Sinclair Refining laboratory… at Corpus Christi Texas, by Robert Yarnall Richie via DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University (no copyright restrictions)

Enhancing learning in lab-based science education through re-designing assessment practices

Yesterday we had a really successful seminar with @seerym (Michael Seery) and @Breebio (Ronan Bree) opening up the lab practical for critical and practical inquiry.  The event attracted attracted over 40 colleagues from @NUIG including technical officers, post-doctoral students, educational technologists and academic developers, as well as lecturers.

In this post I will focus on the challenges offered by Michael’s contribution.

Michael was asked to problematise the lab practical as it normally appears in the science curriculum in higher education.  Those who know Michael’s work will be aware that unpacking the role of the lab practical has been a central focus of his work, so much so that he is endeavouring to write a book on the subject. An interesting resource on the ideas covered in the seminar is a post by Michael last year.  I will make some reference to it here.  The seminar offered Michael an opportunity to rehearse the central argument of his book.  I will try to outline some of the central issues and questions below.

  • Lab practicals, contrary to the professional discourse, do not warrant the effort expended on them
  • Despite the claims made that practical classes reinforce the theory and develop core skills there is no evidence to support this
  • The usual model for organising practicals result in negligible learning gains, over assess students without resulting in incremental improvements in either theoretical understanding or scientific skills, and have no demonstrable link with lecture series.

Practical classes can often be epitomised by the rush for the door where students correctly read the deep structure of the classes as being to get the experiment done as quickly as possible, write the lab report, and leave.  An average undergraduate can produce at least 125 lab reports without there being any substantial improvement in their scientific knowledge over that period related to the lab practicals.

Instead of making the false assumption that practical classes are locations for teaching theory, Michael, along with others, propose a different presumption

  • Organise lab practicals and lectures separately, each having a distinct function
  • Lectures become the means by which students are invited to engage with disciplinary knowledge, core concepts, troublesome knowledge, threshold concepts, etc.
  • Lab practicals then become the vehicles for developing and practicing disciplinary ways of doing, of practicing the scientific method. [I hope I have this distinction right…I’m sure Michael will correct me]

A number of practical ideas were offered to illustrate what a lab curriculum could look like.  I will focus on just a few.

  • Keep the traditional deductive approach but include decision points
    • Michael argued that there was nothing particularly wrong with the traditional deductive approach of practical classes.  Lab work should operate within a knowledge framework but should free itself from a ‘cook book’ approach.  The experiment would be organised around a series of decision points, where students would need to make informed choices about possible routes (having compared entity 1 with entity 2) what method would I use to test (hypothesis x)…I think.
  • Fewer but more powerful assessment points
    • There is no logical or necessary reason why students should have to produce a report for every lab.  Rather than producing 12 reports for a series of 12 labs why not 3 more substantive and focused assessment points which require students to go deeper into the topic/skill and educators to provide useful formative assessment.  In addition why not organise the assessment points so that each point build a basis for the next set of labs and assessment?
    • Based on the theory of cognitive load Michael suggested that assessment could focus on specific skill sets rather than being assessed on every dimension of the experiment.
  • Lab reports can simulate the research article
    • Michael suggested that lab reports should support the rationale that lab practicals develop disciplinary ways of doing and being by emulating the research article.
  • Diversify the modes of reporting
    • While lab reports might be perfect for some forms of assessment we should consider other modes of reporting learning.  One example provided was that of students using mobile devices to video each other practicing certain lab skills and then peer assessing this (with the added advantage that the videos can go into students’ portfolios and be used in securing internships or even jobs).

Certainly a lot of food for thought and I will certainly be back to discuss this again.