Some instructional situations involve, by their very nature, active learning. Examples of such situations include studios, performance areas (perhaps where students are working on a creative project), field studies, or laboratory situations. While the dynamics of the student-teacher relationship and the criteria for improving it remain essentially the same as in traditional situations, the following additional points could be considered.
Labs are offered in conjunction with large lecture courses so students may acquire technical skills and apply concepts and theories presented in lecture. This hands-on experience encourages them to develop a spirit of inquiry and allows them to live for a semester as practicing biologists, chemists, geologists, etc. It may sound trite, but you really do have an opportunity to help students develop some appreciation of the mysterious scientific method.
Preparing Yourself to Teach Laboratory Sections
The most important thing you can do to ensure that your lab section runs smoothly is to be well-prepared. Your preparation, prior to the start of the semester, should include becoming acquainted with the lab storeroom so you won't lose time looking for necessary equipment or materials, and, if applicable, knowing the location of the first aid kit, basic first aid rules, and procedures for getting emergency assistance.
Conduct basic weekly planning for your lab section.
Know exactly what the students are supposed to learn and why they have to learn it. This preparation may come in handy when your students start to wonder why they're doing what they're doing.
Perform the entire experiment in advance.
Take a moment to view lab assignment from a student's perspective. Look for ambiguities and poorly designed procedures that may give the students trouble, and think about whether they will understand the exercise. The best way for you to troubleshoot a lab is to do a trial run yourself. By doing so, you'll be familiar with some of the stumbling blocks your students may confront, and you'll know the subtler points of the process you are demonstrating.
Read and study the theory on which the experiment is based.
Your understanding of the theoretical aspect of the lab should be useful to you in handling most student questions that don't deal with concrete parts of the experiment. Research the relevance of the experiment, both the technique being taught and the applications of the theory being demonstrated.
Decide how to introduce the lab most effectively.
Will students need you to demonstrate the procedures that they'll be following? Is a handout with written instructions in order? Do you want two students in the class to demonstrate the experiment to the rest of the class? Will a 15-minute lecture about the theory and intent of the lab suffice? Your initial introduction to the lab or the day's first activity can set the tone and motivation for the rest of the lab.
Preparing Students for the Lab
Students who have no understanding of why the experiment is important will derive as much knowledge from conducting the experiment as they would from spending a semester in the coffee shop.
Follow Safety Procedures
Safety takes on special importance when you are directly responsible for the health and well-being of 25 or 30 laboratory students. If your department's orientation does not cover safety procedures, the professor or lab coordinator in charge of the course will probably take responsibility for describing departmental policies.
During the first few weeks of the semester you should demonstrate to students the proper techniques for decanting and mixing liquids, handling glassware, organizing a work area, and using burners and other equipment—all of the precautionary measures you now perform almost unconsciously; your students, however, don't have your experience and will, therefore, appreciate your concern and advice.
Encourage students to read the assignment and review lecture notes before coming to lab.
Reading the assignment will give students a starting point for the lab and they will arrive ready to begin. Students who have reviewed lecture notes and the lab manual will have some understanding of the experiment's importance.
Prepare a brief oral presentation to orient students to the lab.
This brief presentation should include all the information needed to understand and complete the assignment. As you plan the presentation, stop and ask yourself whether you would understand if you were one of the students.
Devise some means to ensure that students are familiar with the lab before they come to class.
Some instructors feel that grades on lab reports are incentive enough, while others require students to submit a statement of purposes and procedures or an explanation of why and how the experiment is relevant to the course.
Supervising the Experiment
If both you and your students are well prepared, you will be free to perform your most important role — that of guiding the students' development.
Review the lab's purposes and procedures.
At the beginning of the lab, you might deliver a brief but inspiring lecture on how the experiment relates to current developments in the discipline, or you might discuss the students' statements of objectives. Ask for questions, clarify any ambiguities in the lab manual, and demonstrate special procedures now rather than interrupting the experiment later.
Make contact with each student during the lab period.
Try to talk with each student at least once during the experiment. Technical and procedural matters can be handled quickly with a few words of advice or a very brief demonstration. Your primary role, however, is to help students master the steps of scientific inquiry: recognizing and stating a problem, formulating hypotheses, collecting data, testing hypotheses, and drawing conclusions.
Devise strategies to help students solve problems.
Helping students master each step is not an easy task. You can tell students to "hold the stopper between your index and middle fingers while you're pouring," but telling them to "think better" or "remember what the professor said about that yesterday" will not be very effective. There are a variety of ways to help students solve problems for themselves. Perhaps a scaled down version of the discussion techniques described earlier, tailored to the student and the experiment, would work. Or, perhaps you'll take the opposite approach and make yourself available to ask rather than answer questions.
Refrain from giving outright answers or advice.
If lab partners ask, "Why can't we get this to come out right?" try asking them a series of questions that will lead them to discover the reasons for themselves rather than simply explaining why the experiment failed. Of course sometimes the reason will be relatively simple ("You used hydrochloric instead of nitric acid"), but just as often the reason will be more substantial — a matter of timing, sequence, proportion, or interpretation. Perhaps the student had the necessary data but has overlooked an important step in analyzing the results or is unable to synthesize a solution. It's very tempting to help students by saying, "Aha, I see where you went wrong," but unless you resist the temptation, they are likely to falter at the same stage in the next experiment. Students may become frustrated if they can't get a straight answer out of you, but they will also learn more.
Using Relevant Teaching Strategies
Guide students to information, rather than just giving it to them.
When teaching in a laboratory, it is easy to become a solitary figure at the front of the lab, doing nothing unless people approach with questions. A better strategy is to walk around the lab and talk with students, acting as their guide to the information rather than just answering their questions. Ask them about obscure points from the lecture so you will know if they understand what they are doing. This way, you can also help students prepare for their examinations. When offering information, be wary of talking over the heads of some of the students, especially if the information is pivotal to the basic understanding. It is perhaps better to emphasize the concepts and gradually introduce the terminology that students should use to discuss concepts.
Encourage students to help each other learn.
Have students work together, either formally or informally. In this way they can help each other learn the material, share equipment and good preparations, and answer each other's questions. When students are working in groups, check on the progress of each individual within the group, encouraging everyone to participate and making it everyone's responsibility to help other group members understand the material.
Good teachers stay organized and help their students to be organized, too. It is important to know where equipment and reference material are located, to make careful note of any missing or damaged supplies and equipment and take care of it right away rather than waiting until the next lab. Checking on how students organize their data collection, written work and drawings helps keep them on track.
Give students periodic reminders.
It is also useful to remind students how much time remains, what needs to be accomplished, and to allow for clean-up time. Safety rules should be established and you should make sure the students follow all the safety rules and guidelines.