Assessing Laboratory Activities

Laboratory settings can provide students with the opportunity to apply their content understandings in new situations and apply the skills that geoscientists use when working with Earth materials, images and data sets. Laboratory work usually entails an element of group work, so let's begin with some of the differences between individual and group assessment. Usually laboratory settings are favorable for small group, collaborative work. This work increases communication and application of content knowledge to the task at hand. Before planning an assessment strategy decide if roles in the group are going to be interchangable, that is, will each student be expected to know every role, or will you ask students to become "experts" in one facet of the group effort. Assessment of the content element can either be performed individually for each group member and the group process grade factored in or alternately, the instructor may assess both content and process for each group as a whole. For more insight into the assessment process for group projects, view "Assessment of Cooperative Learning".

Assessing a Group Activity Using Global Carbon Dioxide Data

The activity Carbon Dioxide Exercise introduces students to the process of plotting and interpreting graphs. The exercise has several learning objectives. These are:

  • Estimate changes in global carbon dioxide concentrations over a 5-year span
  • Learn about variation in the carbon cycle driven by photosynthesis
  • Understand how important sampling interval can be when studying changes over time
  • Practice basic quantitative skills
For this assessment model let's assume that we will assess each group on the process of developing a graph and individually on the writing of a reflection/response to the Mona Loa data set. Groups will be directly assessed as they plot their data points and produce a transparency to place on an overhead projector. A lecture will follow using the student developed graphs as a springboard for understanding the variability of atmospheric Carbon Dioxide concentartion. For homework, students will need to develop a paragraph summarizing what they have learned about the Mauna Loa data set. If the students are given the assessment criteria prior to writing the summary they will know what will be assessed and the products will be easier for the instructor to grade. What will those criteria be? The first three bulleted learning objectives above.

Individual Assessment of the Short Report

The instructions given to the students need not be complicated or time consuming, but should be detailed enough to provide everyone with the ground rules for good writing. Here is an example: The summary report you are preparing this evening should be at least a paragraph in length and include the stimated changes in global carbon dioxide concentrations over a 5-year span; the reason for the variation we see in the annual carbon cycle driven by photosynthesis; and the how important sampling interval can be when studying changes over time. Each assertion you make must be explained by supporting evidence. Cite the source of all supporting evidence (your group graph, your lecture notes or any additional sources). In this way assessment serves as a model for scientific writing as well at the vehicle through which student attainment of the activities learning objectives is measured. For additional ways of assessing laboratory activities see the resources below.


  • A Hands-On Approach to Understanding Topographic Maps and Their Construction. [Bart, 1991] This article in the Journal of Geological Education describes a topographic map exercise designed for a lab session in an introductory geology course. Students are taught the basic principles of topographic map construction and are then required to make a map of a section of campus. The author claims that this approach has improved student test performance and resulted in a better understanding of topographic maps. (citation and description)
  • The Laboratory in Science Education: Foundations for the Twenty-First Century. [Hofstein and Lunetta, 2004] This article from Science Education is an analysis of previous scholarship on contemporary goals for science learning, current models of how students construct knowledge, and information about how teachers and students engage in science laboratory activities. This article discusses new methodologies for research and assessment that have been developed over the last 20 years and how these new techniques help researchers understand how laboratory resources are used, how students’ lab work is assessed, and how lab activities can be used by teachers to enhance intended learning outcomes. (citation and description)
  • Map and Compass Lab. [Koons, 1997] This article in Science Scope presents an activity that is part of a unit on topography and land masses. It helps students learn about scientific inquiry by comparing model representations with actual topographic features. Students also practice making and interpreting scale drawings and learning about computation, estimation and new instrumentation. (citation and description)
  • Development of an Assessment of Student Conception of the Nature of Science. [Libarkin, 2001] This article in the Journal of Geoscience Education provides information about a study that used a Likert-scale instrument to determine the effectiveness of science courses for non-majors. Results from 991 students permitted a statistical analysis of this instrument's validity and reliability. Examples from two courses, one laboratory-based and the other grounded in collaborative learning, are provided to demonstrate the utility of these types of scales in assessing both prior knowledge and course outcomes. (citation and description)
  • An Earthquake Lab for Physical Geology. [Lumsden, 1990] This article from the Journal of Geological Education describes an activity in which students locate the epicenter of several earthquakes, plot the trends of the two faults involved, and determine the sense of motion along the plane of the two faults. The article provides objectives, background information, procedures, and data necessary for the activity. (citation and description)
  • Active Learning in Secondary and College Science Classrooms: A Working Model for Helping the Learner to Learn. [Michael and Modell, 2003] This book by Joel Michael and Harold Modell is designed for professionals interested an active learning approach to teaching students. The main topics covered in this book are how to build the foundation for active learning, roles for the teacher in creating an active learning environment and creating active learning environments. (citation and description)
  • Design and Assessment of an Interactive Digital Tutorial for Undergraduate-Level Sandstone Petrology. [Milliken et al., 2003] This article in the Journal of Geoscience Education discusses a digital interactive tutorial that provides undergraduate students with a 'virtual microscope' for learning sandstone petrology. The goal of the ‘virtual microscope’ is to give students a similar learning experience viewing thin sections that they would gain if they were using an actual microscope. The educational value of the instrument was assessed by comparing the results when one class used the tool for lab exercises and another class did not. (Full Text Online)
  • Assessment Essentials: Planning, Implementing, and Improving Assessment in Higher Education. [Palomba and Banta, 1999] This book by Catherine Palomba and Trudy Banta is a step-by-step guide that provides the most current practices for developing assessment programs on college and university campuses. Each chapter of the book addresses a specific aspect of assessment and is designed to walk users through various steps of the assessment process. The authors describe effective assessment programs and offer a thorough review of the most up-to-date practices in the field. (citation and description)
  • An Interactive Game Approach To Learning in Historical Geology and Paleontology. [Reuss and Gardulski, 2001] This article in the Journal of Geoscience Education describes an interactive game used in conjunction with traditional laboratory work, group discussions, student presentations, and writing exercises to provide an enjoyable and motivating dimension to a university seminar/lab course in historical geology and paleontology. (citation and description)