A Framework for Learning in the Chemistry Laboratory

What is the key literature on chemistry laboratory education? What kinds of factors should be considered when designing laboratory curricula? An invite for a journal special issue gave me the final push to write something I’ve wanted to write for a long time addressing these questions. When writing it, I have in mind “typical academics”, who may be doing learning and teaching courses or people interested in broadening their reading about chemistry education. This special issue was a good place for it because it is a special issue in a “normal” chemistry journal, with the theme of chemistry education. Therefore the expected audience of the issue is the general body chemistry faculty. It was too good a chance to miss!

The article is now published. We set out our stall early with some guiding principles that we adhere to:

  1. The overarching purpose of laboratory learning is to teach learners how to ‘do’ science.
  2. Preparing students for learning in the laboratory is beneficial.
  3. Explicit consideration needs to be given to teaching experimental techniques.
  4. Consideration of learners’ emotions, motivations, and expectations is imperative in laboratory settings.

While I think this is helpful (obvs), it does expose the difficulty with considering changes to our laboratory curricula – there is a lot to think about! (We give a lot of things to think about in Table 1 of the paper). And after thinking, it takes a lot of work to implement change. I really think this is why laboratory curricula in chemistry are so resistant to change.

After explaining the four principles listed above with key references, we propose a framework, shown in the figure, which in our case at Edinburgh is oriented towards developing independence, skills, and capability to experiment (as in really experiment). Our way of doing this is to consider the progressive development of skills and competencies over the curriculum, and how each stage builds on the previous one.

framework for learning in the chemistry laboratory

We talk about each stage, with some suggestions. Initially I was reluctant to do this and indeed our original submission did not have these examples. There is so much in the literature that can be described as “good ideas in the lab” and I wanted to focus minds on prompting people to think about a model for their curriculum and not individual practicals they could add to their course without thinking about an overall framework. The reviewers and special issue editors came back with requests to add in some examples. I confess I first resisted – I really wanted to emphasise a curricular perspective. But the editors (patiently) argued that by showing some examples, we could illustrate how people might take existing published experiments and consider how to fit them into their pre-determined framework. I’m glad I was convinced that I was wrong and I think the paper is stronger because of it.

If you would like to read the paper in its full glory, head on over to:

Seery, M.K., Agustian, H.Y. and Zhang, X., 2018. A Framework for Learning in the Chemistry Laboratory. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ijch.201800093

Of course I am happy to provide pre-prints to anyone who does not have access.

One thought on “A Framework for Learning in the Chemistry Laboratory

  1. hi Michael. Would you mind if I asked you a related question. We are looking at replacing a certain amount of lab work with simulations (including chemistry). Although the main drivers are cost and access for distance learners we also believe that simulations can be more useful in exploring the impact a wider variation of variables in experiments and giving students more time to work on experiments. Of course, we do wish students to develop manual skills in lab work and to visualise what the simulations they are working on (often crude 2-dimensional graphic representations) look like in reality, so we know they do need time in a real lab. The question is; how much? Given good access to simulators, how little lab time (as a % of what they used to get) do students really need? I believe that there has been some research in the past that shows that students with less lab time and more time on simulators learn more, but I’m wondering what that optimum point is. (no doubt it is dependent on the phenomenon being studied). Perhaps this topic is for another blog (or point me to where it may have been addressed before). thanks.

    Brian

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