Innovative pedagogies series: A dynamic laboratory manual: Pre-lab online support for practical Chemistry

Tim Harrison, Jenny Slaughter, Dudley Shallcross, Nicholas C. Norman

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


Practical chemistry: what is it for? As practitioners we have treated laboratories as mystical places where students will understand and be excited by bubbling potions and magical black boxes. In the past we might have been allowed to continue in this vein, wilfully neglecting the students’ perplexed faces and trusting that simply being in the laboratory environment will be enough. But laboratories are expensive; students seemingly eat through glassware, lap up stocks of chemicals and emerge from these supernatural places with
little more than an impression of smoke and mirrors, refusing the osmotic pressure of ‘learning’. We have faced the righteous forces of student fees and school management, rightfully demanding we deliver quality to the masses. More often our students leave university never to step foot in such spaces again. So now we
must provide worthwhile time in these precious laboratories and give our students much more than an impression of alchemy. Eleven years ago, this is what Bristol ChemLabS, a HEFCE CETL in practical Chemistry set out to do.
Practical Chemistry has always been an important component of the teaching of Chemistry at both post-16 and undergraduate level in the UK; although not necessarily carrying much weight in terms of assessment.
Reid and Shah (2007), remind us that there was a need to produce skilled technicians for industry and highly competent workers for research laboratories (Morrell 1969; 1972). However, such demand is not evident in
the UK in the 21st century as automation has become prevalent in industry. Indeed, it is well recorded that the majority of Chemistry graduates never enter a laboratory again and those that do go into research require
further specialised training (Bennett and O’Neale 1998; Duckett et al. 1999; Hanson and Overton 2010).
Therefore, the notion that the prime purpose of practical Chemistry at tertiary level is to train a professional chemist, is somewhat inappropriate. What, then, is the purpose of laboratory work in an undergraduate Chemistry course? There have been many attempts to answer this question: Johnstone and Al-Shuaili (2001) provide a comprehensive review of the whole topic of learning in the laboratory and note five goals for science laboratory instruction to arouse and maintain interest: skills, concepts, cognitive abilities, understanding the nature of science, and attitudes (Johnstone and Al-Shuaili 2001).
Despite these laudable aims, various critics have raised problems with the teaching of practical work. Firstly, it is very expensive in terms of chemicals, equipment, demonstrators, technical staff and the dedicated use of expensive, bespoke teaching space (Hawkes 2004; Carnduff and Reid 2003). Secondly, it is inevitable, due to
equipment optimisation, that students will rotate around the laboratory during the course of the year and carry out a set of practicals in a variety of orders, most likely being out of synchronisation with lecture courses. Hence, university students’ reactions to practical work are often negative, and this may reflect a
student perception that there is a lack of any clear purpose for the experiments: they go through the experiment without adequate stimulation (see for example, Johnstone and Letton 1988 and 1990). Finally, the paper-based laboratory manual often feels like a recipe book, and students often only start to read it after they have entered the laboratories (Shallcross et al. 2013a; 2013b). The demand that the aboratory manual contains clear instructions and good diagrams is high (Rollnick et al. 2001a; 2001b), but when done well a
laboratory manual has a dramatic positive effect on student learning and satisfaction.
In response to these demands, innovations in practical Chemistry teaching and re-learning of good practice began to emerge. For example, pre-laboratory work clearly had a very positive impact on the learning outcomes of students (Johnstone et al. 1994; Johnstone et al. 1998; Brattan et al. 1999; Nicholls 1999; Reid and
Shah 2007; Shallcross et al. 2013a; 2013b). Pre-laboratory work signposts the key techniques and practical skills that will be encountered and can allow understanding to increase simply by reducing information overload. Exercises are completed before the laboratory starts and aim to prepare the mind for learning.
Both paper-based (Carnduff and Reid 2003) and some computer-based exercises were in use by 2000 (Johnstone et al. 1998; Nicholls 1999; McKelvy 2000; Tomlinson et al. 2000). In a test of understanding, the pre-laboratory exercises were found to increase performance by around 11%, while it was found that students were dramatically more positive about laboratories (Johnstone et al 1998). The use of videos to
demonstrate the assembly of equipment was also trialled successfully (Tunney 2009).
Students enjoyed practical work in support of their teaching, noting that the subject is predicated on experimental investigation and verification (Sneddon and Hill 2011). These authors noted that in many cases, secondary school teachers had had a very positive influence on students through practical teaching and that it was essential to build on this foundation, that is to provide a smooth transition from post-16 teaching through to tertiary level.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationUK
PublisherHigher Education academy UK Physical Sciences Centre
Commissioning bodyHigher Education Academy
Number of pages23
Publication statusPublished - 2015


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