The ComPADRE Collections

Designing Indoor Labs

Initial Publication Date: July 19, 2007

Principles and general resources

The 2005 National Research Council publication America's Lab Report identifies (p. 197):

"Four principles of instructional design [that] can help laboratory experiences achieve their intended learning goals: (1) they [labs] are designed with clear learning outcomes in mind, (2) they are thoughtfully sequenced into the flow of classroom science instruction, (3) they are designed to integrate learning of science content with learning about the processes of science, and (4) they incorporate ongoing student reflection and discussion."

For an example of how to apply these principles, see Designing Inquiry Based Instructional Units in Genomics. Additional useful material on many aspects of designing and organizing lab experiences comes from handbooks designed for university graduate assistants, such as this one from the University of Michigan and this one from Indiana University.

The following sections (and their associated pages) are organized around the sequence of tasks a lab instructor encounters while designing labs; the NRC "principles" apply to each of these elements.

Structuring time during an indoor lab

Most students need a sense of the goals of the lab, how the work fits into the course and what the faculty expect to happen during and after the lab time. Even if the lab time on a particular day is devoted to working on part of a longer project, it is important to conceive the lab time structurally, with a beginning, middle and end.

Learn more about Structuring Indoor Lab Time

Working in groups

Having students work in groups during a lab has many advantages, such as better science, gains in student interpersonal skills, potentially simpler management and potential time savings. Much research on group work suggests a few basic principles: structure assignments so that group work is essential; develop some measures of individual accountability for how the group works; and consider clearly defining different group roles. These and other guidelines are discussed in the cooperative learning module.

Combining modeling and data analysis with other lab tasks

Indoor labs can be designed that ask students to combine experimental results or data collected from monitoring with other tasks, such as modeling and data analysis.

Preparing 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. 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.

Learn more about Writing lab handouts

Assessing student work in labs

Information about a variety of assessment techniques to measure student learning can be found at these SERC websites: Assessment in Geoscience Courses and "Understanding what our Geoscience Students are Learning: Observing and Assessing". Although both sites use primarily geoscience examples, they include methods such as concept tests and rubrics for oral and written presentations that can be easily generalized to other disciplines.