Guidebook for Teaching in Laboratory Classes
Praveena Kanchupati, PhD. candidate
GTA Consultant, Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning
Former GTA, Department of Biology and Microbiology
Contributions Shelly Bayer, Ed. D.
Assistant Director, Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning
Kevin Sackreiter, Ed. D.
Director, Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning
As a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) you are in for a role change - from a student to an instructor. Up until this point as a graduate student, you were responsible for learning new concepts and for developing specific skills necessary to succeed in research. From now on, in your role as an instructor (in addition to your role as a graduate student), you will be responsible for helping others to learn in a laboratory classroom. This is a huge step forward in your career, one that provides a great opportunity to learn, teach and above all, to interact with diverse group of young students whom you can inspire and in turn get inspired. Having said that, the new role also comes with many new challenges.
This guidebook is a reflection on my teaching experience as a former GTA, and more importantly, an effort to ease you into your role as a laboratory instructor. This handbook will walk you through the do’s and don’ts to help you think about how you can become an effective and successful laboratory instructor.
The First Day of Lab:
Getting over cold feet
It is very common and normal to get nervous before the class starts, especially if you are a first timer. The best way to overcome this is to prepare well and to arrive at the lab 15-20 minutes before the start of the class. Arriving before start time will help you in more ways than you can imagine. You can; i) check on the lab instruments and materials needed for the experiment, ii) walk around and familiarize yourself with the room assigned to you, iii) go through the slides or any material you are supposed to discuss with your class, iv) greet students as they come in, and v) have small ice-breaker sessions. Each and every one of the listed activities will definitely help you get over your nerves and also show your students that you take teaching seriously and that you are well prepared. “A good first impression can work wonders,”- J.K. Rowling, so get to the lab early and make sure those first impressions work in your favor!
Time is of essence for everybody. But, if you take time to properly introduce yourself and let the students introduce themselves, it will be great! Students want to know who you are, what you do, and how long you have been teaching labs. Believe me, they appreciate a chance to know you better. Introducing yourself can be made interesting, if you stand at the back of the class, instead of hiding behind the computer/front desk (we like to do that, don’t we?) and walk down towards the front of the class, all the while looking into as many faces as you can. This practice can elevate your confidence levels and also given an impression to your students that you are approachable. Also, having your name written on the board is a good idea!
Now, getting them to introduce themselves can be a bit lengthy process and can become tiring very easily. Keep it short and quick - name, hometown, school year and major is a good start. And you will pick up at least five names and faces, and the next time they walk in, you can use this to your advantage! Students appreciate knowing that you care about them as individuals and using their names shows this.
Tackling safety-sheets and syllabus
Majority of the laboratory instructors are responsible for going through the safety sheets and syllabus and grade structure the first day of lab. This can take a good 15-20
minutes and is an extremely boring and mechanical process. What can you do to make it more interesting? Let them look around the lab (definitely in an orderly fashion) and come
up with the location of the safety equipment in and around the lab. This practice has dual implications; one, they have good physical movement and two, this can be fun!
Now, tackling syllabus and grade structure part can be more challenging. Most labs have their syllabus and grade structure uploaded online and the students have access to them even before the laboratory starts. Instead of going through the uploaded content you can come up with questions, for example; what are they expecting to learn or which part of the syllabus seems challenging or difficult at the first glance and so on. Elaborate more about the grading and reports part though, as that is the most important part of the syllabus from the students’ point of view. State clearly how the students will be evaluated and assessed. For instance, the lab reports may make up 75% of the grade and the rest 25% will be accounted for, by the lab quizzes. Tell the students about this. Emphasize on the importance of attendance. Clearly discuss about what constitutes ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ grades in the lab. You also need to state and discuss the policies for late submissions, make-up labs/exams and missed assignments.
Other expectations and policies
It is always important to establish the tone for the rest of the semester, on the very first day of the lab. You should let them know what you are expecting them to accomplish and learn. You can also use this first day to answer any questions or address any concerns they might have. The first day of the semester, though will be very much about the syllabus, grading policies, safety sheets and introductions, you should also have some fun. Set up a cool experiment that would freshen up their minds and give them an opportunity to learn something interesting and informative. Or you can show a very intriguing video on a topic that is relevant to the lab. Capture their imagination and interest and start the semester with a bang!
Remember: Prepare well, relax, be yourself and have fun! SMILE a lot!
Keeping Students Engaged
Laboratory classes can be very abstract. Though they are designed to go hand in hand with the course, few labs are designed to get the students acquainted to specific tools and techniques used in the field of study in question. This lack of relationship between labs and course can often lead to students getting disengaged and off-track or make them approach the labs mechanically rendering the labs very dull and boring. This is where you come in! There is nothing you can do about the design of the labs but you can do a lot about how they are taught.
Laboratory class is a great platform to develop your own teaching style and philosophy, experiment with different active learning strategies that research has proven to be more effective in improving student engagement and critical thinking and build a long-standing rapport with diverse group of students. But, how can all these be achieved?
