Institute of Teaching and Learning

Professional Development for Teaching and Learning

Topic 3: Why have practical classes?

Practical skills are an essential part of competence in some disciplines. These include the organisational, manipulative and observational skills essential to the conduct of experiments and other practical activities. Good practical work also helps students develop expertise in critical enquiry, problem solving, experimental design, data analysis and presentation, and many other important academic and professional abilities. Students should not only get a better understanding of how the body of knowledge in their area of science has been derived, but also see the links between theory and practice in the discipline.

Good laboratory classes can also help students to develop the kinds of practical skills so highly valued by professionals in many fields, and by those who employ them, as well as the ability to work with others.

Practical activities help illustrate and reinforce principles discussed in lectures and should encourage a deeper understanding of the concepts being taught in the unit. Practical examples help students make sense of the theory and also to remember it. Most students find prac classes enjoyable and such classes can provide the sense of excitement that students may not get in lectures.

However, bad laboratory classes and practical exercises can be mind-numbing exercises in recipe-following which can be totally off-putting to students. When students cannot understand why they are doing something or when the experiment doesn't work there is increased frustration amongst the students' ranks. They may then resort to desperate measures such as "cooking the books" in order to satisfactorily complete the task. Negative experiences are likely to turn students off practical work, or even the discipline itself.

This module recognises that the teaching staff in the laboratory are fundamental to the success of the practical program of a unit and attempts to alert demonstrators to some of the key points to running a successful class and to enable you to approach the job with confidence.

Remember you have done well academically and now as a demonstrator you can help others succeed. No doubt you can think back to specific demonstrators who were particularly effective. What was it about them and the way they ran the class? What made them memorable? You may be able rework some of their strategies. It is very likely that one of the features you remember best of all is the enthusiasm the demonstrator displayed for the discipline they were teaching.

Effective teaching requires the teacher (you) to be aware that people may have "block", mental or otherwise, to learning. Look out for these and, if possible, do something about them. If it seems that a student really has a learning difficulty speak to the unit chair. A problem we encountered a few years ago was a student who always seemed too tired to be able to think let alone concentrate on the lab activities. In a private chat at the end of the class the demonstrator discovered that this student worked as a baker and started work at 1am prior to his prac class at 9am the same day. Fortunately a space in an afternoon class became available, enabling the student to have a few hours sleep before coming to uni.


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25th November 2010