Monica Chavan: Are lab courses irksome imperatives or indispensable in education?

Behind the Podium


Tony Chung/Observer

A large number of introductory biology and chemistry laboratory classes take place in the Millis Science Center.

For those accustomed to smaller scale, single-teacher high school classes, the division of labor among the collegiate faculty teaching laboratory courses is strangely disconnecting. Freshmen and other students taking their first college lab classes have surely noticed. The fact that lab exercises often do not line up exactly with material currently being covered in lectures is at best frustrating and at worst infuriating for students who desire a more structured approach to education.

For starters let’s examine the issue of the curriculum of lab courses. You might find yourself looking at a procedure or pre-lab, wondering how it relates to your lecture course. But you can’t just complain to your graduate teaching assistant (GTA) or other lab instructor about how some material seems redundant or bland or irrelevant and hope they’ll change it.

As third-year Ryan Allison, GTA for Biology 214 Lab, reported, “There’s no decision on our part…we don’t make anything ourselves.”

The GTAs don’t get to decide what or how they’ll teach for a given lab; they simply follow the PowerPoints and procedural instructions they’ve been told to use. Higher up the chain, even professors have directors in their departments and bosses they must report to. Each department has their own established approach to lab courses and changing the curriculum would be an arduous process. As far as Allison knows, the curriculum hasn’t been adjusted in quite a while.

Another issue is that those grading student lab reports are not the same people telling them how to write the report. The GTAs and graders exist in separate spheres of the university, the former works with students in the lab, the latter decides how well they are doing.

The system would seem to call for open lines of communication between the two, but Allison expressed that this isn’t case. He isn’t expected to talk with the graders at all.

How can this system manage to accurately assess student performance? In essence the biology department attempts to remove all sense of subjectivity from the grading process. For the biology students, performance evaluation then becomes very black and white. If you did X, you get Y number of points; if you did Z, you lose A number of points. It all becomes one giant formula based on a rubric.

The system has its positives. I spoke to a second-year biology major, Dina O’Connell, who appreciated the used of a strict rubric and defended the system.

She said, “[The graders] overall [are] pretty objective – they’re very fair and very forward about what they want; they follow the rubric very clearly.”

Yet, I would argue that even scientific writing is not so formulaic or easy to evaluate. It seems that such flat, boring writing is exactly what biology reports call for as we’re trained to say only what is necessary and nothing more. The removal of the flowery, flamboyant language is important, but the compromise of individual style and expression of critical thought do not need to follow as a result.

So what about the issue of labs being disconnected from and seemingly unrelated to lecture material? Because of complications with scheduling and the nature of fast-moving lectures, it is practically impossible to ensure that lecture and lab material exactly matches up. One solution for this issue came from the director of the University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education, Mano Singham, who also has experience teaching in the physics department.

He concluded, “The [best] idea is to treat the lab as a semi-autonomous unit that has its own logic…that ha[s] overall connection[s] with the theory course over the semester, but not try and pin it one to one.”

The approach makes a lot of sense at first glance. The general chemistry lab (Chemistry 113) doesn’t promise to line up with any particular lecture course and can be taken simultaneously with either Chemistry 105 or 106 lectures. Perhaps the biology department should rename their introductory lab courses and thereby remove the expectation of synchronization with lectures.

The idea of a lab course exactly matching and relating to the lecture courses is unrealistic and misses the point of taking a lab. In real life, scientific knowledge isn’t nicely broken up into semester-long chunks of material easily classified into specific chapters and units. Rather, students need to be able to draw on all their knowledge all of the time, and this is exactly the type of thinking lab courses aim to promote. There needs to be a balance between allowing the lab to be an independent course, while also having it relate to equivalent level classes.

It may seem like I believe collegiate lab courses to be the scourge of the earth. I don’t. O’Connell insightfully pointed out that labs provide first-hand contact with information from lectures, which allows her to better understand and form connections with that material. While I agree that hands-on learning is important, it is easy to recognize that labs are not perfect at Case Western Reserve University. Allison for example, thinks a quick improvement could involve him discussing more up-to-date material about how introductory lab techniques and exercises relate to the work currently being done by researchers.
Updating the procedures, showing more connections to real life and establishing a culture wherein lab courses stand as their own entities are just a few ways CWRU’s labs could get better. For students it’s important to remember that every lab exercise we complete adds to a larger picture of our training as young scientists, inventors and innovators. Whether you’re measuring small amounts of liquid, counting trees or learning to use a centrifuge, don’t forget that even Nobel Prize winners had to start somewhere.

Monica Chavan is a first-year who attended high school in Carmel, Indiana. Her interests include sports, education, and cats. If you have suggestions for her column or are giving away free food, feel free to contact her at any time.