Have pre-lab mini kickoffs
Every lab has some sort of introductory session in which the principle, protocol and expected outcomes are presented. Most of the labs rely on PowerPoint presentations, but these presentations often fall short on getting the information across to the students (Death by PowerPoint!).As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Tell me, I will forget; Show me, I may remember; Involve me and I will understand”; verbal or visual presentations alone have limited accessibility. Hands-on involvement of students is the best way to make sure they understand and thus remember the different components of the week’s experiment.
Have pre-lab mini kick-off sessions (that’s what I like to call them, you can come with your own one-liner!) instead. They can replace the very long and less engaging PowerPoint presentations and are a great tool to achieve improved students engagement. You can present the components of the lab in a inquiry-based presentation. Ask a question and give them time to discuss in small groups or think-pair-share. This activity will put more responsibility on the students’ shoulder and hold them more accountable to learn and to go through the content prior to the lab day. This activity can also be used as a tool to assess students’ prior knowledge, providing you with a lot of information about the topics that are well understood and others that need some revision and strengthening. This is the time you can also emphasize on the use of other resources and additional material to build a strong foundation for the topics. This activity can bring enthusiasm and fun to the lab. The students will have time to recollect their thoughts and will start the lab with an informed perspective. You, as an instructor can be a facilitator guiding the students in the discussions and answering any particularly difficult questions.
Use Board talk
Use the board for visually presenting objectives or lab-tips or even announcements. And leave them on. White board is also an excellent tool to be used for group discussions involving drawings or illustrations. Just remember to write clearly and neatly!
Develop the art of tackling questions
The best and only way to encourage critical thinking among students is for you to NOT answer all their questions! YES, do not answer their questions! Ask a question back! Your tone needs to be positive, though. Its important to understand that if you as an instructor, keep answering their questions, they will not make any effort to get to the answer on their own. If the question is about the procedure, instead of telling them, politely ask, “What step are you at?” or, “What step is challenging you?” These questions will prompt them to actually go back and refer to the protocol and they themselves will find out the answer to the initial question. Now, answering more serious and difficult questions in an art, an art that every instructor should be a master at. Open such questions first to the group they are working in, then to the whole class and see if that would lead them to the answer. If not, then you step in. Remember, you are not a guidebook or a question bank, you are a resource! Use yourself efficiently. Always encourage questions that start with or involve the words why, what, and how. The more the better!
I learned this from the best; analogies serve as a great tool, not only for clarification on a topic, but also for making the topic more relevant to everyday life. In other words, you can use analogies to make a lab less abstract. One of my favorite examples that I love to elaborate on in my labs is on a molecular biology tool called Polymerase Chain Reaction or PCR. This tool is used to amplify a single copy or few copies of DNA into millions of copies. Its applications range from a research laboratory studying a particular gene to a forensic laboratory to even medicine. So, as an analogy for the unchallenged importance of PCR, I refer to the popular TV shows such as CSI Miami or NCIS. Students can now relate to the real world and see very clearly how the tools they are learning have important real-life applications outside a research lab of a graduate student. In another instance, I like to explain simple genetic problems using plant populations that are being grown in a greenhouse or fields and put the study in perspective by showing them some breeding images from past. Once they look at the images, they appreciate the importance of learning genetics and statistics.
Revisit difficult questions
As an instructor, I have always concentrated more on asking the questions related to the current weeks’ work rather than revisiting the difficult questions from previous labs, as well. Students always appreciate the opportunity to review difficult and key questions. By revisiting some of the questions that majority of the students did not answer correctly, or the questions that were asked by almost every group during the experiment; you are creating a very strong learning environment. You are i) providing real-time feedback to the students, a very essential teaching and learning element; ii) you are also strengthening the fundamental concepts by emphasizing on them through these discussions and iii) you are providing scope for group discussions and student involvement.
Encourage proper choice of words
Don’t just ask questions, encourage proper choice of words in the answers. When I was a student in my graduate school back in India, I was asked to answer a very basic question about synthesis of RNA. I knew the answer, but when I recited it, my answer was not accepted by my professor, just because I had used the word “produced” in place of “synthesized”. That was the day I learned the importance of using proper words i.e. ‘scientific/ technical words’. It is very essential for the students to develop the habit of using the correct words where required, and you as an instructor should constantly put forth the effort to establish this as a ground rule for your labs. You should be careful to follow the rule yourself in the first place.
Get feedback and evaluate it
Always plan on getting a feedback from your students throughout the semester. This will not only help you build your confidence and to reflect on your teaching skills, it will also give you time to rectify or improve any teaching strategies that are not helping the students in their learning. By using note cards, or online tools like Question Pro surveys, the students will remain anonymous and this will encourage honest feedbacks and secure confidentiality. Keep the questionnaire very short and simple, yet beneficial to you. Be sure to focus the questions on their learning and not on what they like or don’t like. When you do this, you are showing i) you take their opinion very seriously, ii) you are very serious about teaching and iii) you will use their suggestions and advices if any and create a better learning environment. Believe me, your students will appreciate you for this!
