My Educational Philosophy
for Effective Lab Education

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D. 

This page is personal because it's my philosophy of lab education — beginning with Cooperation and Collaboration in Lab Education — but it's also general, with many useful principles that might help you improve education at your school.

Here is an update in May 2012, beginning with some recent personal history:
        In late 2010 and early 2011, my main interest was lab education and becoming a lab director.  But in May 2011 the focus of my work shifted to developing extensions of my PhD work, by making my model of Design Process more useful for education.   Now the page I originally wrote about "educational philosophy" has been split into two parts:  this page is about lab education, and another page is about me.  We'll begin with a little of both:

        As part of my plan for converting ideas into action, I want to work as a lab director for general chemistry at a research university, or [even better, I've concluded since I initially wrote this page] in a position where I can help develop a wide range of curriculum & instruction to improve students' learning of ideas-and-skills in a variety of contexts, in all areas of school & life, not just in science labs.
        I have a long Personal History with Lab Education and recently, in late 2012, I wrote Teaching, Learning, and Grading in Labs.  It's a summary of the main ideas from Teaching Scientific Methods in Science Labs, which begins with an overview of how "science labs can help students learn valuable thinking skills" — "to increase this learning,  1) carefully examine your labs to look for experiences, both short-term (in a single lab) and longer-term (in a set of labs), that are opportunities for learning, and   2) design teaching methods that will help students learn more from their experiences" — and then describes how we can design Hybrid Labs by combining in-lab discussions with written reports and lab-based exam questions.
        Later in this page you'll see ideas for Cooperation in Lab Education & Revisions in Labs and Instruction Methods & Justice in Grading & Graduate Students and Thinking Skills & Relationships between Lab Director and Teaching Assistants.
 
        As part of your plan for improving the quality of education in your department and school, why might you want to hire me? (as a lab director, or in a position for development of curriculum & instruction) ..... This paragraph continues in a related page about me but here is a paragraph that is more relevant for working as a lab director than as a general curriculum developer, so I've moved it from that page to here:
        In addition to my full-time vocation developing ideas for education, I'm working part-time in the Chemistry Dept of UW-Madison as a Faculty Assistant, which is a non-tenure teaching position, part of the academic staff.  From 1989 to now, first as a graduate student (in History of Science, and Science Education) and since 1997 as a Faculty Assistant, I've worked in the role of a Teaching Assistant in Physics and Chemistry, teaching discussion sections & labs, working with 12 instructors (usually tenured professors) in five courses: Physics in the Arts (for non-science majors), Physics 104 (2nd semester non-calculus for science majors), General Chemistry 103 & 104 (1st & 2nd semester for science majors), and Chemistry 108 (environmental and health-related chemistry for non-science and pre-nursing majors).  Working with 12 instructors has let me see a variety of teaching approaches, course structures, and exams.  Sometimes I've been given extra duties during a course, including content selection-and-development for online testing.

The rest of this page is My Educational Philosophy for Effective Lab Education.
 


 
Cooperation & Collaboration in Lab Education
       
I want to work cooperatively with other educators — in the department as a whole, and more specifically the course instructors and their lab-teaching TAs, plus lab directors in other chemistry areas (organic, analytical,...) and other science areas (biology & physics) and engineering, and people in instructional technologies — in collaborations to develop "thinking skills" education for labs.
        [ At this point, I recommend reading a summary of the main ideas and (on the left side when you click the link) related ideas. ]
        Each type of collaboration will involve a different kind of relationship and decision-making approach, which will depend on the official policies, unofficial customs, and individuals in a department and university.  I have some initial expectations — but these are flexible and open to adjustment — for working with course instructors (I assume they would make some decisions about lab-education policies, and delegate other decisions to me), teaching assistants (at the level of policies they will have a major advisory role by providing feedback and ideas, and would have delegated responsibility for making some of their own classroom-level decisions), other lab directors (where the mutual goal is cooperation in planning long-term student experiences, including guidelines for what students should know when they complete a sequence of general chemistry labs, and how we can provide some repeated “spiral” themes where ideas-and-skills are revisited in a “successive approximations” strategy), and instructional technologists (I would ask them for information about possibilities, and ask for advice or assistance in using various technologies where they have the technical expertise needed to do the job more easily and effectively).
        One of my favorite activities in life is talking with intelligent people about fascinating ideas — which for me include education (learning, teaching, thinking) and science — and we'll have many opportunities for lively discussions during these collaborations.  But I recognize that others will have their own priorities for how to use their time most effectively, so the time for cooperative work will be determined by mutual interests, with some people deciding to invest more time than others.
        Later you'll see detailed information about working with TAs but the detail is not because I think this relationship will be more important than the others.*  It's because I know more about it, from personal experience working as a TA with other TAs, and with five directors of general chemistry labs at UW-Madison, and I've thought a lot about how the director-TA relationship should be used to make the teaching experience better for TAs, and to help them participate more effectively in the process of improving lab education.   /   * As explained above, TAs would have an important role as advisors, but major policies (including the decision-making responsibilities given to TAs) would be decided by course instructors (and the department as a whole) who would delegate some policy responsibilities to me.

