How to make practical labs less daunting for first-year students - Key takeaways from LearnSci Webcasts

January 9, 2023

This week, episode 3 of LearnSci Webcasts explored how to make practical labs less daunting for first year students. We were joined by Dr. Courtney Davy from Victoria University of Wellington, Dr. Andrew Allsebrook from the University of Queensland and Dr. Callum Cooper from the University of Sunderland to discuss the challenges faced when incoming cohorts attend labs for the first time, and how we can make that transition easier.

"Try and help them realise that science isn't perfect. Sometimes stuff goes wrong and it's not necessarily about whether it's done wrong or right. It's about why it's done that and how to interpret what you've got, especially from a biological point of view."

Callum Cooper, University of Sunderland

Common themes and challenges faced by our panel of educators

  • Students are going through a massive transition in their learning and their personal lives. With such a big change not only in their course work, but in their overall university experiences, students are often overwhelmed at the start of term.
  • The level of experience with lab experiments and equipment can vary greatly depending on the school attended. Universities hail students from many different locations and backgrounds, which means their experiences are all going to vary. Some will be more comfortable in a lab than others.
  • Students on different course disciplines may have different expectations. The difference between scientific and professional degrees might mean they need a bit more context to see why they are doing the lab experiments. 

Top tips for helping your students feel more prepared

1. Introduce students to the experiment and techniques with strong, engaging pre-lab exercises.

Helping students feel more comfortable with equipment and common techniques using pre-lab tasks helps take the pressure off when entering the laboratory for the first time. 

2. Share your own experiences as a scientist and help them understand that mistakes happen.

Reminding students that science is not perfect and that mistakes happen can increase their confidence when performing new experiments and techniques. 

3. Create a good structure and prep your demonstrators for common pitfalls so students know they’re in safe hands.

Let students know that there’s nothing you can’t work on together to solve issues. Whether it’s a experiment gone wrong or marks lost in analysis, making it clear to them that they’re not on their own is key. 

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Thank you to Courtney, Andrew and Callum for joining us on this week’s webcast and sharing your experiences with our community. If you have different experiences you’d like to share with us, or you have your own tips to help fellow educators, let us know on Twitter.

You can view the full webcast recording, and the rest of our series on our YouTube channel.

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