How to Teach with Classroom Experiments

Initial Publication Date: June 24, 2010

Students develop conjectures during class
Conducting a classroom experiment is easy to do. The first time you try one, it is probably a good idea to use an experiment that someone else has prepared. In a published experiment, there will typically be "instructor's notes" containing detailed instructions for conducting the experiment. Sometimes the instructor plays an active role and in other cases the instructor gives students a period of time to complete the experiment while the instructor is passive. Teaching notes also generally give suggestions for adapting the exercise to different classroom environments, for example, large vs. small classes. They may also contain variations that might help tailor the experiment to an individual instructor's course.

Nuts and Bolts

Conducting a classroom experiment involves several important steps. (Click on the titles of each step for more discussion.)
1. Instructor Preparation
Instructors routinely tailor classes to their own students. Some issues you may encounter when using classroom experiments include:
  • Deciding how to best incorporate experiments into class content
  • Designating an appropriate amount of time for the experiment - some experiments might be adapted to take more than one class period while others may be adapted to take only a few minutes. For more information see How Much Time Does it Take?
  • Matching the experiment to the class level, course atmosphere and the personalities and learning styles of your students
  • Choosing a strategy for dealing with the classroom environment: room layout, number of students, online courses
2. Student Preparation
Helping the students prepare for the experiment is key to them having a successful learning experience. You might ask your students to do the following before starting the experiment:
  • Read instructions that explain the experiment and the student's role
  • Complete a pre-class reading and/or write about their role in the experiment
  • Make predictions about the outcome of the experiment
3. Conducting the experiment and collecting data (with an example of an experiment)
Working through the logistics of carrying out the experiment can be key to students having a successful experience. It is often helpful to have a teaching assistant present during an experiment to help answer questions and keep things moving. You will want to consider:
  • Developing a streamlined process for answering questions and collecting data
  • Adapting experiments for very large classes, perhaps using computers or clickers
  • Modifying experiments so that they will work in an online class
4. Analyzing the data and Extending the Experience
Once you collect the data, communicating the results to students and linking it to what they are learning in class is very important. Just doing the experiment isn't enough - you need to guide students through the process of interpreting and learning from what happened.
The classroom experiment experience isn't just about that moment in class. It can often be successfully used as a shared experience that anchors material that is covered later in the course. It also can be a catalyst to help students start thinking beyond the course material.
5. Assessing student achievement of learning goals
Standard tests, quizzes and homework assignments can be used to measure what students are learning in class. You might consider adding additional assessment measures, for example ask students
  • Test questions about the experiment itself
  • Open Ended questions that allow students to reflect on their experience and give you an idea of what they did and did not get from the experiment. These are useful in fine tuning the experiment for the next semester.


One of the big fears of faculty who have never conducted a classroom experiment is "what if things don't go as I planned." This is a viable concern - all sorts of things "might" go wrong. Students might not follow directions, materials might get confused so that people follow the wrong steps, internet service may go down, etc. There are strategies for handling all of these difficulties, however, and it is frequently the case that "failure" that creates the best quality learning opportunities.