Learn to Love the Lab

Many students dislike their college lab requirements, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

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What they learned from Mr. Wizard or Bill Nye the Science Guy is about as much science as many students know—or want to know. But many colleges and schools have a lab requirement. And many students hate the lab requirement, almost as much as they hate freshman comp, math, and foreign language requirements. Too boring, too hard, too stupid: These are common complaints students have. But it doesn't have to be this way. We asked visiting expert Stephen Skinner, laboratory curator at the University of Arkansas, for his 10 best tips. 

1. Know what you're picking. At many schools, there's a broad variety of courses that satisfy the lab requirement. In addition to "hard" sciences, such as chemistry, physics, and biology, you might be surprised to anthropology, environmental science, and psychology also offer courses that can satisfy the lab requirement. Pick something that you like and that you wouldn't ordinarily have a chance to take. This is one of your best opportunities at college to make a requirement into an elective, something you choose to take because you like it. 

2. Know which courses count for a science major. Sometimes, you'll want to take a course that will both satisfy the distribution requirement and count toward a major. Be sure, in such a case, that the course you select does "double duty." Some courses (e.g., physics for humanities majors or the biology of everyday life) are specifically excluded from the major, since they're geared to the general university population and, hence, too easy for serious scientists. 

4-Star Tip. Be sure to figure out when your lab meets. An astronomy course could involve night trips to the observatory, while an earth sciences course might have field trips to look at rock formations. 

3. Attend to the "requisites." Some lab courses, especially ones that can count for the major, have pre- and/or corequisites (that is, courses you have to have completed before—or at the same time as—the lab you're taking). Especially important in physics, chemistry, and, sometimes, biology is the amount of math that's required. Some courses are "algebra based" (or, in street language, presuppose high school math), while others are "nonalgebra based" (that is, require calculus and often involve a good amount of theory). 

Extra Pointer. Often, the course description isn't fully explicit about this or the professor is implicitly assuming some level of math training. If in doubt, ask. 

4. Take it on time. It's always good to polish off the lab requirement in one of your first two years of college. And if the information of the courses is needed for some upcoming professional exam—the MCAT, DAT, GRE, or GMAT, for instance—it's an especially good idea not to run this requirement down to the wire. 

5. Do the pre- and post-work. Many lab courses have an in-class and an out-of-class component. In advance, you might be asked to read the lab manual and to write out answers to some questions; after some labs, you might have to write up a two- to three-page lab report summing up your methods, reporting your results, and drawing some conclusions. Be sure to do all this assigned work. It will help you understand the lectures in the courses and the demonstrations in the lab, and, in some courses, will count toward the grade and could even appear on the tests. Why play with only one oar in the water? 

6. Connect it. Many students consider the lab as a self-contained activity, not all that connected to other parts of the course. (This view is reinforced by the fact that at many schools you sign up for a one-credit lab course under a different number than the science lecture itself.) You'll understand the lab better if you ask yourself: How is this lab supposed to reinforce the concepts of the course? Why is it placed at the point in the course it is? Why are you doing a lab at all? (Possible answer: The last lecture drew ray diagrams, and this lab shows the real, physical properties that rays exhibit in different media.)

7. Volunteer for demos. Many labs include a portion where the professor (or TA) calls for volunteers to assist in some demonstration. Be the guinea pig. Not only will you enjoy showing your erudition to your classmates, not to mention the prof, you might actually enjoy doing the stuff. And if you do a really good job in the demonstration—answering the questions with the key concepts of the class—you might get a few extra points when the prof calculates the grade. 

8. Play all the parts. In many labs, the students are divided into groups of three or four, with various tasks assigned to each. There could be the "Do-er," the "Recorder," the "Time Manager," and the "Question Asker." (The tasks may vary, depending on the lab.) Take your turn in each of the roles. Not only will it be more interesting, you'll learn (and remember) the material better if sometimes you're actually mixing the chemicals, dissecting the amoeba, and rolling the ball down the plane, rather than just watching the stopwatch, taking the notes, or asking some super-obvious question. 

9. Think abstractly. It's an important part of every lab to observe the experiment and record what you see. But it's also important to apply the theories, principles, and constructs of the course to what you've seen (look to the lectures and readings for these). The professor doesn't just want you to say that the ball started rolling faster as it got to the bottom of the hill; he or she wants you to apply the concepts of kinetic and potential energy, acceleration, and gravity to the case. Hey, this isn't your seventh-grade science fair. 

10. Use the office hours. It's a good idea to seek out your professor, TA, or lab instructor when writing up the lab report, especially if it counts toward the grade. (If you have a week to write the report, go early in the week.) You'll be able to make sure you've understood the science and captured the key concepts, not just parroted the purpose and procedures of the experiment straight out the lab manual. And be sure to make the corrections that the instructor makes. Even if it's a pain to go back and correct the report you thought was finished, you'll get a better result, and you might actually learn something, if you take the time to learn from an expert. Didn't expect to do that in what you thought was a cruddy distribution requirement, did you? 

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