by Rong “Rocky” Ye, Chemistry

Recipient of the Teagle Foundation Award for Excellence in Enhancing Student Learning, 2015

Related Teaching Effectiveness Award essay: Achieving Higher Efficiency in Chemistry Labs Using Electronic Scheduling

Students often struggled to finish labs on time. So much attention to lab steps detracted them from learning the concepts the labs were to demonstrate. I asked students to make a schedule for their lab activities ahead of time, and suggested a way for them to track their progress during the lab using cellphone apps. Students became more proficient in lab over time and were able to focus more on discussion and reflection on the labs, which translated into better observations and better conceived lab reports.

The success of the strategies my students implemented can be explained as applications of metacognition, a decision-making strategy through self-monitoring and self-regulation. Schoenfeld (2011) explains metacognition through this example: Given a mathematical problem, novices often spent little time reading the problem and jumped right into fruitless calculations, which could go on forever; experts, however, devoted much more time to cognitive tasks such as analyzing the problem, planning and implementing strategies, and oscillating between strategies to avoid getting stuck in one cognitive process. As novices in a chemistry lab, my students needed strategies to plan, schedule, and think through their lab processes so their efforts would be better placed. My pre-lab scheduling assignment helped them to learn and apply metacognition in the lab.

When making their schedules, they analyzed the lab as a whole, just like reading and analyzing a mathematical problem. In the actual lab, their schedules gave them references to judge progress in their goal-oriented searching and periodically reminded them of their current goal (Azevedo and Cromley 2004). In addition, students’ plans served as self-imposed deadlines. Experiments have shown that self-imposed deadlines, though not as effective as some externally imposed deadlines, were useful in enhancing task performance and controlling procrastination, for example chatting with classmates on irrelevant topics (Ariely and Wertenbroch 2002).

I would apply several additional steps to refine my pre-lab activity. Metacognition could create stronger results if I explicitly tell students that their lab skills will develop over time, as those who understand this simple concept show increased motivation to learn and improved grades (Lovett, 2008). Also, I will try to implement a deadline in the lab. For example, I could make a rule that students should finish all experimental work half an hour before the lab time ends, so that they can only use the remaining time for lab report writing. This rule enforced by me will act as an externally imposed deadline, and it will ameliorate students’ performance over their self-imposed deadlines (Ariely and Wertenbroch 2002).

Another useful tool to extend student learning is a wrapper. A wrapper is an activity that surrounds an existing assignment or activity (Lovett 2008). Wrappers are designed for teaching self-monitoring behavior, requiring students to frequently assess the effectiveness of their learning activities. Wrappers will not only expand the application of metacognition for students, but also help me better evaluate the effect of my teaching strategy on student learning. I will use technique wrappers and lab wrappers. For a technique wrapper, I will give each student a card to ask them how confident they are before using a technique, for example thin layer chromatography, and inquire how well they actually do after they finish the step. This exercise will probably help students know better the extent of their mastery of the technique. It will help me assess my teaching from a microscopic point of view, and determine whether my demonstration on this technique is adequate or not. Similarly, I will ask them to fill out a lab wrapper. They will write down what they actually do in each hour of the lab, and compare with their planned schedule. They will reflect on any mistakes they make in the lab, or any unnecessary delays in the lab procedure, and think about how to avoid these issues in the future. Meanwhile, I will be able to assess student learning from a macroscopic perspective by reading the lab wrappers. Wrappers will require minimal time, but will provide valuable information on teaching assessment for instructors.


Ariely, Dan and Wertenbroch, Klaus. May 2002. “Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment.” Psychological Science 13.3: 219–224.

Azevedo, Roger and Cromley, Jennifer G. 2004. “Does Training on Self-Regulated Learning Facilitate Students’ Learning with Hypermedia?” Journal of Educational Psychology, 96:3, 523–535.

Lovett, Marsha. 2008. “Teaching Metacognition.” Presentation to the Educause Learning Initiative Annual Meeting, 29 January 2008.

Schoenfeld, Alan. How We Think: A Theory of Goal-Oriented Decision Making and Its Educational Applications. New York: Routledge.

Schoenfeld, Alan. 2011. “Learning to Think Mathematically (or like a scientist, or like a writer, or…).” GSI Teaching & Resource Center video. Presentation to the How Students Learn Working Group, UC Berkeley, March 22, 2011.