The Laboratory as a Complex Learning Environment

One of the first challenges that emerge when considering teaching in laboratories is to define the kind of environment we are teaching in, and what that means for student learning. Laboratories differ significantly from lectures in terms of environment. Lectures tend to follow a well-established pattern – highly organised material is presented to learners in a fixed setting. While modern lectures incorporate some kind of activity, the focus is usually on whatever material is being presented, and learners rarely have to draw on any additional knowledge or skills outside what is under immediate consideration. Furthermore, learners have time (and often tutorials) after lectures to reconsider the information presented in lectures.

Laboratory learning is much more complex for a variety of reasons. One is physical – the very space students are in when completing laboratory work can vary significantly depending on the type of experiment they are completing. A second is that the number of stakeholders involved increase: teaching assistants, technical staff, and additional academic staff each have a role to play in the delivery of the laboratory course.

Here, we will consider a further aspect: the complexity experienced by students. We can consider the laboratory as a complex learning environment (van Merrienboer, 2003), an environment with the following aims:

 (i) Complex learning aims at the integration of knowledge, skills, and attitudes.

Learning in the laboratory involves three domains. The cognitive domain relates to the intellectual knowledge associated with experimental work, such as the underlying concepts of an experiment, the procedures involved for a piece of apparatus, or the ability to apply scientific reasoning to results observed. Students are required to draw on this knowledge as they work through their experiment. The psychomotor domain relates to the physical actions required in completing an experiment such as  motor skills and coordination of tasks. Students are required to have basic proficiency in these tasks, and as they progress in capability, be able to adapt their approach when completing tasks in response to particular conditions. Finally, the affective domain considers the students’ emotional relationship with their experimental work such as their motivation to do well or the internalisation of the value of the task to their learning.

Because of the nature of laboratory learning, these three domains are active at the same time, and students have to draw on a range of aspects to work in this environment. Carrying out any experimental task will involve drawing on knowledge about what that task is, including safety considerations, while actively completing the task, and do so within the context of whatever their personal attitude for the laboratory is. Managing learning within this complex environment requires a teasing out of the various factors involved, and an understanding of how to best address each one in turn, so that students are offered the chance to develop the capacity to integrate the tasks into the whole, and carry out the work satisfactorily. Because of the time boundaries imposed on laboratory work, this is one of the greatest challenges we face in laboratory teaching.

(ii) Complex learning involves the coordination of qualitatively different constituent skills.

As well as bringing together learning from different domains, within the context of laboratory skills, students will need to be able to complete multiple component tasks as part of one overall task. An analogy is learning to drive. The process of driving requires knowledge of the use of each of the pedals, the gear stick, steering wheel, etc which can each be individually practiced when not driving. In the process of driving, the driver needs to be able to coordinate the various individual tasks simultaneously. Parallels can be made with the chemistry laboratory, where students will need to complete several component tasks in the process of doing one overall task. This is difficult, and requires that the student is capable of each of the constituent tasks in advance of being required to complete the composite task.

(iii) Complex learning requires the transfer of what is learned to real settings

Preparing a laboratory programme which enables students to experience the challenges of drawing together constituent components described in (i) and (ii), above, lays the foundation for the third challenge for laboratory learning: the ability to transfer what is known to unfamiliar situations encountered in real situations. The context of what is “real” needs to be carefully managed within the curriculum – students embarking on an undergraduate research project will likely encounter real problems, but in the formal laboratory curriculum, care is needed to distinguish between simulated problems (where the teacher knows the preferred solution pathway) and actual problems, where the pathway is not clear. Given the number of complexities regarding learning discussed, it would clearly be a folly to require students to begin to consider real settings before teaching the pre-requisite capabilities of integrating knowledge, skills, and attitudes and coordination of tasks, described above. The laboratory curriculum therefore needs to be designed so that these capabilities are developed progressively, so that students develop the capacity to translate their learning to real situations.



Jeroen J. G. van Merrienboer , Paul A. Kirschner & Liesbeth Kester (2003)
Taking the Load Off a Learner’s Mind: Instructional Design for Complex Learning, Educational
Psychologist, 38(1), 5-13.


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