4 Ways to Construct a Digital Chemistry Pre-lab That Reaps Rewards…
Whatever a lab coordinator’s paradise is it surely looked nothing like last year. Forced digital delivery obliterated many of the honed lab processes required to run an efficient lab. TA training, stockroom supplies, scheduling all had to be re-done in a week’s notice. Now with many schools looking to return to at least a partial face-to-face format in the fall, it’s time to re-evaluate if and how digital continues to play a part in the lab experience.
A lab manager once half-joked that they’d succeeded in their job if no one got injured in the lab and the hallway outside their office wasn’t lined with students post-lab. While student safety and comprehension in general are admirable goals, what resources are available to help you reach them?
Modern Lab Constraints
Let’s be frank, whether you are able to sync the lab to the lecture or not, explaining the chemistry behind the lab, the details necessary to execute the lab, AND have the students connect the two in a time constrained manner, many times under the guidance of a TA, is a challenge carrying with it a high degree of difficulty. Recently a chemistry instructor told us that an overarching goal of the general chemistry lab is to have students wrestle with the experiential nature of science – observe and understand. How can this be pulled off in the face of the formidable headwinds? Lab preparation, and pre-lab, always critical, have taken on added significance with potentially more students in the fall, fewer resources and at some schools, shorter labs.
Large enrollments and more sections only magnify the degree of difficulty. An added challenge some lab managers may face in the coming year is implementing labs with fewer resources. Not exactly a Wallenda highwire act but getting closer to it.
The Growing Importance of Pre-labs
While there is little argument over the importance of the pre-lab, it’s often the in-lab that gets more of the attention. There are good reasons for the discrepancy; more time is spent carrying out the lab, it takes time to develop a lab and resourcing an effective lab requires planning and follow-through. But if the goal is to have students observe and understand chemistry, then all else fails without preparation.
Gone from most pre-labs are the days of having students re-writing/copying the lab procedure directly into their lab notebook. Another causality, thanks to overstretched resources, is the pre-lab recitation, time outside the lab dedicated to lab preparation. Although understanding the procedure is critical for a safe and efficient lab, and the “copying method” may still have merit, the benefits of certain digital tools to the pre-lab experience can better engage both the student and instructor.
How to Construct a Pre-lab That Pays Off
First, there are loads more ideas on the subject than what is offered here. This is merely a primer, and these ideas don’t substitute for good teaching. What they do is leverage digital resources you may not have considered that work equally well in virtual, hybrid, and face-to-face labs.
Most instructors have given up on the goal of linking lab to lecture. Students learn kinetics on Tuesday in lecture and by Wednesday they have it all down for lab, now that might be a lab coordinator’s paradise! In the real world, however, factors like resources and scheduling get in the way of this dovetail relationship. With labs frequently not held in conjunction with their related lectures, pre-labs take on a more substantial role. They must provide essential chemistry background and then connect to the lab, followed by the details (procedure) of the lab. That’s a lot to pack into a pre-lab, but there are effective ways to highlight these parts and make them stick.
Question options once only available in expensive homework platforms have evolved and now can be deployed in pre-labs. This includes questions that involve:
- Chemistry equation editor
- Algorithmic questions
Other question types like variable grading that are chemistry and lab centric enhance the students understanding of the chemistry material and provide a quick and effective way of quickly turning a face-to-face lab into a virtual one if the need arises.
Digital questions can now come in a wide range of interactive responses and benefit the student and instructor by:
- Automatically grading with aggregated results for easy review and actions
- Reducing cheating, especially “hallway” cheating where students compare answers outside the lab room
- Rewarding more interaction with the content, especially if you use video or other items like simulations
- Providing a variety of student metrics. With results in-hand, an instructor can concentrate any in-lab discussion on topics students struggled with in the pre-lab
- Saving grading time and providing feedback to the student
Students are better prepped for the in-lab experience having prepared with a dynamic pre-lab because:
- Video demonstrations of the procedure in action bring the lab to life by showing students what they need to do rather than just telling them. And that visual instruction can be reinforced by adding assessments right after the video– to get the students to process and describe what they have seen and need to do.
- They can be prepped visually, orally, and through assessments about how to use the equipment, proceed safely with the lab and dispose of post-lab materials.
- Assessments can be used to ensure a certain level of preparation has been obtained, keeping students who aren’t prepared out of the lab until they do the required work.
And here are some additional reasons you might not have considered that make digital prep a boon for students:
- They can return to the material and re-read, re-watch, re-listen, re-answer assessments to ensure they understand it. Since students learn differently, the ability to rely on multiple senses when preparing for lab encourages more students to be prepared in a way that works best for them.
- Courses with multiple sections and multiple instructors can all receive the same prep—ensuring all students enter lab on the same footing.
- Going digital with prep and even post-labs doesn’t require the absence of print. Mini print manuals can be provided so that students can take what is needed for the lab into the lab for reference and recording of data.
Regardless of how your chemistry lab will be taught next term: virtually, hybrid, or face-to-face, digital pre-labs will reward you and your students with a resourceful and creative way to get your students primed for your labs.
Van Griner Learning’s LabRight Chemistry Can Help!
- Lab work automatically graded
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- More student interactivity
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