Center for Teaching and Learning

Teaching in Lab Settings: First Day and Beyond

Promote student learning in your math, science, and engineering lab settings from day one. This workshop identifies goals for lab instruction, ways to plan and facilitate effective lab sessions, and strategies for a successful first day of lab class.


  • Teaching quiz sections (as opposed to labs) in Math, Science, and Engineering fields is addressed in the Teaching STEM Quiz Sections workshop.
  • Text from all linked material in google docs is also available at the bottom of this page–scroll down to access.

Workshop goals & corresponding materials

1. Identify the goals and challenges of lab instruction.

Talk to faculty and TAs in your department to find out: what are the goals of lab instruction for your courses? What are some of the common challenges?

2. Identify and practice effective strategies for teaching in labs.

See the following:

3. Discuss opportunities for inclusive teaching in lab settings.

See all of the following:

Then, consider:
Inclusive teaching doesn’t occur automatically. It requires planning and promoting across a spectrum of teaching practices (from course design to assessment) with the aim of creating a learning environment that allows all students to engage, regardless of discipline and course content. How will you create an inclusive & equitable environment in your lab?

4. Identify key components of a successful first day of lab class.

See Teaching the First Day of Class.

Then, consider the following:

  • What is one thing you will tell your students about yourself?
  • What is one thing you will tell students about the lab?
  • What is one thing you will ask students to do on the first day of lab?

Additional materials (from google docs linked above):

Student Feedback in Lab Sections: What practices do students describe as helping them learn?

  1. “Explaining the lab beforehand.  The TA talks a bit about the equipment of the lab, and also about the mathematical background that we will need for the pre-lab and for the lab write-up.”
  2. “I like having her mini-lectures because she puts the whole experiment in an overall overview.  I understand the whole picture of the experiment better than I would have without her mini-lecture.
  3. “I like your written instructions before lab, and your expectations are clear.”
  4. “What has helped me the most in this lab is the practical hands-on experience that make the concepts learned more concrete.  Also the way you help us out by prodding us along without telling us the answer.”
  5. “You know what you are talking about and you are willing to work with us until we understand it completely.  Your extra questions were very helpful and made us stop and think about why we were doing each step — which is really the whole point.”
  6. “I like how you posted the lab protocols and how you put time into making handouts for the lab.”

Suggestions for Leading Lab Sections in the Sciences and Math

Adapted from Winters, Lemons, Bookman and Hoese, “Novice Instructors and Student-Centered Instruction: Identifying and Addressing Obstacles to Learning in the College Science Laboratory”,

The Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 2(1) 2001.

Encourage student–student interaction within the small groups

  • If possible, have students in the group sit so they face each other.
  • Try to notice whether or not particular students are participating.  Think of ways to engage the quiet student in a group – direct a question to that student?  Ask that student to share some suggestions with the group?
  • Encourage students to make sense of the material together, rather than stepping in with the answer right away. If someone asks you if an answer is right, first ask the rest of the group what they got.
  • If you see a group of students all working individually, ask one of them to summarize the group’s progress.

Circulate and make sure each group gets some of your attention

  • Walk around, look over students’ shoulders, interact, especially at the beginning of the quarter. Talk to/observe all students – don’t assume that if “star students” understand, everyone else does too.  Look for cues that students need help – are they sitting silently? Looking toward you?  What page of the instructions are they on?  Assess each student’s frustration level.
  • Don’t get stuck for a long time with one person or group:  Get them started in the right direction, and them check back on them in a few minutes.  If you can’t get to a struggling group right away, let them know you’ll be with them as soon as possible, and then do get back to them!
  • Try to interact with more than just one “spokesperson” from a group.  Approach the group from a different direction or stand on a different side, to more easily interact with all members.
  • Get a feel for how long the assignment takes on average and where the “sticky” points are. If a group is behind the rest of the class, stop and ask how they are doing, what parts are challenging, etc. If they are ahead of the class, ask them to show you what they’ve done; take the opportunity to check for quality work, clear understanding of concepts, etc.

Guide students with questions

  • Let students explain as much content as they can, and “save your efforts to think up really clear explanations for the really hard stuff”.  Let them tell you which parts of lab they have been able to work out and where they are stuck.
  • If a student gives a wrong answer, try to first point out something right with it before prompting the student to try a new direction.
  • Ask students how they arrived at their answers, so you can understand their thought processes and where something may have gone wrong.
  • After you ask a probing question, give students time to think about it – repeating or rephrasing the question right away may distract them.
  • Recognize when a student has improved over time, and let the student know.

Use time well

  • Have logistical details written up on board (due dates, etc) so you don’t take lots of class time on them.
  • Give concise intro at beginning of class.
  • Consider whether to bring whole class together toward end to wrap up.


