January 8, 2004, by Teaching at Nottingham

Key points in practical teaching

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Kathy: “I have got two actually and they are more applicable for this sort of afternoon-type lab work which is the sort of work we would do most in engineering. The first thing I would say is make sure the mechanics of what you are asking the students to do does not obscure what you want them to learn.

“So if there is a complicated piece of equipment that it is actually quite difficult to get a handle on is to make sure they don’t put so much effort into learning how to use that particular piece of kit that it obscures the learning objectives of the piece of work that you are doing. That’s one thing.

“The other thing, quite often I think we inherit modules from other people and it incorporates a certain piece of lab work. I would say make sure you have tried it yourself because sometimes the instructions are not brilliant and the results do not work the way you thought they would do. So those are the two things that have been most useful to me.”

Chris: “Sadly you can’t do that with animal behaviour!”

Michèle: “I think what I would recommend is, within the constraints of risk assessment and health and safety, wherever possible change the power relationship to allow the students to take control of the experiment or the practical where they can and make it as fun as possible. If they are enjoying it and they have some control of how it works they are going to get more out of it.”

Chris: “My tip is very similar to Michèle’s which is wherever possible engage the student by giving them the ownership of the idea behind the experiment. It isn’t always possible, but where you can, make them do work which is testing what they think is interesting.

“You need to guide them in that in terms of providing a framework for it, but it is thinking their way into the problem that is just as important as thinking their way out of it. They need for formulate problems in the proper way in order to get the proper answers out of them.

“If they don’t do that they are just going to follow recipe style practicals and expect the answers either given to them or somehow to drop out of the sky. With ownership of the idea you get much more motivated, much more constructive approaches from the students, in my experience.”

Chris Barnard (School of Biology),
Michèle Clarke (School of Geography),
Kathy Simmons (Department of Mechanical, Materials & Manufacturing Engineering).

Extracts from a panel discussion on teaching in practicals at the January 2004 PGCHE Introductory Event.

Posted in Learning outcomesPracticals and labs