Developing student confidence in practical science - Key takeaways from LearnSci Webcasts

December 5, 2022

What does lack of confidence look like when students are in the lab, and what can educators do to develop confidence in practical science?

For our very first episode of the brand new LearnSci Webcasts, these were the questions Ashleigh had for our guests Dr. Dino Spagnoli from the University of Western Australia and Dr. Callum Cooper from the University of Sunderland. They shared with us their experiences and how they help their students feel more confident in the lab. Watch the full episode or read the key takeaways below.

How does lack of confidence manifest in students, and how does this affect their learning?

1. Lack of confidence commonly presents with students being nervous to begin their experiments. 

Typically this is common in first-years, but also it’s noticed in second year and beyond as students struggle to get back into the swing of experiments after summer. Both Dino and Callum mention how their students delay beginning their experiments with unnecessary questions or over-reading of their notes.

2. If students are low in confidence during their labs, they may be missing out on valuable experiences. 

Labs are extremely valuable beyond just bridging theory between lectures and experiments. They offer an opportunity to experience a type of environment a scientist could work in. Additionally, they’re great networking opportunities, with many students building relationships with peers that could last them their entire university career.

3. Learning to fail is important, but when a grade is attached, it can increase anxiety and decrease confidence even more. 

Students need the opportunity to fail, but when assessments and grades are at stake, even the risk of failure can increase their anxiety and decrease their confidence. It can also be hard to find the opportunities to create a space for students to fail.

“The lab experience, I think, is really valuable and the confidence of students shouldn't hinder that experience for them”
Dr. Dino Spagnoli, University of Western Australia

Top tips to help educators build student confidence

1. Allow students to get familiar with their lab environment ahead of their practicals. 

Dino offers tours of the labs so students, as well as creating 360 virtual lab tours for students to engage with, meaning even when there’s large cohorts they can experience the labs before classes. Callum also preps students by assigning pre-lab exercises and uses the LearnSci LabSims to build their knowledge up prior to their practicals.

2. Help students understand ‘failure’ is a part of science, and help mitigate mistakes so they can learn from them.

Students need to be aware that failure and mistakes are part of science and research. Sometimes the stress can be reduced by preparing back-up solutions to ensure they can still carry out the rest of the experiment, or example data may be provided so they can complete analysis.

3. If you’re struggling to find real opportunities to fail, use examples and mock data to generate conversations about consequences.

Callum explains how he bridges student’s mistakes to real world scenarios so they can understand how important it is to identify and cope with errors. He even provides fake data for pharmaceutical science students to analyse for contamination sources, and tasks them with finding a way to resolve the issue.

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Thank you once again to Dino and Callum for joining us on this week’s webcast. You can view the full webcast recording and the rest of our series on our YouTube channel, and join the conversation on Twitter at #LearnSciWebcasts.

Next time, we’re joined by Prof. Nicky King and Dr. Shane Austin to discuss the balance between choice and structure for students learning. Want to be the first to know? Subscribe to our mailing list for the latest updates.

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