learning strategies (e.g., active listening, summarizing and organizing content, asking questions), increased collaborative skills, and decreased absenteeism (McKeachie & Svinicki, 2013). Labs are a perfect environment to implement groupwork. All groups should consist of 3-4 students; yet assigning partners is also successful, and can still result in the positive attributes of larger group formations. Lab groups can be changed 3-4 times during the semester; this gives the instructor flexibility in case there is a need to reassign group members due to unforeseen conflicts, or simply to avoid redundancy.

Lastly, I encourage all students to stay in lab, even after they complete the assigned lab activities (time permitted). This nudge of encouragement is intended to allow students to explore additional content or review previous content with full access to lab equipment, the instructor, teaching assistants, and their group members. Similar to the office hour trend, most students do not take this offer and leave once they have completed the assigned lab activities; however, as exams or other high-stake assessments come closer, students begin staying and reviewing previous content. The majority of students appreciate this (see next section on student feedback), which I believe is fostered by the exploratory nature of labs.


Student Feedback on Lab Structure

The following data reflect feedback from a section of an upper-division behavioral neuroscience lab. Students were asked to rate how helpful each of the following lab components were during the neuroanatomy unit. The unit was composed of four lab periods with dissections ranging from brain basics (e.g. directional terms) to complex dissections of limbic system and basal ganglia structures.

How helpful were each of the following components in your understanding of neuroanatomy?

Table showing data from in-class responses.

What did you like the most about the neuroanatomy labs?

  •  “The directions for each lab made everything very clear and easy to follow”
  • “The notes were most helpful for my learning, dissections helped solidify the topics”
  • “Freedom to explore and find brain structures on your own after completing the assigned lab”
  • “I liked that we had some free time to continue dissecting the brains after we found the structures that were required for that day.”


American Psychological Association. (2013). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major. [Data File]. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/about/psymajor-guidelines.pdf

Beck, C., Butler, A., & Burke da Silva, K. (2014). Promoting inquiry-based teaching in laboratory courses: are we meeting the grade?. CBE—Life Sciences Education13(3), 444-452.

Domin, D. S. (1999). A review of laboratory instruction styles. Journal of Chemical Education76(4), 543-547.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences111(23), 8410-8415.

Kenwright, D., Dai, W., Osbourne, E., Gladman, T., Gallagher, P., & Grainger, R. (2017). Just tell me what I need to know to pass the exam!” can active flipped learning overcome passivity. TAPS2(1), 1-6.

Luckie, D. B., Aubry, J. R., Marengo, B. J., Rivkin, A. M., Foos, L. A., & Maleszewski, J. J. (2012). Less teaching, more learning: 10-yr study supports increasing student learning through less coverage and more inquiry. Advances in Physiology Education36(4), 325-335.

McKeachie, W., & Svinicki, M. (2013). McKeachie's teaching tips. Cengage Learning.

Misseyanni, A., Marouli, C., Papadopoulou, P., Lytras, M., & Gastardo, M. T. (2016). Stories of active learning in STEM: Lessons for STEM education. In Proceedings of the International Conference The Future of Education, (p. 232À236).

Jennifer Parada, M.A., is a recent graduate of the Psychological Sciences Master’s program at Northern Arizona University. Her research encompasses various aspects of the biology of behavior from physiological responses to stress to more applied research on decision-making following stressful experiences. In the classroom, Jennifer aims to apply and experiment with best practices to increase students’ comprehension and interest in neuroscience.

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