 

Revisions in Labs and Instruction Methods
       
When I've taught labs in chemistry and physics, my ideas for change have been evolutionary, not revolutionary.  The labs I taught were selected by the course instructor, and were ready-to-run with the basic labwork already designed.  I merely searched for the learning opportunities in these labs, and developed teaching methods that would help students learn more from these opportunities.  One result is Thinking Skills in Chemistry Labs.  While working as a Teaching Assistant (TA), my goal has been to help students learn more from already-existing labs.  Probably this will also be my main developmental goal while working as Lab Director.  I will do an integrative analysis of your current labs, to identify experiences that are opportunities to learn ideas and skills, and then we'll try to design methods of instruction that will help students learn more from these experiences, as explained in Teaching, Learning, and Grading in Labs and with more depth in Teaching Scientific Methods in Science Labs.  I'm confident that your current labs will form a solid foundation for effective lab education, without a need for major changes.  Of course, we can think about ways to add new learning opportunities by modifying current labs, supplementing them, or even replacing them — for example, by searching the chemistry education literature for labs that produce interesting opportunities for learning.  But these changes would not be my main focus.
        Instead, in my discretionary working time (*) I will focus on the collaborative development of improved teaching methods, including minor revisions of existing labs by adding mini-activities such as questions to discuss during lab, or to answer in a lab report.  Doing this might require major revisions in lab manuals (for students and TAs) and supplementary notes (for TAs);  as a skilled writer, I would be well equipped to make these revisions.
        * i.e. in the time that remains after managing the top-priority urgencies of keeping the current system of labs running smoothly (re: people, supplies, instruments,...) for all general chemistry courses, which would be our main operational goal.

        What about inquiry?  I could work comfortably with a variety of approaches to using inquiry, ranging from no inquiry labs (but with some smaller-scale inquiry activities) to a few inquiry labs.  Probably I could work well in a program using all inquiry labs, although I tend to prefer moderation in the use of inquiry, as explained in The Benefits of Eclectic Instruction.

 

Justice in Grading
        Most teachers want to achieve justice — by rewarding students who do good work, who show a mastery of ideas and skills — in a reasonable amount of grading time.
        I could feel comfortable with a wide variety of grading policies, ranging from conventional grading of lab reports to discussion-based labs with no grading, or (much better, in my opinion) a creative hybrid with some of each, plus using lab exams that are oral, written, and/or online, in lab or outside it.  What I want in a grading policy will depend on what is wanted by a department and its course instructors, after they consider input from TAs.

        Guidance in Grading
        If a department already is using a mandatory grading rubric-system (for some labs or all) and if this is considered satisfactory by the instructors and TAs, I would want to retain it.
        But my personal preference would be to give TAs non-compulsory guidelines and recommendations.  We would begin by briefly explaining principles of learning & motivation, our educational philosophy & goals, and expected learning-outcomes for students.  Then, experienced graders would describe their personal experiences, and the grading strategies they have developed that seem to work best.*  Here, "best" is defined as a grading process they enjoy the most (or dislike the least) because they can do it well in a reasonable time so they are willing to do it well, with a feeling of satisfaction that they have achieved some justice in the points they assign, and have provided useful educational feedback for students.  The overall goal is to produce a high ratio of "personal satisfaction / time invested".
        * At the beginning of a school year, experienced graders can explain principles and recommend general strategies for grading.  But specific tactics will vary from one lab to another, so specific tips can be spread throughout a semester, one lab at a time.
        After TAs are assigned to courses, the instructor of each course can describe their own views of grading, what they expect for results (re: averages & spreads,...), and their policy for normalizing — whether they will do it and why, and (if yes) how it will be done.
 
        Normalizing of Lab Grades
        When lab grades are assigned by many different TAs, uniformity is impossible.*  Almost always the best way to get approximate uniformity and justice is to normalize lab grades at the end of a semester.  At the beginning of a semester, the instructor should explain what normalizing is, why (because it's the most fair way to grade) it will be used, and (after considering options for normalizing) how it will be done;  a simple basic explanation can be supplemented by a brief web-page with a few extra details for those who are interested.
        * Even if all graders use the same rubric-system, this will not produce uniform grading because each grader must make decisions about how to assign a number for each report in every category.  These decisions will produce differing results, with some graders assigning higher points, and some lower.   Or, if each TA is responsible for achieving a specific average, the normalizing is not avoided, it's just shifted to individual TAs, with an extra constraint that is a time-wasting burden for them.
        The Benefits:  When normalizing is used, the focus of grading becomes quality instead of uniformity.  Each TA is free to grade the way they want, with their focus on quality, deciding how to assign relative grades “on a curve” within their own sections, because normalizing will compensate for differences between TAs.

