A new review on pre-labs in chemistry

Much of my work over the last year has focussed on pre-labs. In our research, we are busy exploring the role of pre-labs and their impact on learning in the laboratory. In practice, I am very busy making a seemingly endless amount of pre-lab videos for my own teaching.

These research and practice worlds collided when I wanted to answer the question: what makes for a good pre-lab? It’s taken a year of reading and writing and re-reading and re-writing to come up with some sensible answer, which is now published as a review.

There are dozens of articles about pre-labs and the first task was to categorise these – what are others doing and why they are doing it. We came up with a few themes, including the most common pair: to introduce the theory behind a lab and to introduce experimental techniques. So far so obvious. Time and again these reports – we gathered over 60 but there are likely more our search didn’t capture – highlighted that pre-labs had benefit, including unintended benefits (such as a clear increase in confidence about doing labs).

Why were pre-labs showing this benefit? This was rarer in reports. Some work, including a nice recent CERP paper, described the use of a underpinning framework to base the design of pre-labs upon and meant that the outcomes could be considered in that framework (in that case: self-regulation theory). But we were looking for something more… over-arching; a framework to consider the design considerations of pre-labs that took account of the unique environment of learning in the laboratory.

We have opted to use the complex learning framework as a framework for learning in laboratories, for various reasons. It is consistent with cognitive load theory, which is an obvious basis for preparative work. It describes the learning scenario as one where several strands of activity are drawn together, and is ‘complex’ because this act of drawing together requires significant effort (and support). And it offers a clear basis on the nature of information that should be provided in advance of the learning scenario. Overall, it seemed a sensible ‘fit’ for thinking about laboratory learning, and especially for preparing for this learning.

What makes for a good pre-lab?

We drew together the learning from the many reports on pre-lab literature with the tenets from complex learning framework to derive some guidelines to those thinking about developing pre-laboratory activities. These are shown in the figure. A particular advantage of the complex learning framework is the distinction between supportive and procedural information, which aims to get to the nitty-gritty of the kind of content that should be incorporated into a pre-lab activity. Casual readers should note that the “procedural” used here is a little more nuanced than just “procedure” that we think about in chemistry. We’ve elaborated a lot on this.

I hope that this review is useful – it has certainly been a learning experience writing it. The pre-print of the review is now available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1039/C7RP00140A and the final formatted version should follow shortly.

5 guielines for developing prelabs

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