Palgrave Teaching and Learning

by Sally Brown (Series Editor)

Supporting learning in laboratories

A range of subjects including medicine, traditional sciences, engineering, food technology and sports science make use of laboratory settings where students can experiment and explore how theory can be applied to practice. Such experiences can be exciting and transformative for students in helping them really get to grips with the subjects they are studying. All too often though, students and staff describe the lab experience as dreary, formulaic and unproductive, sometimes resulting in students mindlessly following methodological ‘recipe books’ and resulting in lots of repetitive marking of lab books for staff. There are obvious issues around safeguarding students in complex and sometimes dangerous environments, but this can result in highly constrained safe working practices which can hamper real experimentation. Resource-based learning materials can help make learning science practically a more meaningful experience (Exley and Gibbs, 1994), but this alone is insufficient.

Davidowitz and Rollnick (2001 describe what can go wrong when students view laboratory practicals as simply an exercise in task completion, where students can suffer from information overload in complex, information -ich environments and neither students nor staff really benefit from the experience. They found their students, many of whom came from disadvantaged backgrounds, arrived badly prepared at their practicals and just went through the motions in order to get the job done and have the associated marks awarded. Just as the meticulous following of recipes helps cooks make specific meals, but may not give them the confidence to branch out into devising their own original culinary creations, so also students working in labs who unthinkingly follow specified routines may never really understand the science behind the practicals. Their alternative approach focused on changing the nature of the interaction between staff and students by modifying practices and assessment. They enforced preparation in advance by requiring students, before setting foot in the lab, to construct flow diagrams (which included images and text) for each experiment, thereby helping students to achieve a detailed understanding of both the underlying chemistry and the experimental steps to be carried out during the experiment.

Advice on optimising laboratory learning (Phil Race)

  • Make the intended learning outcomes to be achieved in laboratory work clear and relevant, and integrate them well into the overall assessment profile for each module or course.
  • Provide students with tasks and activities to complete before undertaking laboratory work, so that they know more about what they will be doing in the lab, and why it links to the rest of the curriculum.
  • Ensure that writing up laboratory work is not formulaic or repetitive by placing due emphasis on the interpretation of results, the estimation of sources of experimental error and the effects which these can have on the validity and reliability of the findings.


Adapted from Chapter 5 of Brown, S. (2015) Learning, Teaching and Assessment in Higher Education: Global perspectives, London: Palgrave.

Davidowitz, B. and Rollnick, M. (2001) Effectiveness of flow diagrams as a strategy for learning in laboratories, Australian Journal of Education in Chemistry, 57(2001), pp. 18–24.

Exley, K. and Gibbs, G. (1994) Course Design for Resource Based Learning: Science, Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff Development.