Teaching in a laboratory setting

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The list below represents what a group of experienced UVic Teaching Assistants (TAs) have identified as key considerations when working as a TA in a laboratory setting. Not all suggestions below may be applicable in all departments on campus. Please use the list as a guide only as this list is not exhaustive but encompasses a diverse array responsibilities and considerations.

When you teach in a laboratory program, you have additional responsibilities beyond the course content. You will likely be required to support the laboratory setting (both students and experiments) and ensure student safety. Remember that students will look to you for guidance and leadership in the event of an emergency. Make sure that you know how to respond in an earthquake, evacuation, fire or other emergencies. Incidentally, this is true for whatever room you teach in.

    General lab TA responsibilities

    Most lab classes meet once on a weekly basis for the duration of an academic term. As a lab TA you may be required to:

    • Present short pre-laboratory talks
    • Give demonstrations on theoretical and practical aspects of experiments
    • Coach students one-on-one while they are performing their experiments
    • Help troubleshoot experimental problems
    • Support in-lab quizzes or tests
    • Mark quizzes, laboratory assignments and reports
    • Meet with students during office hours, and attend meetings with the course instructor and other TAs
    • Meet with the course instructor to discuss specific duties and responsibilities

    Getting ready for the term – meeting with the course instructor and other TAs

    • Discuss the nature of your laboratory teaching responsibilities (e.g., are you responsible for pre-lab talks, are you there to answer questions).
    • Confirm the dates and times you are expected to be teaching or demonstrating in the lab. Do you have to be there early? Do you clean up at the end? Do you have to set anything up for the next section?
    • Learn details of marking assignments and policies on cheating, non-attendance, and reports not handed in.
    • If you are to lead field trips, ask what transportation arrangements are in place: will you be expected to drive students? What is the insurance arrangement? Do you need a special license?
    • Familiarize yourself with emergency and safety procedures in your department, including emergency phone numbers, location of safety equipment, first-aid facilities, how to keep lab areas clean, procedures for handling chemicals, and disposing of waste.

    Contact your course instructor or Occupational Health and Safety for any questions.

    Information for students

    • Inform students about lab safety rules (e.g., lab coats, closed-toe shoes, no food or drink in the labs) during the very first class.
    • Tour the lab with students making sure they know the location of first-aid kits and safety equipment.

    Lab performance

    • Explain how lab performance is to be assessed and how the labs tie in with other parts of the course.
    • Talk about attendance at labs and the policy for make-up labs if any.
    • Explain what kind of reports are expected and in what format; explain the marking scheme, due dates and penalties for late reports. This information can also be given to students as a handout or in the lab manual.
    • Explain what advance preparation you expect from students before the lab (e.g., reading the lab manual).

    Before the lab

    • Identify the purpose and objectives of the experiment so you know what students are supposed to walk away from the lab with.
    • If you are unfamiliar with a lab exercise or procedure, try it out before the class.
    • Make sure you have analyzed the data or performed the experiment, so you are able to check student answers.
    • If using live samples or specimens, remember that diagrams and pictures often look very different from actual samples so know what you are looking at.
    • Be prepared if the experiments do not work. Brainstorm possible reasons why it may not work so you are prepared for the worst.
    • If pre-lab materials are not already provided, be sure to plan your lesson, build any handouts, and practice.

    During the lab

    • Begin with a review of last week’s lab and connect it with this week’s lab. There may not be any, but this is also worth explaining – emphasizing why the material is included in the lab program.
    • Give a short pre-lab talk to explain the lab organization, time management, safety precautions, relevance, etc. Pre-lab talks are not meant to be a lecture (i.e., give new material) but highlight lab-related practical concepts.
    • Create a “To Do” list where you highlight important items for students to address in the lab.
    • Check to see if there are any questions from students.
    • Think about working with students in small groups rather than addressing the whole class.
    • Circulate and check on students frequently. If results are not as expected, encourage students to speculate about reasons why.
    • Finish with a post-lab talk to summarize the important results of any experiments.
    • Make sure students leave the lab clean and the equipment is put away properly.
    • Do a routine check at the end of the lab: turn off lights, lock equipment cabinets; check air, gas, and steam taps. Lock up the laboratory. Does the course instructor have a checklist for ending labs?

    Interacting with students

    • Circulate among students during the lab to answer questions or give assistance. Do not wait for students’ questions, ask “What stage are you at?” or ask how things are going. Try not to hover.
    • Do not be quick to solve students’ problems. Ask probing questions to help them think it through.
    • Rather than answering the same individual questions repeatedly, address the class (or small group) as a whole. The frequency of the question probably means that everyone is confused at that point.
    • If you do not know or are unsure of an answer to a student’s question, check to see if other students can provide an answer, or have the student(s) search for the answer, and lastly if not answered, let students know that you will find out for them.
    • Never let students think they asked a stupid question; find the answers together.
    • Treat your students with respect and be approachable.
    • Work hard at creating an environment in which the students feel comfortable learning with you and their peers.

    This guide was developed during the Teaching Assistant Consultants’ (TACs) seminars for the academic year 2009-2010 and updated in 2020-2021.

    About this post

    This post was last updated:

    August 11, 2022

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