Achieving Higher Efficiency in Chemistry Labs Using Electronic Scheduling

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Rong “Rocky” Ye, Chemistry

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2015

In the fall semester of 2013, I was a graduate student instructor for Chemistry 112A, a course designed for students majoring in chemistry. It was apparent that a high level of time management in class was critical to students’ success in the course. Chemistry 112A had a five-hour lab section every week. The workload was intensive, but it was supposed to fit into the given time. However, in the first few weeks of the semester, students had difficulties in finishing all the work on time. Most of them knew what to do in the lab by attending lab lectures and writing down the procedures in the pre-lab writing. The real problem was that the students followed the procedure literally, without thinking about the purposes of each step. As a result, they wasted the limited time on observing unimportant processes. For instance, a student might wait for a tube of cold water to boil, when he or she could spend the time on another step and come back to check the water when it started bubbling.

I saw the need to improve the students’ efficiency without causing too much intervention in their independent thinking. Inspired by the Google calendar, I asked my students to write down in the pre-lab writing the step(s) they planned to work on during each hour of the lab. They could opt to input this plan into their cell phone calendar, which typically showed reminders when a set time arrived. By fulfilling this task, they were instructed to imagine the whole lab process, and then break it down into five intervals of time. They were asked to find out what glassware would be used and to get it ready beforehand rather than at the last minute. I hoped that this would help them understand what steps could be done simultaneously. They would also consider how to most efficiently split tasks with lab partners for group work.

In order to teach the students how to make valid plans, I wrote my suggested schedule on the board for their reference for the first few weeks. I also wrote comments on their planned schedule in their lab reports every week, and returned the reports within a week while they had a fresh memory of the past lab. I often wrote positive words to encourage them, as positive feedback could go a long way towards building confidence and making progress. In addition, I walked around the lab to encourage students to keep up with their planned schedules, and gave advice to those who fell behind their schedule. I paid special attention to let them know which steps required more attention to perform precisely, e.g. adding a specific amount of a chemical; and which steps are less important but might be beneficial if done in advance, e.g. cooling down some water in an ice bath to prepare ice-cold water for product washing.

These analyses required in-depth understandings of the lab procedure as well as specific lab techniques. It was not easy at the beginning, but students did an increasingly better job as they practiced and as they received my feedback from lab reports. All the expected goals of the pre-lab scheduling were achieved gradually. Students made use of time efficiently, and they were able to finish the labs on time. The quality of the lab reports increased as well, as they had more time available to write down observations and to work on the discussion questions. Student feedback in the form of a confidential mid-term teaching evaluation also confirmed that the students perceived this process as an effective tool for improving their productivity in the lab. Many of them expressed appreciation for how I “challenged the class to think critically.”