Institute of Teaching and Learning

Professional Development for Teaching and Learning

Topic 7: Before the practical class

Successful practical classes are those that are well prepared. The unit chair has ultimate responsibility for the success of the practical program and their preparation for this should include preparing you to be a successful demonstrator. This means providing you with all the necessary resources to teach the classes well: practical manual, demonstrator's notes with all the handy hints, answers to questions, likely pitfalls, assessment breakdown etc., and possibly a copy of the textbook.

You will need to meet with the unit chair to discuss the practical activities. Many unit chairs or campus coordinators organise regular meetings of demonstrators to go through the practical exercises. Meetings are very valuable as the whole team is likely to be there, including more experienced demonstrators and the technician, so that you can hear about how the prac ran and what the pitfalls were the last time it was run.

Make sure you have read the prac notes beforehand so you can clarify any instructions or aspects of the prac that confuse you. The meeting may be an opportunity to trial some of the activities or preview materials to be used. Don't be afraid to ask questions of the unit chair at any stage remember they are teachers too and will be delighted to see you actively thinking the activities through. Even after you have run a class, you may have a few questions or something you now realise you don't fully understand, speak with a fellow demonstrator or to the unit chair.

If you have not demonstrated a particular practical activity before, you should definitely make sure you have trialled the activities. This way you will know exactly what you are talking about when helping students.
Some examples of trialling:

  • Students are required to look at a microscope slide of the kidney to observe cuboidal epithelial cells, if you haven't checked the slide out beforehand you might not realise exactly where on the slide the particular cells are most easily observed.
  • You may have done lots of sectioning of leaves in second year but nothing beats a bit of recent practice so that you can demonstrate the technique confidently to the prac class.

Another valuable strategy before you run a practical activity for the first time is to visit a class earlier in the week and observe how the class is introduced and how the demonstrators are managing. Always ask those taking the class if you can visit.

One of your key learning objectives for each prac should be to encourage students to see the links between theory learnt in lectures and the practical activities. Make sure you are familiar with the text the students use. Ideally the unit chair should provide you with a copy. If you confidently know your way around a text, then it is an easy matter to find the relevant diagram of the brain or the flow chart illustrating the breakdown of urea. You will also be re-enforcing the importance of the text in a student's study repertoire. You may be surprised at how many students do not buy texts. An experienced demonstrator emphasises the link between text and the prac by noting the highly relevant chapters, pages and diagrams on the board.

 Activity: Personal checklist prior to class starting

Look at your next prac and go over each of the following:

  • Have you got all prac notes (student notes and any demonstrator notes)?
  • Lab coat, appropriate footwear, and safety glasses if needed.
  • Can you use all the equipment and demonstrate how to use it?
  • Do you clearly understand the underlying theory?
  • Are you clear on exactly what the students need to hand in for assessment? How are they to write up the prac? What graphs/tables are required? When they are to hand the work in?
  • Are you aware of problems students had in this class last year? Have you talked to demonstrators who taught the class last year?
  • Do you know all the risks in the practical activities and how they are to be managed, safety drills? What to do in event of an accident, injury, fire alarm? Where the nearest phone is? Who to contact for first aid assistance?
  • Have you left enough time to get to the lab and start on time?

In the lab before the students arrive

It is essential to arrive early in the lab. This is for a number of reasons:

  • The lab technician may wish to brief you on last minute variations such as a replacement of skin slides with gut slides, a new location of the sharps container, or which fridge the enzyme buffer is being stored in. The last thing you want to have to do is leave the lab during a class to chase up a missing item.
  • Often the technician has set out the materials, demonstrations in a particular order in the lab. Make sure you are quite clear of this order so you can direct students confidently to them.
  • You may wish to put some headings or diagrams up on the board or organise your personal notes. The few minutes will be time for you to check that you have all the lab notes, reference books, posters that you need. It is also good to have a few moments to visualise how you will introduce the class.
  • Students are not allowed in labs before there are staff present. Classes at Deakin start on the hour, it is not good to see 35 students hanging around in the corridor at 5 or even 10 past the hour. Set a good example, if students know the class starts promptly then they will be less inclined to arrive late.


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30th November 2010