Encourage one-on-one interactions
Always have office hours set up for one-on-one interactions outside the lab. This shows to your students that you are approachable and that you are willing to help them out if they do decide to seek your help. Staying after lab ends and allowing students to approach you with any additional question they might have on the topic is also a very good practice.
Own your mistakes and do not repeat them
It is okay to make mistakes. Admit when you make a mistake and learn from them. Model mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow in front of your students. Explain to your students how to learn from mistakes, and then make sure not to repeat them!
Provide effective and timely feedback
Providing timely, specific, prioritized, and student-tailored feedback can enhance learning. The analogy comparing feedback to a Global Positioning System (GPS) is just exceptionally meaningful. As a teacher one cannot just tell their students that they are wrong, instead they have to tell them: i) what their current understanding is, ii) how far are they from the course/lab goal, and iii) how would they reach the goal. Evaluating lab reports and scoring them will show the students as to what the mistake was, but not all will be willing to walk up to you and ask for clarification. You can save a ton of time and also create a better learning environment by discussing few difficult questions the following week, with the whole class. By having this activity you are encouraging the whole class to participate, put forth their point of view and come up with the right answer as a group. This activity will also allow the students to identify any gaps or misconceptions they might have regarding the topic. You are also encouraging peer-learning here, an evidence-based teaching practice that has been shown to improve critical thinking and problem solving.
Remember: Though the engagement possibilities seem like a long list, once you start enjoying yourself in the role of an instructor, you will definitely try and experiment with few or all the items on the list. Or better, come up with a list of your own! Enjoy yourself and own your class! The more you focus on the students’ learning and show enthusiasm when they are successful the more engaged the students will be.
Preparing for lab classes:
On effective feedback:
Book chapter: Chapter 5 What Kinds of Practice and Feedback Enhance Learning?
How Learning Works by Ambrose et al. (This book is available for personal checkout through the office of CETL.)
“Immediacy creates a more engaging atmosphere for the teacher-student relationship” (McCroskey and Richmond, 1992). As teaching assistants, you are beginning to develop strategies to promote learning, and including immediacy behaviors will strengthen the effectiveness of your teaching. It has been shown through research that immediacy positively correlates with student motivation, student attendance, instructor trustworthiness, and acceptance. You may be already doing some of these things, but it good to know that good behavior practices will result in more respect and a calmer and positive, learning environment!
Present yourself as approachable and friendly (yet professional). Keep your gestures clean. Use a vocal variety when addressing your students. Show enthusiasm and passion in your voice. Having a relaxed body posture is also important. Do not stay behind the podium or the computer. Students expect their instructors to be very confident and knowledgeable. Do not avoid their gaze and turn your back to them while you are explaining concepts. This will encourage avoidance and can adversely affect the learning environment.
Verbal behaviors are as important as the nonverbal behaviors in the context of immediacy. Call the students by their names. This is the most critical and important verbal immediacy behavior. Use the terms like “we” and “us” instead of “you” and “I”. This will infuse a sense of belonging in your class and would encourage your students to work as a more functional group. Allow for small talks in and outside the class. Practicing these behaviors will help you build good rapport with your students.
Remember: Be well prepared for your class, relax and have small talks with your students. Students will respect you when you show respect to them!
I am an international student myself and have faced many challenges because of the cultural, social and educational differences inherited by being from a foreign country. A little confidence and a big appetite to learn about a different culture and practice new teaching and learning strategies will take you a long way. Be proud of your culture and social norms and at the same time appreciate what you experience and see here in America.
Heavy accent issues
Do not worry about your accent too much. When you practice listening to your students and supervisors and try speaking slowly and clearly, you will do much better. Acknowledge, but never apologize for any language limitations. Be willing to learn from your students and let them know that you would appreciate any corrections they try to make. Use media to back you up. PowerPoint, YouTube or Google for that matter, can be your back up army.
Use the cultural differences to your advantage. You can always use short stories derived from your culture or education structure as ice-breakers the first few weeks of the semester. This will serve a dual purpose. First, students will get an idea of what your likes and dislikes are, what your beliefs are, what your upbringing was and so on, and secondly, sharing some of yourself will make you more approachable to your students.
Seek help whenever you need some. Use the resources available on campus. Do not be shy or feel nervous while asking for help. The supervisors know that teaching undergraduates is very new and different job for you to handle and naturally expect you to have some issues, and they are more than willing to help. Center for Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (CETL) provides semester long workshop series which are aimed at improving teaching. Attending these can help you improve your teaching and you can also pick up some tips from your colleagues and peers in attendance. The staff at the CETL office are resources to seek out regarding any of your teaching needs. They can provide support, resources, and direction; you just need to ask!
Be open to new information and ideas, be approachable, and SMILE a lot. You will find your students to be friendly and interesting if you invest in their learning!
Catherine R., Associate Director, ITL, Director, TA Programs, Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Connecticut “Guidebook for Teaching Assistants”, January, 2011.
Allen, D., O’Connell, R., Percha, B., Erickson, B., Nord, B., Harper, D., Bialek, J., & Nam E. University of Michigan Physics Department, University of Michigan “GSI training course: Strategies for Effective Teaching in the Laboratory Class”, 2009.