Reframing Failure: Teaching Iterative Troubleshooting over Results in Laboratory Science

Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Holly Gildea, Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2020

While teaching my section of MCB 160L, Neurobiology Laboratory, I hit a roadblock. Prior to 160L, the majority of my students had never taken an upper-division laboratory class, but the semester began surprisingly smoothly. However, in week four of the class, we began our first multi-week patching electrophysiology fly lab, with 4 days of 4-hour long sections in which students had to learn to dissect fruit fly larvae, set up and load electrodes onto machinery, and record electrical potentials from live cells. By the end of day one I knew something was amiss. Students who had previously been interactive were frustrated and irritable with their teammates. None of the teams were able to get a successful recording on day one, and by the end of day two, only one team had a single trace. Students complained that the lab was too difficult, the equipment was too old, and the lab manual was opaque, implying they would give up on the task. I knew something had to be done to maintain focus and help students troubleshoot the experiment.

I took time over the weekend to strategize for the second half of the lab. Students were more concerned with how lab reports would be graded with “missing” data rather than with figuring out how to acquire it. I realized my students were approaching scientific inquiry with a “fixed mindset.” They believed they were good at science because they followed instructions in the lab manual and got expected results, and that doing so was an innate skillset. Outside class, however, laboratory inquiry never works as expected. Acquisition of good data happens because of creative thinking and careful, logical troubleshooting. My students lacked the “growth mindset” needed to acquire these skills. I devised two strategies to address this problem. First, I developed a personal narrative as a scientist that emphasized parts of my own research work that needed difficult iterative troubleshooting. I shared experiences of my own research, communicating that repeated rounds of troubleshooting were expected not just in lab class, but in professional research science broadly. Second, I changed my approach to answering questions during the lab period. When first asked about a problem, I asked students to list solutions they had already tried and describe how they had gone about testing each piece. This way I could teach them to change one experimental component at a time, identifying which piece was malfunctioning. Even when I could easily identify a problem’s cause, I responded to students’ questions with additional inquiries, encouraging them to design their own troubleshooting strategies.

To assess the efficacy of these methods, I first evaluated how students wrote about data they were unable to acquire during the lab. Before the fly lab, I saw templated, instruction-driven writing in lab notebooks. After, students created troubleshooting diagrams and described setups that did not yield data with equal attention to detail as those that gave expected outcomes. The final test was our week 8 lab: a difficult multi-part single cell electrophysiology experiment. I needed to see whether students would troubleshoot a difficult task without giving up. Despite similar rigor, our week 8 lab was marked by excitement as each group successfully performed recordings. By developing troubleshooting skills, students had identified the components of the setups most likely to fail, and therefore the easiest components to target with solutions. The students showcased their mastery of the scientific process, feeling accomplished and able to interpret unexpected data and results. After class ended, future employers reached out to me asking how my students dealt with troubleshooting problems. I was able to emphatically endorse their ability to deal with laboratory problems productively. By focusing on effective troubleshooting, I taught students the reality of the scientific method.