        Uniformity — Is it possible? desirable?
        In a large university that uses many instructors and TAs for teaching general chemistry, there will be variation in all aspects of student experiences, in lectures and exams (each instructor is different), discussion sections (every TA is different) and labs (every TA is different).  This variation is unavoidable and is acceptable.  In a multi-TA course we can seek a basic uniformity in “topics covered” and in pursuing our goals for ideas-and-skills outcomes.  But our main educational goal should be a “greatest good for the greatest number of students” rather than uniformity of experience.

 

Graduate Students and Thinking Skills
        Here is a bonus benefit at another level of education:  Most TAs are grad students, and when we ask them to “think about thinking skills” their cognition-and-metacognition can help them in two ways, if they   1) improve the quality of their teaching now and in the future, and   2) become better grad students who will become better future scientists, which typically is the main goal of their graduate education.
 
Relationships between Lab Director and Teaching Assistants

       
Teaching Assistants are a valuable source of creative ideas and critical evaluations.*  Most TAs are new graduate students.  They are intelligent and enthusiastic, with a wide variety of lab experiences (in labs for general chemistry, plus organic, analytical,... and for physics, biology,...) from undergraduate programs throughout the U.S. and in other countries.  Their own teaching experience quickly grows with each lab, and as a group their knowledge — gained from diverse old experiences (as learners in their undergraduate programs) and similar new experiences (shared with other TAs who are teaching the same labs) — is extremely valuable.
        * At some schools, including UW-Madison, some labs are taught by academic staff (e.g. I've done this for the past 15 years, following 8 years as a TA) who also are valuable sources of ideas, because they are experienced teachers and usually are highly motivated to improve the quality of teaching.
        TAs who teach labs are an excellent resource for feedback about labs, because they invest the work (preparing for a lab, helping students during it, and then grading it) and they see the results by observing what students do (in labwork, discussions, reports) and what they learn.  To improve the usefulness of feedback from TAs, I will try to convince them that I want total honesty because the department's goal is not to defend all current instruction & policies, but to develop improved instruction & policies for the future.

        I will get feedback from TAs — by asking "what's happening? how are students understanding and performing? what changes would make things go more smoothly, or help students learn more from their experiences? should we expand their experiences by asking them to do additional sub-activities or thought-stimulating discussions? do you suggest any changes in the lab manual or teacher's notes?", and so on — in four main ways: 
        • Talk with them during lab (but this is limited because their main focus should be interacting with students) or immediately after lab (when they can focus on discussions with me) because at these times they are thinking about lab, and lab-ideas are fresh in their minds.   /   By the way, occasionally I could also talk with students, either during lab or as they're leaving lab, asking for feedback about the lab that day and their ideas for improving it, or just about "labs in general."
        • During weekly staff meetings for a course, I will encourage candid feedback.  But discussion time will be limited by the rational goal of instructors and TAs to finish the meeting in a reasonable time.  I will cooperate by controlling the time for discussion, and inviting those with detailed feedback and suggestions to “tell me more” after the meeting.  And I will ask the instructor for advice about adjusting the discussions during staff meetings.
        • Schedule voluntary discussions where interested TAs can provide feedback.  Discussions can be specific (focusing on the labs they are teaching) or more general, about education (teaching & learning) and scientific thinking skills.   { The details of timing — how often we meet and when (daytime or at night), whether to have separate meetings for each course (UW has 5 gen-chem courses with labs, and most have multiple sections), and so on — would have to be worked out, and can be adjusted. }
        • Establish an “open door” attitude by persuading TAs that I really am interested in their ideas, and I want to hear from them by email, phone, or by knocking on the door of my office.  A more proactive way to establish rapport is to occasionally visit the TA Room, looking for individuals or groups, just to say hello and to see if they are interested in talking informally about lab education.
        For all of these, I will see how TAs “vote with their actions” — by observing how much they talk during-and-after labs and staff meetings, whether they attend voluntary discussions, and how they use the open door options — and will adjust accordingly.   /   Motivation for teaching varies among TAs.  I think they all want to become better teachers, but some are willing to invest more time to pursue this goal (possibly because they are more interested in education, for now and for their future) while others want to minimize teaching time so they can focus on their own classes and make fast progress toward moving into research groups and PhD projects.  I think either approach — investing more time (to learn about teaching) or less time (to focus on classes and research) — is rational, so I'll just watch what happens (to see how much various TAs want to be involved in thinking & talking about lab education) and will adjust to whatever happens.

