Five Ground-Rules for Laboratory Reform

In preparation for my Nyholm lecture tour beginning next year I have been working on the idea of a package that chemistry departments interested in reform of their laboratory curriculum could take and use in their own setting. The intention is to take our paper on laboratory curriculum reform which presented an overarching framework for a laboratory curriculum1 and use that as a basis for tangible actions. In some useful conversations over the summer I came to the conclusion that this paper could act as a better catalyst if supplemented in (at least!) two ways: firstly, in the attempt to illustrate with the example from my own implementation, the outcome has been too vague on the principles of the overarching curriculum – essentially what if there is not five years in a particular institution (not everywhere has the luxury of being a Scottish university). So the key components of the curriculum arc need to be simultaneously more malleable to fit into a variety of situations and more descriptive to elaborate on what those components actually look like. And secondly, the politics and diplomacy of instigating institutional reform was not addressed, and in discussions with numerous faculty, this is a major stumbling block to reform. It’s time to share the secrets of Irish diplomacy!

So I hope to use the next year to essentially put some meat on the bones of this paper, and I want to use the Nyholm tour to engage with that. Every time I talk to people I learn a little more about particular situations or “interesting” angles of resistance surfaced, and I expect over the year my own thoughts will evolve. In setting out, I thought I would remind myself of what the ground rules are; what is my own philosophy regarding what it means to learn in a chemistry laboratory. I have come up with five headlines, and hope to tease these out over the coming year.

  1. A laboratory curriculum is a coherent unit, delivered across the whole of a student’s study.

Much of the post-modularisation talk over the last decade has been whether a particular set of labs belong in a module or are grouped together in their own module. I think we need to life the gaze up a further level and think about what is the overall arc of laboratory learning from the point of entry to the point of exit. Rather than looking inwards to “my six labs” and what they entail, instead we need to look backwards and see where students coming into our labs are coming from, as well as forward and seeing where they are going. In other words the curriculum – for however long it lasts – should be designed from the students’ perspective of their journey rather than a piecemeal perspective of what six labs can go where. This was the major intention of our message on a laboratory framework.1 This requires major diplomacy drives and is one of the biggest barriers to laboratory reform.

  1. There needs to be a departmental policy on what it is laboratory education is for.

One of the biggest challenges in laboratory reform is lack of clarity on why we have teaching laboratories in the first place. We “must” have them (or must we?!) is probably the point that most faculty will agree on, but it goes down hill after that. I have quite strong views (using my Lady Mary voice) grounded in nature of science literature on what laboratories are for – described in a recent commentary2 – but experience tells me departments looking to reform need to have this conversation and decide and agree on what the pedagogic purpose is for their laboratory curriculum. Otherwise, as was stated in the wonderful Teaching in Laboratories back in 1986, it doesn’t matter what is written on paper, what will happen in the lab class will be whatever particular mindset the faculty instructor on the day has.3 This policy then needs to influence all laboratory design, practice, and assessment. In a mature laboratory curriculum, there should be no need for “innovative” practice.

  1. Laboratory teaching should be influenced by learning theories.

What a shocker! But yes, it is true, how we were taught may not necessarily be the best way to teach. There might be a better way! The challenge for reformers is that once you begin to try to grapple with that literature, things become overwhelming very quickly. This problem was behind our rationale to describe the laboratory as a complex learning environment,4 which elicits general pedagogic principles from cognitive science perspective. This means thinking about things like cognitive load, dealing with the issues associated with completing unfamiliar and complex tasks, and thinking about how we structure our curriculum iteratively. There is a lot to unpack here. Our work has looked at the cognitive aspects of this in an exemplar for the “loosening the apron strings” phase of teaching students experimental design5 but there is a lot to draw on to inform laboratory teaching. Less is known about affective aspects of laboratory teaching, but this is of growing interest and importance. We have some exciting findings yet to be published, and there is some early signs that wholescale accessibility considerations in laboratory education is gaining traction.

  1. Our assessment of laboratory work needs total reform

I often think assessment of laboratory work solely by written report is one of those things that is so engrained in our culture that we cannot possibly imagine alternatives. Assessment of laboratory reports is important, but I do not know of another type of assessment where students get to complete the same activity multiple times (dozens, a hundred?). We are obviously interested in assessment of laboratory skills6 – surely a skills profile is one of the most important outcomes of laboratory work, or why are we doing it – but in general terms a more meaningful consideration of assessment is needed. These assessment types should align to whatever the learning outcomes were at the particular curriculum phase is, because… Biggs… and it is 2022(3).

  1. Projects should be drawn in from the wilderness

Undergraduate projects are part of the laboratory curriculum, and it is always of interest when I go to look under the bonnet of what happens in departments to see how these are handled. In most cases they are devolved to supervisor-student relationships, with significant administration load to the supervisor and at significant risk to the student (who your supervisor is will determine a lot about how you learn how to do project work). Projects act as capstone and are a core part of any accreditation but they tend to have very little oversight. We often use rubrics in assessment where we distinguish between different grades of goodness by asking things like is it “very good” or “very very good”? Projects have such amazing potential and often achieve it (thank you to those supervisors). But we all know of the horror stories. Our laboratory curriculum begins with that first day in university, and ends when students hand in their project report. The whole journey needs to be coordinated: see Rule 1.


  1. Seery, M. K.; Agustian, H. Y.; Zhang, X., A Framework for Learning in the Chemistry Laboratory. Israel Journal of Chemistry 2019, 59 (6-7), 546-553.
  2. Seery, M. K., Establishing the Laboratory as the Place to Learn How to Do Chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education 2020, 97 (6), 1511-1514.
  3. Boud, D.; Dunn, J.; Hegarty-Hazel, E., Teaching in laboratories. Society for Research into Higher Education & NFER-Nelson Guildford, Surrey, UK: 1986.
  4. Agustian, H. Y.; Seery, M. K., Reasserting the role of pre-laboratory activities in chemistry education: a proposed framework for their design. Chemistry Education Research and Practice 2017, 18, 518-532.
  5. Seery, M. K.; Jones, A. B.; Kew, W.; Mein, T., Unfinished Recipes: Structuring Upper-Division Laboratory Work To Scaffold Experimental Design Skills. Journal of Chemical Education 2019, 96 (1), 53-59.
  6. Seery, M. K.; Agustian, H. Y.; Doidge, E. D.; Kucharski, M. M.; O’Connor, H. M.; Price, A., Developing laboratory skills by incorporating peer-review and digital badges. Chemistry Education Research and Practice 2017, 18 (3), 403-419.