Strategies for Unexpected Outcomes

One of the big fears of faculty who have never conducted a classroom experiment is "what if things don't go as I planned." While you might feel somewhat uncertain about conducting your first experiment, in all likelihood, things will go just fine - especially from the students' point of view. They will be enjoying the break from the normal class routine and will forgive any minor hiccups in the execution of the experiment. There is a learning curve with running experiments - just like with all teaching - but if you are using a published teaching exercise, the chance that the exercise itself will fail is small.

While each of these is unlikely, there are all sorts of things that "might" go wrong. You could forget some critical materials needed for the experiment, students might not follow directions, the fire alarm might go off, class may be canceled due to weather with no opportunity to make an experiment up, etc. It is always a good idea to have a backup plan. Some suggestions:

  • Improvise if you can. This might seem hard before your first experiment but it gets more natural with experience. Talk about how the "mistake" affected the experiment and try to analyze both what did happen and what was supposed to happen.
  • Bring your next set of lecture notes to class with you. You can always conduct a normal class.
  • Bring results from a similar experiment - either a published research experiment or data from a previously conducted classroom experiment with you to class. Since the students have already read the instructions you can have a discussion about what they expect to happen and then show them the data.