In many Science and Engineering disciplines students spend considerable parts of their time doing a wide range of practical or laboratory work. Here the learning is very ‘hands on’ and classes are designed to allow students to practice and develop a wide range of discipline-based techniques and personal skills.

Depending on the discipline and the topic, specific purposes will vary but they may include –

  • Providing an opportunity to apply and investigate theoretical and conceptual knowledge
  • Developing a range of experimental techniques and approaches
  • Improving skills in collecting, analyzing, interpreting and presenting findings and data
  • Practicing a wide range of personal and transferable skills such as problem solving, team working, observing and following protocols
  • Learning how to manage resources (including time)
  • Working more effectively and safely in a laboratory or in the field.

In many courses, lectures and practical’s are integrated with the view that theory can be explained in the lecture and then applied and tested in the practical class. It is therefore important that you are clear when a practical class has been designed to complement material that has been presented in a lecture.

The high value placed on skills learned in labs and practical classes goes beyond your university course. Future employers will be very interested in the skills you can display from having been active in laboratory classes and practical’s, as well as the knowledge and understanding that you have attained during your degree.

Preparing for lab classes

Many of the preparation skills useful for attending laboratory or practical classes will be similar to those for attending your first lectures and seminars/tutorials. However, there some issues that are specific to labs.

  • Check with your course information to see if you are expected to do any preparatory work before the first class (e.g. look over your lecture notes on topic)
  • Check the guidance that your school / course provides about the safety equipment (such as lab coats or safety spectacles) or equipment that you are expected to buy and bring to your first class (such as a dissecting kit or drawing pencils)
  • Health and Safety procedures in laboratory and practical environments are strictly adhered to and you will not be allowed to participate in the class if you are not correctly dressed or prepared.
  • Turn up for your laboratory class in good time and be ready to work with a colleague or be assigned to a working group (this is common in laboratory classes)
  • Listen and take notes from any initial briefing given at the start of the class. The demonstrator or teacher for the session may well try to steer you away from common difficulties or give you advice on how best to tackle the experiment.
  • Plan ahead – read the schedule or protocol through before you start (ideally before you go to class) so you know what is required next and can be ready with equipment or materials when they are needed.

Learning in lab classes

Laboratory and practical classes are an important opportunity for many students to actively test experimentally the concepts and methods introduced in lectures and tutorials. You may be asked to work on your own, in pairs or small groups. This is so you learn how to work both independently and collaboratively.

During

Working carefully and thoughtfully when you carry out your experiments will mean that you are much more likely to produce accurate and useful data. It is also important to be organized and tidy to avoid mishaps and errors.

Keeping clear and accurate notes of what you see and learn during the laboratory class is a valuable skill. Many laboratory tutors or demonstrators will stress the importance of keeping a lab book or log during the class and of noting your results as you obtain them. This may include making observational drawings and diagrams as well as writing brief notes. For guidance on the specific requirements of your classes please refer to University guidance.

After

At the end of the class you will probably be expected to report your work. A common approach is to be asked to write a brief laboratory report which you will hand in on a weekly basis or at the end of the semester. These reports may be formative assessments (where you gain experience and feedback) or summative assessments (which also provide a mark or grade that may count towards your degree). However, you may also be asked to present your work using a poster format. Some practical courses use poster presentations; some use online resources and websites.

The process of writing up your work should help you to clarify and fully understand what you have done and what it has shown. However, it is not uncommon to have unanswered questions or points that you don’t fully understand. If this is the case, first see if you can answer your own questions. Re-read your notes and the information provided for the practical. You should also look back at your lecture notes and follow-up any suggested readings. If you are still unsure it is sensible to approach your teacher and ask for their help sooner rather than later. Try to keep on top of any follow-up work as it can be harder to catch up if you leave it till the end of the semester and/or the weeks before the exams start. You may also find it helpful to discuss the practical class with your peers and collaboratively solve problems.

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