11 Leading Laboratory Sections

Adapted with permission from the University of Delaware, 2002

Like teaching any other class, teaching laboratory sections requires careful preparation. Know where all your teaching resources are located. Talk to TAs who have taught that lab. Realize that you are a qualified teaching assistant; none of your students has your background or scientific ability.

Although labs are run differently by the various UF departments, there are some general guidelines to follow:

Lab Preparation Checklist

  1. Prepare each experiment in advance. Performing the entire experiment in advance is the best way to troubleshoot a lab. You’ll be familiar with some of the possible stumbling blocks that your students may encounter.
  2. Know the theory. Read and study the theory on which the experiment is based—otherwise, some students may ask you questions that you cannot handle.
  3. Prepare demonstrations. If you are giving a demonstration before the lab, be prepared by listing all the steps to be conducted, assembling all the necessary materials and equipment, and rehearsing the demonstration in advance.
  4. Check for supplies/first aid. Accidents are always a possibility, so know where all the first-aid supplies are located, such as eye washes and bandages, and where to go for help.
  5. Anticipate safety problems. Safety is an important consideration when you are responsible for the health and well-being of 25-30 students. Convey to your students that safe laboratory practice is based on understanding and respect, not on fear. While there are general orientation and safety sessions for lab sections in the beginning of the semester, it is your responsibility to inform students of safety instructions specific to the experiment.
  6. Check for safety equipment. Make sure that all students are wearing proper clothing and their personal protective equipment (PPE), particularly department-approved goggles.
  7. Clarify learning objectives. It is usually appropriate to go over homework questions or provide some background before students work on their own.
  8. Return lab reports promptly. Establish criteria for grading and explain them before students complete the lab exercises.

During the semester, you may have the following questions:

What can I do to manage students during a lab? Teaching a lab is often composed of several one-on-one situations and can be a highly interactive format. To best help your students, learn their names. Don’t sit in the corner and grade papers! A good TA moves around the classroom, identifying problems before they occur, and helps students step back and evaluate what they’re doing.

What is the point of lab sections? Lab exercises and formal experiments are “hands-on” formats that provide students a chance to link together the theory and other experiments of the course. As a lab TA, you are expected to give a brief “lab talk” in which you: (1) outline the lab objectives and (2) cite the ways these objectives mesh with the course theory.

What should I look for when I evaluate the lab reports? First, check with the primary instructor for overall depth and critical content; grading may be standardized. Read through a handful of the reports to get a feel for the level of comprehension: students are novices and often use inexact language and roundabout discussions to explain their results. Finally, consider the value of a well-explained “wrong” result: what are the scientific skills we hope to foster during these labs?

How can I get my students to prepare for the lab? A “pop quiz” is the old stand-by method. Alternate methods include outlining the experiment in notebooks before class, encourage group discussions of expectations before each lab, or collect written predictions from each student. Handouts highlighting key theoretical, procedural, and safety points could be used. Of course, clearly defined lab goals and an enthusiastic and supportive TA contribute to students’ motivation as well.

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UF TA Handbook by John Jordi; Genavie Cueman; and Jennifer K. Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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