Institute of Teaching and Learning

Professional Development for Teaching and Learning

Topic 8: Running a class

Running a practical class can be a daunting task for inexperienced demonstrators but the following hints should help you prepare for, run and conclude a successful and enjoyable practical class for both yourself and your students.

Starting the class

Introduce the practical activity, outlining the purpose of the activities to be carried out. Nothing frustrates students more than not knowing why they are doing something. You should also include: alerting students to risks, demonstrating how equipment works (you may have to repeat some of this again later on a more local level) and running through how the class will be assessed. If you plan to have a class discussion at the end it is a good idea to alert students at the start to this fact so that any early finishers don't simply pack up and leave.

 Activity: Starting the class

Look at an upcoming class that you will be teaching and write a plan for the first 10-15 minutes

  • what will you be doing, saying?
  • what will the students be doing?
  • how are you going to introduce the topic and relate the practical activities to theory?

Learning student names

You will probably be responsible for taking an attendance. If you are taking the same group of students for a series of practical activities through the semester then it is worthwhile learning their names. The best way to do this is while doing the attendance record (do not simply send a sheet around the class as you don't learn names as quickly this way). Students usually are creatures of habit and sit in the same places so once you know everyone's names you can probably quickly do the attendance without resorting to reading out names. Don't underestimate the value of this skill; students will feel more at ease, it will enhance their positive feelings and sense of belonging to the class and in fact their attitude to the unit as a whole. Learning names is something that is hard for lecturers to achieve in the very impersonal nature of lectures.

One suggestion which has proved successful is to spend a few minutes in the first class asking each student to give their first name, their course and if they have studied the subject, eg. Biology, before. This helps break the ice, allows students to learn each other's names and gets everyone saying something to the rest of the class. It also provides you, the demonstrator, with some valuable knowledge about your class. Make sure that you reply to each student even if only "thanks Melanie" or "don't be too anxious, you're not the only one" (in reply to someone telling you they haven't done any Biology/Chemistry or what ever before). If after a student speaks you move straight on to the next person with barely an acknowledgement, it will discourage them from making an effort to answer a question or speak to the class another time.

Using the students' names in your responses while you look directly at their face will make it much easier to learn their names.

Another little trick to help you address students by name is to ask them to print their name on the top right-hand corner of all pages of their lab work records (logbook, drawings etc). Then when you come up to the bench to ask a question you can swiftly take a peep at their name and then use it in the question you ask!

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Interacting with students during class

In your role as a demonstrator you need to show that you are someone who is vitally interested in both quality work from all the class and in the students themselves.

Actively move about the class encouraging students as they work. By walking past each student you are in a much better position to see and solve student problems, as well as being able to check that equipment is being used safely and appropriately. You can check progress, offer encouragement and keep an eye open for incorrect techniques, inadequate drawings etc.

Keep the students focussed on the task at hand. You need to be pro-active without interrupting the activity and progress of students. Do not wait until a hand goes up or you are called over to the bench by a student. Walk around the class in a systematic way.

Learn who are the quieter students who never ask questions. A surprising number of students hesitate to ask questions especially if you are perched up the front. This hesitancy is especially prevalent with first years. You should be moving about the lab and asking the students questions to see if they really do understand (see below for more detail about asking questions). One problem to beware of is spending too much time with one student or group of students. The student accusations "you never get to our end of the lab" or "we haven't been able to finish the prac on time as we had to wait so long for help", are not uncommon and are sometimes valid. It is a hard call as there are some students who need much more help than others.

Don't hesitate to discuss non-coping students with the unit chair.

As you walk around don't adopt the role of policeman but rather be a supportive watchdog. Be encouraging as you give advice "you've drawn those cells really well, but don't forget to rule the lines to the labels". Try to train yourself to ask useful questions. "How's it going?" is a closed question as it is likely to get a reply of "Fine" and you are none the wiser about the student's understanding. Ask open questions that will help you determine if students have an understanding of the activity and the associated theory. E.g.: "Now that you've measured the rate of dye reduction with red wavelengths, what do you expect to find when you repeat the experiment with yellow wavelengths?"

Tune in on body language: a student who is avoiding eye contact may not only be low in self-confidence but also unsure of the prac activity.

It is common to have two demonstrators sharing the teaching of a practical class. In this case it is important that you have determined well before the class starts how you will divide up the teaching tasks e.g.: which of you will give the introductory talk, who will take the attendance etc.

