Supporting Learning in Intro Lab Courses at Columbia: A Learner’s Perspective
The following resource was created in Spring 2022 by Columbia College student Keylin Escobar, during her time as a CTL Undergraduate Student Teaching and Learning Consultant, through the Students as Pedagogical Partners initiative. In her reflection, Keylin highlights three aspects of her lab experiences that proved important to her learning in Columbia introductory lab courses:
Read on to learn more about Keylin’s experiences and insights. For more tips on how to design your labs to support your students’ learning, refer to the CTL resource: Designing for Inquiry-Based Learning In Undergraduate Science And Engineering Lab Courses.
“Receiving instructor support was invaluable as I acquired foundational knowledge and basic lab skills, worked through problem-solving in research, and engaged in peer collaboration. Such support creates an environment where I can follow my curiosity and take risks.” – Keylin Escobar, Columbia College
Before coming to Columbia, I had the opportunity to explore my curiosity and learn through research. From spending hours at the whiteboard brainstorming research proposals to collaborating with my group to make sure everything for research was in place, I realized that research gave me an inquiry-driven way of learning while helping me build my skills in problem-solving and collaboration and explore my curiosity in an environment in which I could make mistakes. Outside of a classroom, my curiosity drives my learning, leading me to seek the most fascinating applications of what I’ve learned in the lab class.
Once at Columbia, I took two introductory lab courses, one in chemistry and the other in physics. These labs targeted the key concepts of introductory chemistry and physics by having students recreate experiments and prepare lab reports including analyses of results. These highly structured lab courses required me to adjust. Receiving instructor support was invaluable as I acquired foundational knowledge and basic lab skills, worked through problem-solving in research, and engaged in peer collaboration. Such support creates an environment where I can follow my curiosity and take risks. If I make a mistake or cannot solve a problem on my own, I know that I can work with either my instructor or my classmates, or both, to complete the task. And these opportunities to gain and practice collaboration and problem-solving skills are essential to my learning.
1. Support from Lab Instructors and TAs
“With foundational knowledge and basic lab skills, along with the support of my lab instructor and TA, I gained the confidence to question procedures and approach labs with curiosity instead of anxiety.”
Not every student comes into an introductory lab class knowing everything. There are differences in backgrounds, prior knowledge, and opportunities, so whenever instructors assume prior knowledge, it can feel as if I am being left behind. When I took the lab for general chemistry, I had not yet completed the general chemistry lecture sequence. Thankfully, the lab sessions would begin with a presentation of the concepts the lab procedure targeted, explaining the chemistry in detail and tying these concepts back to the lab. As my lab instructor explained the procedure, he would provide a sample calculation which he would walk the class through. These presentations gave me the knowledge necessary to complete the lab, and in some cases, it helped me better understand my chemistry lecture course when I took it.
My lab instructor made sure everyone in the class knew that he was open to questions, whether by email or during classes and office hours. He was there to support us in any way he could and ensure that we developed the basic lab skills to succeed. Moreover, during the lab period, we were split into breakout rooms, where we could work in smaller groups with a TA who would answer our questions and guide us through the lab, making sure that we understood the conceptual aspects as they related to the procedure. All this helped bridge the immense gap that intimidated me when I first began the lab class.
Without background knowledge, it’s easier to approach a lab procedure robotically and follow them without understanding why the procedure is the way it is, making inquiry-based learning difficult. How could I have come up with different approaches to a procedure had I not understood what the procedure was about? Bridging that gap relieved the stress I felt when I first saw the syllabus and wondered how, with my shaky knowledge of chemistry, I would complete the course. Rather than feeling the pressure to catch up and keep up, I got the chance to be excited and curious about the labs. With foundational knowledge and basic lab skills, along with the support of my lab instructor and TA, I gained the confidence to question procedures and approach labs with curiosity instead of anxiety.
2. Autonomy and Lower Stakes
“When I am free to make mistakes, I can come up with unorthodox solutions and have fun as I solve problems.”
One of the most exciting times in a lab course for me was during the summer semester in my chemistry lab, when I was allowed to come up with a procedure for an experiment and then conduct it, albeit virtually due to COVID-19. This allowed me to explore my curiosity and challenge myself and my knowledge of chemistry while attempting to solve the problem posed by the question. My lab instructor and TA helped me along the way by remaining open to any and all questions and guiding me through any problems that I ran into. Moreover, the connections between theoretical concepts and the lab procedure provided by my instructor were helpful, as they served as a model for my approach to producing a procedure. This experience taught me that in a lab class, problems that need solving are in abundance.
While creating my own procedure was an opportunity for me to develop more autonomy in the lab, I think making the lab assignment less grade-oriented would have enhanced my learning experience even more. Since the task culminated in a single grade and the standards for grading remained the same as for previous lab reports, the pressure to do everything perfectly sometimes overshadowed my excitement, making me feel like I couldn’t make mistakes. As wonderful as it would be to simply focus on my learning, I am often reminded of the reality that my grades will be a factor in determining whether I can get my degree, my chances at getting into medical and graduate school, and even what internships and opportunities will be available to me.
Yet an introductory lab class is where mistakes should be made. When I am free to make mistakes, I can come up with unorthodox solutions and have fun as I solve problems. Especially for more advanced lab courses, I need to be willing to take risks, even if it means making mistakes. From what I know of the world, no one has ever discovered something or contributed anything novel by refusing to take risks or avoiding something new and unknown. The emphasis on grades detracts from inquiry and promotes “playing it safe” rather than risk-taking, and my most meaningful learning experiences have been those where my curiosity and inquiries led the way.
3. Peer Collaboration
“I value collaboration because it creates a community within the class and pushes for peer learning rather than a competitive environment where I feel the need to prioritize grades over learning.”
Collaboration in lab courses contributes significantly to my learning. The first people I usually go to are my classmates as it can be less intimidating than approaching the instructor.
In my physics lab class, I worked in small groups to carry out lab procedures, explain concepts to one another, and perform data analysis together. However, for most of the semester, we were not allowed to collaborate on our lab reports. The interesting part is that when we were given the chance to collaborate on one lab report later in the semester, very few actually did, myself included. By that point, coordinating with my lab partners to write it together felt more complicated than falling back on the system I had already established to complete these reports on my own. I find that this collaboration would have been more effective had it been set in place from the beginning rather than in the middle of the semester. It would have given us more time to find an approach that worked for us as a group to produce a more comprehensive lab report as we learn from and support each other.
I value collaboration because it creates community within the class and pushes for peer learning rather than a competitive environment where I feel the need to prioritize grades over learning. To further encourage learning through collaboration, instructors can suggest ways to approach a problem as a group the way scientists do in their research, give advice and tips for students struggling with collaboration, and provide feedback on the collaboration process.
Ask a Student!
Would you like to get a student perspective on how to support student learning in your lab course? The CTL undergraduate Students as Pedagogical Partners are available to share their thoughts during the academic year. You are invited to submit your question and our student consultants will respond with their insights and experiences.
Designing for Inquiry-Based Learning in Lab Courses
Interested in strategies to promote inquiry in your undergraduate science and engineering lab courses?