        As explained earlier, TAs "will have [only] an advisory role by providing feedback and ideas."  But their perspective will be an important factor in all decisions about lab policies, because lab teachers are key stakeholders in lab education, and most decisions about revising lab education will affect TAs.  Hopefully, TAs will be reaping the rewards of beneficial changes that include a decrease in the time required for lab teaching & grading, but an increase in their intrinsic enjoyment of lab teaching and in the personal satisfaction they get when the effectiveness of their teaching has been improved.
 
 


APPENDIX

I.O.U. — Later the content of this page might grow, with outlines of my own ideas plus occasional links to pages by other authors, in several areas:
    some thoughts (from me as a learner, not an expert) about collaborative development of educational policies and instructional methods;
    more about the practical aspects of teaching labs in a research university, trying to make the process & results of lab grading easier and more satisfying for TAs, as outlined in Teachng, Learning, and Grading in Science Labs;
    relationships between the thinking skills & writing skills of students;
    and maybe more.
 
Options for Normalizing
    This section is a continuation of Normalizing Lab Grades within a section about Justice in Grading.
    1. The simplest way to normalize is to choose a goal-average, then add or subtract from the average of each section, so all sections have the same average.
    2. A better way, if TAs teach two sections or more, is to adjust (by adding or subtracting) so the two-section average is the same for all TAs.  This is better because normalizing is intended to adjust for the unavoidable differences between different TAs.  But if one TA has two sections and grades both in a similar way, any difference in section-averages is because one section does better work than the other, so this TA's own “internal grading” should remain as-is.
    3. Based on the principle that some sections will "do better work than others," some instructors decide to normalize lab-grades based on exam-grades.  For example, if Mary's students are 5.0 points above the exam average, and Sue's students are 3.0 points below, the normalizing will add 5.0 points to the "two-sections average" (described in #2) of Mary's sections, and subtract 3.0 points from Sue's sections.  This assumes a 100% correlation between exam-grades and lab-grades, but it's easy to normalize based on a lower correlation;  assuming a 70% correlation, for example, Mary's sections would be adjusted by (.70)(+5.0)=(+3.5), and Sue's sections by (.70)(-3.0)=(-2.1).
    4. An instructor may want to "ignore zeros" when calculating averages for a section (in #1) or for a TA (in #2), to avoid letting students in one section be rewarded for the irresponsibility of a student (who missed one or more labs and thus got zeros) in their section.  Normalizing "is intended to adjust for the unavoidable differences between different TAs" when they grade labs, not to reward some students for the irresponsibility of other students.

 

My History with Lab Education
        For several decades, I've explored possibilities for using science labs to teach ideas-and-skills, in four contexts of teaching:   as a graduate student at a farwest-UW in Seattle, I wrote a comprehensive set of guidelines for revising a general chemistry lab course;   at a midwest-UW in Madison, in 1989-91 while a grad student in History of Science but working as a TA in Physics, for Physics in the Arts (we played with music, light-colors, and photography!) I developed a comprehensive set of handouts for labs, and in general physics I developed discussion-based labs for my own use;   from 1991 to the present in UW-Madison's Chemistry Department, first working as a TA (while working on my PhD in Science Education) and then on academic staff, I've developed many ideas for general chemistry labs.
        In 1999, I wrote Goal-Directed Design of Lab Education to Teach Scientific Thinking Skills and made a web-page about Thinking Skills in Labs to describe activities in general chemistry labs;  since then, occasionally these pages have been revised in minor ways, and in major ways by writing an introductory overview-summary of Thinking Skills in Labs (in early 2011) and (in late 2012) Teaching, Learning, and Grading in Science Labs to summarize the main ideas in Goal-Directed Design of Lab Education to Teach Scientific Thinking Skills.  Also in 1999, I did a poster session about Aesop's Activities in Chemistry Labs (based on ideas in Goal-Directed Design of [Aesop's Activities for] Lab Education) at a national meeting of the American Chemical Society, and interviewed for a position as lab director of general chemistry at the University of Maryland.
        In September 2010, I wrote this page about my educational philosophy for lab education to explain why "as part of a plan for converting ideas into action, I want to work as a lab director for general chemistry at a research university."  And at a national meeting of the American Chemical Society in March 2011, I did two presentations – a talk (about designing labs to help students learn thinking skills) and a poster session (about using design method & scientific method in education).

Craig Rusbult, crusbult@wisc.edu