Things to watch out for

Beware of being too helpful and doing the experiment for the student, or telling them the answers prematurely. Resist the temptation to interfere - giving hints in the form of questions can help. You should only intervene if there is immediate danger or a likelihood of students not finishing.

A student who has read up the text may attempt to reproduce the "right" answer in the lab. You may need to explain the idea of experimental error. Remember all results are valid and discussion of the results and possible sources of error is a most important aspect of a practical report.

What if a student asks a question you can't answer? Do not bluff. Tell the student you don't know but will find out. Make it a joint activity and look up a reference book with the student if there are some references at hand in the lab.

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Asking and answering questions

Your role is to assist students to better understand why they are doing a particular practical exercise, or to understand the relevance to the theory being taught in lectures. You can do this from the front of the class as well as while you move about the lab, by asking questions. Questions are at the heart of helping students to learn. Adopting this approach is valuable as it encourages students to ask good questions also.

Why might you ask a question?

  • To see what students remember from their lectures, or a previous prac activity, or something covered earlier in the current lab.
  • To help students to make the links between concepts or between theory and practice.
  • To start a discussion, or to encourage analytical thinking
  • To help nut out what the results of an experiment mean, or why a technique is being used, eg: Why do the prac notes recommend you keep the enzyme solution on ice?

Asking good questions

There are good questions and bad ones. Different types of questions tend to have different types of answers and different kinds of learning. Ask a variety of questions to promote different kinds of learning. As you move down the list you are asking for more advanced intellectual skills. Many first year students in particular tend to think there are just two answers to questions - right and wrong. They need to be stimulated to see beyond this level.

Description Who? What? Where? When?
Comprehension How?
Can you describe this in another way?
Application What does that new graph mean?
How could you use that theory to explain?
Analysis Why?
How does this contrast with?
What are the key elements of this problem?
Synthesis How can you put these ideas together?
Evaluation How would you judge how effective this is going to be?
What criteria would you use to compare a range of?

 Activity: Asking questions

Look at your next prac and work out two or three places where you can ask different styles of questions from the table above.

How to respond to students' questions

There are two main kinds of responses: you answer the question for the student, or help the student to answer the question for themselves. You will need to gauge the level of information to give a student. Some students may have never studied the subject before and therefore need a little more help and information at a different level to those who have studied the subject matter before. This dilemma is a particular problem in first year prac classes. For example in Biology A there will be students who have never studied any biology alongside those who have achieved a high score in VCE studies. We do not want to alienate either type of student. If you have such a class, it would be an excellent idea to ask each student if they have studied the discipline before. This could be done when you are taking attendance for the first time. You may wish to record the information for future reference.

Before you launch into an answer you have to remind yourself of the level the student is working at and not give too long or detailed or technical an answer. To clarify you have understood the question you could start with "So you are asking if". A brilliant five minute answer to the wrong question isn't much use to a confused student.

It is best to give a short answer - the student will ask a further question if they want more detail. Also, is it a question others in the class may also have? eg about some aspect of the practical activity or equipment being used. If so then make an announcement to all the class or if less urgent then tell students as you move about the lab.

The challenge is always to keep explanations simple. Remember it really shows that a person understands a topic if they are able to explain it simply. You will improve at this with time.

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Common problems and solutions

Different rates of working

You will find students work at different rates. There are a number of reasons for this. This can be because some students:

  • are more efficient, and have read the prac through before the class and really understand what they are doing,
  • pick up what to do faster,
  • are more slap dash,
  • are in a hurry as have other commitments eg: just want to get the prac over with so they can get to footy practice! This is a particular problem in afternoon pracs that go until 5pm or later, especially in winter.

Finishing early

The predicament for you is do you let students who finish early for any of the reasons above leave early or do you suggest extra (optional) tasks to further develop their skills? Is it OK to get them to help out other students who are moving more slowly? There is a tendency that if students who finish early are allowed to leave then many of those remaining will rush through to join the others who have already left. This has been called the "flocking effect" for obvious reasons (Allison, 200?).

