Friday, July 9, 2010

Managing Large Group Labs

The easiest way to manage your lab is to have one lab instructor for every five students. I have actually taught lab classes where we had this ratio and it was a lot of fun. We were able to spend a lot of time with each student and we were able to do things you just can’t do with larger groups. So what if you have more like 20 students per lab instructor? It is still possible to give them a good lab experience, but a lot more planning and organizing will be required up front, and there will be things that are just not practical. One management technique is to split up large groups into smaller ones and schedule them at different times, effectively making several smaller lab classes. Of course this means you must spend more time than usual since you will be repeating the lab for each group. This may not be an option for everyone depending upon the number of instructors, students, lab equipment, and available lab time. For most of us, there will come a time when we have to work with larger groups in the lab.

A common technique is to have students work in groups. I try to avoid this if possible because it often means a couple of confident students do the work and the rest of the group watches and writes down the results. In group projects, you can see the 80/20 rule at work: 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. However, this can be managed if you know it is going to occur. Ask every member of the group a question that requires an understanding of the process. For example, if the group is measuring the superheat on an air conditioning system you might ask different students

  • What is superheat?
  • What measurements are required?
  • How did you arrive at the current superheat?
  • What readings are necessary to use the manufacturer’s superheat charging chart?
  • What does the system charging chart say the superheat should be?
  • What does this system's superheat tell us about the system?

If they know they are going to be asked to perform a task or answer a question, they will at least pay more attention to what is going on.

Some skills are so important, every student must perform them for you individually. Lighting an oxy-acetylene torch is one example. An issue with large groups is simply the amount of equipment and tools available. Most of us would be hard pressed to come up with 15 oxyacetylene torch sets so that every student could have their own. Besides, I really do NOT WANT to have more than three rookies working torches at the same time. Once when I had a class of 18 students who needed to learn to braze, I worried about how I was going to teach all of them to handle an oxyacetylene torch safely. What I did was to demonstrate, as I always do and then ask questions to see what people remembered. We then went back over the procedure, paying particular attention to things that I felt they had missed the first time. Finally, I lined them up and had each student turn on the tanks, set the regulators, light the torch, adjust the flame, shut off the flame, and shut down the torch leaving it ready for the next student. If they hesitated, they repeated the process. I noticed that the students got progressively better, which was odd because the most confident students had stepped forward first. When I remarked to one student on how quickly and confidently he performed the task he replied “I saw it done 10 times before I had to do it.” In other words, the students waiting in line learned through the experience of their fellow students. This made me feel less guilty about having everyone wait in line to work with me. This method works well for procedures that can be demonstrated in a few minutes such as lighting torches, soldering, brazing, or installing gauges. If the students use their time wisely and pay attention to what is going on they will learn by watching others and everyone leaves with an important skill they did not have the day before.

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