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Planning for Online Lab Sessions​

Are you wondering how to give your students the rich experience of a lab in an online course format? Interested in strategies for getting started? This page provides suggestions for considering the role of lab sessions in your students’ learning—whether they are a component of a larger class or a course unto themselves—along with specific tactics and resources you can employ to help provide meaningful online lab sessions. 

Though this page will help you get started, we encourage you to engage in virtual office hours with CTL staff, or contact the CTL to schedule a consultation at ColumbiaCTL@columbia.edu for additional assistance. 

Cite this resource: Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (2020). Planning for Online Lab Sessions. Columbia University. Retrieved [today’s date] from https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/teaching-with-technology/teaching-online/online-labs/

Defining the Goal of Lab Sessions for Your Students’ Learning

A first step in translating your lab experiences online is to get to the core of what these sessions are doing for your students’ learning, and how the lab connects with other aspects of your students’ curriculum or coursework. Drafting learning objectives (statements that define what students will be able to do because they participated in your course) can help you focus and better translate these experiences online. 

To do this, reflect on your learning objectives for the labs you have or would run face-to-face. If you find defining a collective set of learning objectives for all your labs difficult, you may consider starting with individual lab sessions and seeing what overlaps occur between the objectives you have recognized across sessions. Identifying connections between lab sessions will help you reflect on whether these goals are truly the ones you want students to pursue, make more clear the goals of your labs to your students, and facilitate the translation of this learning into online environments.

As you reflect on learning objectives for labs, you might consider the following questions:

  • What skills should my students be able to perform by engaging with these labs? How are these skills similar to or different from what they learn in other parts of the class or curriculum? 
  • Why are these skills important for your students to learn at this point in their development? What assumptions are you making about the importance of these skills that may be helpful to rethink (e.g., how important are laboratory manipulations to a student that may never practice bench science?)
  • Which of these skills are the most important for them to have learned by completing these labs?
  • Which of these skills can be developed outside of lab sessions? Which of these skills can only be developed through lab sessions?


Some common categories of learning objectives may include the following:

  • Skills related to learning specific techniques and their applicability to different situations
    • Students will be able to produce proteins using recombinant techniques.
    • Students will be able to propose the appropriate spectral methods to identify an unknown chemical compound.
  • Skills related to interpreting and presenting data
    • Students will be able to discuss and become comfortable using real, noisy physical data collected by themselves and their peers.
    • Students will be able to generate figures and tables that clarify and guide a readers’ understanding of the data and conclusions.
  • Skills related to experimental or project design
    • Students will be able to discuss and critique experimental approaches to synthesize target drug products.
    • Students will be able to draft a research proposal or grant application.

Planning Lab Activities

Now that you have a better idea of the skills you would like your students to develop, we can consider what students can do during these sessions to make progress towards those objectives, along with ways to assess student learning, outside of class or online. To help break down the wide range of ways to plan for the types of experience you want to offer your students, we will break down the discussion into some common categories, similar to the examples above.

Planning for labs that focus on learning specific techniques and their applicability

  • For the learning objectives you have set for the lab session, decide which techniques are most important for students to learn and the best way to assess student learning about those techniques when they cannot be physically in the lab.
  • For simpler experiments, consider whether there are versions of these labs that can be done safely at home. This might require guidance on what equipment or materials to purchase (along with guidance as to where and how to do so), or the shipping of materials to students if appropriate. If you are considering this option, consult with the following Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) resources for further guidance around safety for in-home lab kits: Guidance for Review and Approval, and Potential Hazards and Control. Any materials or lab kits to be sent to students must be approved by EH&S before being sent.
  • Consider the use of online simulations as stand-ins for students completing these tasks themselves in the lab. Depending on the type of experimental techniques you are developing, there are a wide range of resources that you can draw from so you do not have to necessarily create them from scratch. Some platforms for simulations include Labster and LabsLand. In addition to that, the STEM education group from POD (the professional organization for centers of teaching and learning) has created a list of resources for simulations for labs. Please note that while much of hybrid or online teaching and learning is enabled by technology—and there are a lot of tools out there—the aforementioned tools are not supported by Columbia University Information Technology (CUIT). The tools supported by CUIT offer greater security to the teaching and learning community and ensure student privacy. If you would like to use a technology tool listed in these external resources, you can submit a ticket to the CUIT Service Desk to explore your options.
  • If a simulation is not possible, then selecting video resources might span the gap. The Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE) is a good, peer-reviewed resource for videos of experimental techniques. This curated list of resources for simulations also includes some video resources for this purpose.


