The ComPADRE Collections

Writing lab handouts

Faculty members use a variety of methods to construct lab handouts (written material students are expected to read before the start of the lab, materials used during the lab and materials that explain post-lab assignments). In preparing lab handouts, you'll want to consider factors of length, organization, format (on paper, on the web), relationship to pre-existing student knowledge and others. Even if you are using a published lab manual for your class, you may want to consider some of the following observations.

What do students already know? (Prior knowledge and misconceptions)

SERC modules on ConcepTests, Just-in-Time Teaching and Knowledge Surveys all provide methods to determine student prior knowledge and pre-conceptions that can be extremely useful in creating and adapting lab handouts. For students, these techniques are low-stakes and also have the potential to develop students' metacognitive abilities, as they get an early glimpse of the content and methods that will be emphasized in the course and lab session. Most computer-based course management systems have functions that allow instructors to set up concept tests, knowledge surveys, and other elements of just-in-time teaching.

Giving Instructions in a handout

People vary in their ability to read a detailed list of instructions without pictures or prior knowledge of the equipment and lab situation. People also vary in their willingness to read through long blocks of text before reaching the specific instructions. In some lab settings, for safety reasons among others, it is absolutely critical that a protocol be followed exactly. These considerations make constructing lab handouts with instructions a challenge!

  • You may want to make a stand-alone section of your lab handout for students to read before the lab (perhaps coupled with an on-line just-in-time quiz). This background section might include the overall goals of the lab and the context, including the "big questions" that the lab is intended to approach. If you give the students this section as a stand-alone, and if it's only a few pages long, they may be more able to concentrate on it than if it precedes a very long set of lab instructions.
  • If your lab has several parts which are done sequentially, you may want to separate them and give students only the part they are to work on for each section. This tip may be particularly important if you expect students to discuss questions and write predictions or comments before moving on.
  • As you design the lab handout, you may want to consider scaffolding, that is, design the first set of instructions to be the most detailed and ask the students in subsequent sections to rely more on the knowledge they are gaining during the lab period.
  • You might want to include explicit expectations for behavior in the lab handout. For instance, if students are working in groups of three around a single computer, you might include a sentence such as "I expect that each of you will take turns 'driving the computer' and that you will discuss each step as you proceed through the instructions."
  • Highlight important safety considerations in bold or in a separate box.

Designing Assignments

In designing follow-up assignments for labs, consider the following questions:

  • Is the assignment that follows from the individual lab part of a larger project, or not? (If so, you may want to have students prepare a graph, a paragraph of text, or something else that is a small, discrete, and necessary element of the final report).
  • Who is the audience for the assignment? (Some possibilities are the instructor, the other students, an lay audience, newspaper readers, etc.)
  • What is the genre for the assignment? (Some possibilities include problem set, written assignments (lab report, scientific abstract, op-ed piece for a newspaper, etc.), oral report, web page. . . ). For writing assignments, this page includes a set of best practices for creating writing assignments. Though modified for quantitative writing, they are generally applicable.