Finishing late

It is good policy to remind students at regular intervals through a prac class where they should be up to. Very slow students are even more of a worry than fast students as they cannot stay in the lab after the end of the class unless you stay with them. You are not being paid for this extra time so you should not be required to stay. It is part of learning lab skills to be able to work at a reasonable rate, so once you have noted a student who repeatedly fails to complete the tasks on time, you may need to remind them earlier (say at the half way mark) to move along a bit faster and help them to pace themselves. You are helping no one if you are repeatedly prepared to stay an extra 20 minutes for which you are not getting paid. You may also be creating problems or inconveniences for the technical staff who have a different timetable to yourself.

 Activity: Timing

Look at an upcoming prac. Annotate the manual with times that you expect each activity to take. After the prac go back and see how well you estimated these times. Which activities took longer than expected? Which took less time? Were there things you could have done to keep to time better?

The prac experiment "doesn't work"

Don't panic if the results seem to be all over the place or something is wrong. It's not the first time - remember a prac class when you were a student. Use it as a challenge and work with the class or the group - ask questions. What crucial confounding variable has been overlooked? Maybe a procedure had not been followed exactly. Is it just one group or all the class? The exercise can be turned into a classic problem-solving exercise. Enlist the help of the technician. Organise for the group with the problem to share results with another group. Don't just shrug your shoulders and say "sometimes experiments don't work" ... or worse "This experiment never works". If the latter is really the case then you should be recommending that a different prac be considered in the future. If you don't say anything the unit chair may not know it didn't work. Of course as was mentioned right at the start of this module, the best approach is to have had the opportunity to trial the experiment yourself prior to teaching it.

Sometimes it is tempting to blame the technician for a prac activity that doesn't work, especially if you have become flustered. If you do feel it is the technician's fault, discuss the issue with the technician in private, never in front of students. A second option is to discuss the matter with the unit chair who will speak with the technician.

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A student is not pulling his/her weight in a group

When you are organising students into groups for a particular activity or experiment, try to have groups no bigger then 3. It is commonly observed that 4 or more means at least one student has little to do. Don't forget for some techniques it introduces a variable if you have more than one person as operator. For example in an experiment where it was necessary to do repeated pipetting of the same quantity of enzyme, it was found that results varied when two people shared the pipetting.

If there is a non-participating student then perhaps organise for them to be in a different group in the next group prac. You may need to remind such students that lab skills and confidence in the lab will be vital for many fields of science employment. Be warned that moving students can be tricky to organise however as students like to stay in groups with friends.

Disruptive students

This is likely to be a relatively rare event and easily managed if it does occur. It can be the students mentioned above who are not engaging in the practical activities, or those who have finished early and just want to stay and chat about next Thursday night. The problem is peer group pressure can kick in here and one student can end up disrupting many. Generally it is not too much of a problem. Remind the student of the role of the lab and suggest they leave if it is jeopardising the work of others. If they are waiting for their friend to finish - suggest they wait out in the corridor. Remember if ever anyone's safety is compromised; act immediately to stop the behaviour.

In an extreme situation when a disruptive student will not cease their unacceptable behaviour, you may need to call campus security (or ask the lab technician to do so for you) on 222.

Dealing with students' personal problems

It can be easy for a demonstrator to be drawn in to advising students about their personal problems. Listen to the student and try not to offer your own opinion. Depending on the nature of the problem, encourage the student to see the relevant Deakin staff member. They should see the unit chair if it is a problem with the unit, enrolment officer if it is a course problem, Student Life for personal and careers problems. Student life is also where students make contact with writing skills advisers.

Remember however whether it is equipment not working or problem student, it is important not to lose sight of what is going on in the rest of the class.

Concluding the class

Summing up

It is valuable to bring everyone together at the end of a class. This allows you to make some concluding remarks so that:

  • Students leave understanding the point of the prac and how it links with the theory from lectures.
  • Early leavers are discouraged from leaving as they know they will miss out on a vital part of the class.
  • Try to involve your students. Draw up a table and get students to enter their results so you can then generate a discussion of why the results vary so much.
  • Make sure that you talk to the class and not the board.

Finally before students leave

Remind students that you expect them to come prepared to the next class and that it is essential that they read all the prac notes beforehand. This is an excellent practice to encourage as it often means students have also brushed up a little on the associated theory.

 Activity: Write a conclusion

Look at an upcoming prac. Write a plan for the last 10-15 minutes of the prac. What are you going to say about this prac? What do you need to remind students? How are you going to ensure all students are finished before your conclusion? Are you going to have students involved in your conclusion? If so, who and what are they going to be doing?


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25th November 2010