Planning for labs that focus on interpreting and presenting data

  • For the learning objectives you have set for the lab session, decide what would be the best way for students to demonstrate their abilities to interpret or present the data. Since labs often allow for the ability for students to engage in real practice, you might consider assigning deliverables such as writing a review paper or article in the style of your discipline’s publications. 
  • Based on the assignments or deliverables you have selected for your lab, consider what you would have to provide to students for them to demonstrate the targeted skills. For example, providing real data sets to students would allow them to practice the skills of interpreting and presenting data without having to collect the data themselves. You might try giving students published data sets from scientific groups or from publications, experimental data from previous years, or even data from your own research to process. Additional examples can be found in Module 3 of the Hybrid & Online Teaching Institute
  • For a shorter exercise, consider how you might be able to have students compare data with experimental protocols, asking students to consider how interpreting the data may yield guidance for improvements of the protocols or for future experiments.
  • Try using a case to introduce situations and data to your students. Cases are stories, often drawn from real-life situations or experiences, constructed with the purpose of teaching and learning. You can find cases at the Case Consortium at Columbia, the PBL Clearinghouse at the University of Delaware, or the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCSTS). Guidance on how to use cases can be found through those resources. 
  • Consider how students might be able to practice discussing, critiquing, and sharing data during synchronous class sessions as a means of practicing data interpretation and presentation skills. One way to facilitate the collaborative discussion and analysis of data is  by dividing up a data set amongst students and allowing them to draw conclusions that may differ due to their individual assignments, similar to how differences in experimental results may lead to different conclusions in the lab.


Planning for labs that focus on experimental or project design

  • For the learning objectives you have set for these types of labs, decide what would be the best way for students to demonstrate their experimental or project design skills. Since labs often allow for the ability for students to engage in real practice, you might consider assigning deliverables such as writing a research proposal or a grant application that would be appropriate to submit to a funding source.
  • If the skills being developed in your lab is clarity of experimental design, consider whether it would be possible for you or your graduate student instructors to take student-designed protocols or experiments and implement them. The collected data, along with other notes about the protocols from the person running the experiment (and even possibly a recording of the protocol being run), can then be given back to the student to use. This would be a way for students to be able to practice their design skills without needing each student to go into the lab to run the experiment.
  • If this course is a capstone to the curriculum, consider what alternatives might be available to your students that would not involve lab work (in-person or remote). What might this type of work look like in your discipline and how might you support those efforts?

Creating a Teaching Plan

Now that you have decided on what the objectives are for your labs and what activities students will be doing, the next step will be to create a plan of action. You may be working with an instructional team of other faculty, graduate student instructors (i.e., lab TAs), or support staff (for the labs themselves or for the technology used for remote learning). Given that facilitating an online lab experience is likely a new experience for everyone, it will be helpful to delineate the roles every member of the team has in providing the learning experience you have designed. You can find guidance on our Teaching with Zoom and Teaching with Courseworks pages on our website on these topics.

To help you consider roles, and what additional support you may need to seek out for your team, consider the following questions:

  • What are the different roles that you and your instructional team typically play to support student learning in the lab (before, during, and after lab sessions)? How might these roles need to change (or new roles need to be developed) to support online lab activities? How will you make these roles clear to your instructional team and to your students?
  • How long do you think your instructional team will take to prepare for these roles? If teaching changes need to be made, how do you plan on communicating these changes to your team? How do you plan to check in about how these roles are going as you undertake teaching labs online with your instructional team?
  • What support do you think your instructional team will need to succeed? What support are you seeking from your team in the transition online?
  • How do you plan to give and receive feedback to your instructional team? What type of feedback are you asking your team to provide you as you teach the lab online?

Providing Support for Your Students

Along with preparing a new plan for yourself and your instructional team, revising your guidance to students will be crucial to their success working on your labs online. The support you offer students should address both content and using the technology required for the lab. You can find guidance on our Teaching with Zoom and Teaching with Courseworks pages on the CTL website. In addition to support from the CTL, you might also explore what support is available with technology for you and your students from your school and department.

To help you consider what support you may need to create for your students, consider the following questions:

  • What types of support do you offer students when they are participating in lab sessions (before, during, and after each session)? Which of these supports can stay the same and which have to change as you transition the lab online?
  • What parts of the lab can or should be done synchronously (via Zoom), where instructor support may be more present, and what parts can or should be done by students asynchronously (via Courseworks, such as pre- or post-lab work)?
  • How do you plan to test and troubleshoot the lab experience you have developed for online? How does this testing help give you insight into what students might have difficulty with? 
  • What are the points where students struggle that are not essential to student learning (e.g., how specifically to operate the equipment for an experiment may be a point where students struggle that might distract from the learning goal of interpreting a type of physical data)? How might you streamline these moments, or provide support to these points in the lab so students do not pointlessly struggle?
  • What additional support do you think students will need due to the transition to online? If you and your instructional team are not the ones who can help the student with that support (e.g., personal computing or IT), what resources are available to students?
  • What feedback are you looking for from students to help you teach the lab online? How will you let students know about the mechanisms for collecting this feedback?


Resources available to support your online lab design:

Center for Teaching and Learning 

The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) offers a variety of programs and services for instructors at Columbia. The CTL can provide customized support as you design your online course through implementation.


External Resources