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 Developing a Creative Community to improve Lab Education

 Here is a summary of the main ideas:

There are many reasons to expect that the quality of laboratory education will improve when advisory feedback from Teaching Assistants (TAs) is strongly encouraged, effectively gathered, highly valued, and wisely used.


Who and What, Why and How?


WHO — Departments with TAs

The ideas in this page might be useful for science departments with graduate students who work as TAs to teach labs for undergraduate students.


WHAT — TAs provide Advisory Feedback

What is advisory feedback?  The leaders of most departments make a distinction — which I think is useful and wise — between making policy decisions and providing advisory feedback:   major policy decisions for labs (about instruction, grading, safety,...) should be made by instructors, lab director(s), and the department as a whole;   they delegate the responsibility for some teaching decisions to the TAs who teach labs;   and these TAs are encouraged to provide advisory feedback about how to improve the labs.

You may find it useful to view the advisory function of TAs as a strategy of Brainstorm-and-Edit.  In the initial brainstorming phase, TAs (functioning as advisors) are free to provide creative & critical feedback that will be evaluated, by policy-makers, in a later editing phase.  TAs get creative freedom in the first phase;  but they are much less involved, unless they're invited to participate, in making decisions during the second phase.



WHY — TAs have Useful Knowledge

Teaching Assistants are a valuable source of creative ideas and critical evaluations.*  They can provide useful feedback about labs, because they invest the work (preparing for a lab, helping students during it, grading it) and they see the results by observing what students do (in labwork, discussions, reports) and what they learn.  Most TAs are graduate students, usually in their first year, but also in second year and beyond.  They are intelligent and enthusiastic, with a wide variety of lab experiences – in chemistry (general, organic, analytical,...) and other sciences (physics, biology,...) and maybe engineering – from undergraduate programs throughout the U.S. and in other countries.  Their own teaching experience quickly grows with each lab, and as a group they have useful knowledge gained from their diverse old experiences (when they were learning as undergrads) and similar new experiences (shared with other TAs who are teaching the same labs).

* At some schools, including UW-Madison, some lab sections are taught by academic staff who also are valuable sources of ideas because they are experienced teachers and usually they are highly motivated to improve the quality of teaching.  Below, "TAs" means "everyone who teaches labs," including TAs and academic staff.


In a collaborative process of designing goal-directed lab instruction to solve problems (to "make things better") by learning from experience, improved feedback from TAs will be useful in all parts of the process, while Defining Problems and Solving Problems:

    the starting point for effective problem-solving process is understanding with empathy;  in lab education, two major stakeholders are TAs and students;  TAs teach the labs, and they have lots of direct experiential contact with students.
    the experiences of TAs (old & new) help them be effective contributors, as part of a collaborative team,* in Generating Ideas and, with advisory feedback, in Evaluating Ideas;  getting more feedback from TAs is a way to get more experiences (to learn from) for the team.
* In a web-article based on his book about Groupthink: the Brainstorming Myth Jonah Lehrer describes strategies to stimulate creativity by combining repeat collaborators (e.g. instructors and experienced TAs) with new talent (incoming TAs) who have "different backgrounds & perspectives," who are "physically near" and have many "chance encounters in the workplace."  For these reasons and more, TAs can be valuable members of a productive collaborative team.

Improved Thinking Skills for All Students:  We should use labs to help undergrad students improve their creative-and-critical thinking skills.  As an added benefit, when we encourage lab-teachers (usually grad students) to “think about thinking skills” they can use this cognition-and-metacognition to improve their own thinking skills and thinking strategies for performing and/or learning



HOW — Methods for Getting Feedback

Those who decide policies (the instructors, lab director, others) can persuade TAs, by words and actions, that they really do want totally honest feedback about all aspects of lab education, because the goal is not to defend all current instruction & policies, but to improve labs in the future.

Feedback from TAs can occur in many ways:*  in their teacher-training sessions;  during weekly staff meetings, although time is limited;  in scheduled informal discussions at other times (weekday evenings?) with attendance voluntary;  a lab director (or instructor) can talk with TAs during lab, but time is limited because during a lab the TA should focus on students;  or talk with TAs immediately after lab while the experience is fresh in their memories;  or talk with students before or after lab, or with surveys (on-paper or online) to get their perspectives and their suggestions;  or visit the TA Room for informal talks with anyone who (individually or in a group) wants to discuss lab education;  generally, establish an “open door” policy of welcoming candid feedback by talking (in any of these ways) and by email.

Of course, TAs are busy, and some will want to invest more time to discuss labs.  The entire range of discussion (from none to a lot) should be acceptable, with minimal demands on the time of TAs, and no pressures.

* To stimulate-and-guide feedback, a lab director (or instructor) can ask:  what's happening? how are students performing and understanding?  what changes would make things go more smoothly, or help students learn more from their experiences?  should we expand their experiences by facilitating additional thought-stimulating discussions with other students and/or with the TA? plus other experience-expanding mini-activities?  do you suggest any changes in the lab manual or notes-for-TAs?  or in grading labs? (do you prefer a mandatory rubric or voluntary guidelines? should lab scores be normalized to adjust for grading-differences between TAs, to achieve better fairness?);  and more.

related ideas:

Developing a Creative Community with Cooperative Collborations` (in a process that includes Wise Filtering before Providing Critical Feedback and Productive Responses to Critical Feedback and Evaluations-Based Argumentation plus...

Teaching/Learning and Grading in Science Labs where I describe Discussion-Based Labs, and explain why we should say “no” to mandatory rubrics and “yes” to voluntary guidelines & normalizing, and describe options for coping with Variations in the Quality of Lab Teachers.



A Personal Context

Why is the rest of this page written in first-tense future, explaining “what I will do” as a lab director?  Because it's part of a page I wrote about My Educational Philosophy for Effective Lab Education which begins by explaining that for 8 months beginning in September 2010 my main employment-related goal was to "improve lab education by becoming a lab director."     { Then in May 2011 "the focus of my work shifted to developing extensions of my PhD work [in this website] by making my model of Design Process more useful for education" because I want to work with other educators to develop curriculum & instruction that will help students improve their learning of ideas-and-skills in a variety of contexts. }

The ideas in this page – about Creative Community for Lab Education – were written (mainly between February 1999 and May 2011) to describe the kind of educational environment I would try to encourage if I was working as Lab Director for General Chemistry at a university with high-enrollment courses in which labs are taught by multiple Teaching Assistants (TAs) instead of by the course instructor, as in smaller colleges.

Another page about lab education is Teaching, Learning, and Grading in Science Labs.



Below, ideas from the page summary are described in more detail.


Cooperation & Collaboration in Lab Education

As a lab director, {but after 2010, including now in 2022, this has not been my goal } I will 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.

Ideally, all of this would occur in the comfortable working atmosphere of a Creative Community with Cooperative Collaboration` that includes Productive Responses to Critical Feedback.

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 (to discuss strategies for improved teaching & learning, and possibilities for cooperation in planning long-term student experiences, including guidelines for what students should know when they complete a sequence of general chemistry labs, and why/how we might want to coordinate a spiral curriculum in which ideas-and-skills are revisited in a “successive approximations” strategy of instruction), and instructional technologists (I would ask them for information about what is available, 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.

Below 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 in the introductory overview of the page-summary, 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.


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* who also are valuable sources of ideas, because they are experienced teachers and usually are highly motivated to improve the quality of teaching.   /   e.g., I taught labs as academic staff for 15 years, following 8 years as a TA while I was a graduate student earning an M.A. in History of Science and Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction.


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 during a lab 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 staff-meeting discussions, including their duration.

• 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.