Teaching Laboratories Under the Microscope- Part II

The Student Perspective

I know when I was a college student, I basically muddled my way through a 4-6 hr lab period, barely knowing what I was doing despite reading through the instructions and even preparing a “pre-lab” outline the night before. I enjoyed the actual being there for the most part, but I felt the laboratory sessions lasted way too long. Most of my labs didn’t seem connected to my course work and most were just lists of steps to be done in order. I certainly didn’t learn the technique adequately with only a single exposure for it to do me any good….

A lot has changed since I was taking science lab courses.


I wanted to know how current science students feel about science course laboratories. So, I conducted a brief poll of some biology and neuroscience and behavior majors to find out what they get out of their science course teaching laboratory experiences. Here’s what some said:

  • Science labs, particularly those that have some independence in them (experimental design, etc) really do help with understanding fundamental concepts.
  • The best labs are the ones that are connected to the class material in a timely way.
  • There’s a value to doing it yourself, to finding out about human error, about how tricky it is to do something (like pipetting) well.
  • Course labs provide important skills that can be put on a resume and that can help with finding a job or summer internship.
  • While some labs are incredibly tedious, most of them are pretty fun.
  • Most of the students did feel that a four hour lab period could probably be shortened and achieve the same result. They did admit that some procedures seem to need that length of time, though.

The students I interviewed did admit to doing a lot of clock-watching, but they all said that even the tedious and frustrating parts are later appreciated. Lots of the students stressed how the best labs are the ones that allow for some independent thought or design and that are tied temporally to the course material. The worst labs (from the students’ perspectives) are the ones that are just a list of steps or that seem very disconnected from the course material.

These comments are very helpful to me as I work to update and improve my teaching laboratories. I hope they will be helpful to you, too!



2 thoughts on “Teaching Laboratories Under the Microscope- Part II

  1. Thanks for taking this survey. I guess the trick is to tie some of the early labs, where you have to learn technique, to the pay-off of getting to think about and design your own experiment. Perhaps in an ideal world “labs” are working with faculty members on research: it’s all independent!

  2. What I’ve done in my intermediate level neuroscience and behavior course is have a couple of weeks of “workshops” where the focus is on skills like experimental design, behavioral measurements, statistics, figure preparation, use of fluorescent microscope, etc. The students then used the tools and skills to do a four-week independent project. The students seem to really like this approach. They see the applicability of the skills to a project of their own design. They get a chance to use and develop those skills multiple times.

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