Integrating “Belonging” into STEM Instruction

Adapted from: J. S. Matthews “On Mindset and Practices for Re-Integrating ‘Belonging’ into Mathematics Instruction”, Teaching Works, University of Michigan, 2018.

Among our undergraduates, we have a significant number of underrepresented groups, including economically disadvantaged and first-generation college students. The information here will help you avoid unintentionally marginalizing students who are already marginalized by society at large so you can make sure all of your students feel included and supported in your class.

Critical Awareness

You may not think that the content of your field has anything to do with social justice, and that issues of student identity are extraneous or distractions. However, science and engineering are ultimately human endeavors, and until relatively recently the path into a science or engineering career was foreclosed to most humans who did not belong to the dominant group (white, wealthy, men).

Students are coming in to your class with all sorts of extra-curricular stuff on their mind, especially if they are a member of a marginalized group (People of Color, LGBTQ, female). Be aware this is the reality for all of your students, and yourself!

The first step toward treating your students equitably is developing critical awareness. Critical awareness is deep knowledge of structural and systemic biases that negatively impact Black, Brown, and socially-disadvantaged children, and how those biases find their way into the classroom through the teacher beliefs and practices. Research has revealed that high teacher expectations alone (i.e. wanting and believing your students can be academically successful) is not enough to predict whether a teacher will teach in culturally responsive ways. Rather, high expectations coupled with critical awareness predict whether teachers are likely to integrate their students’ culture and interests into instruction and are also predictive of achievement outcomes for those students.

Although you may only see your students for one quiz section per week, and very likely are not in a position to determine the content or structure of your course, there are still things you can do to help all of your students feel like they belong, and in ways that actually support science-learning directly! The ideas here can be woven into how you conduct yourself with your students and how you foster interactions between students in ways that are equitable and directed at promoting their learning and their identity as scientists.

Instructor Mindset

Seeing Students Through Empathy

History and data have shown that those students who rank high on that learner scale (i.e., achievers) get to be recipients of the teacher’s best version of themselves, while lower-ranking students usually receive some lower form of teacher care, effort, and patience.

Seeing students means looking beyond the students’ characteristics that afford them success in a classroom and seeing them for the multiple and diverse facets (e.g., emotions, strengths, frustrations, aspirations) that are encapsulated within the complex individual.

Teachers with an empathetic, caring mindset consistently (a) demonstrated emotional consciousness to understand and manage student frustration, (b) reinforced students’ identity while engaging them in the academic content, and (c) showed a willingness to partner with student struggles inside the classroom and outside.

You are not just there to give a grade. Look beyond their apparent motivation to learn the material and find a way to engage with each of your students’ humanity.

Allies versus Saviors (or Role Models)

Many math teachers can come to see their mathematical success as the standard for what is good/correct and thus try to get students to become like them, at least mathematically if not in other ways as well. Many were able to “practice themselves into perfection” and become self-motivated to overcome the odds of their environment; thus, they believe their students should follow their example. This savior mentality (wanting students to become like oneself rather than supporting them to become the best versions of themselves) is rooted in deficit thinking at its core and feeds into the culture of “correctness” that is so pervasive in mathematics instruction, creating obstacles to students’ sense of belonging if they do not measure up to the standards of the teacher.

Challenge the Idol of “Correctness”

  • Science does not proceed in a linear fashion, although it is often presented that way.
  • It is important to remind yourself and your students that everything we know about the universe was, at one point, unknown.
  • Everything we know was discovered by a fellow human. Your students just haven’t discovered the content of the course yet.
  • Struggle is the discovery process.
  • Science is not a list of facts, it is a method of inquiry that can lead to rich understanding of physical existence.
  • As such, the “correct answer” is in some ways the least interesting part of solving a problem. The path taken from the statement of a problem to the final result is the interesting part. And there are often multiple equally valid pathways.
  • Every class will have its own unique flow, so there is no standard script for challenging “correctness” as the ultimate ideal. But there are some implicit and explicit ways that you can adjust your presentation of material and your interactions with students to bring their focus back to the process of inquiry.
    • Watch your language:
      • Do not ask for agreement or disagreement from the rest of the class when you or (especially) a student is presenting their solution to a problem. Shift the focus away from critical judgements of correctness to a neutral assessment of the reasoning presented. Students should ask questions about aspects of the approach that they don’t understand.
      • Do not clarify a question that a student misinterpreted in such a way that thinking is devalued.
    • Present a solution path to a question that is incorrect. Tell the students that it is incorrect, ask them to figure out why. This will:
      • Reduce instructor and student focus on “correctness” by elevating the reasoning process over the ultimate result
      • Disarm and normalize “wrongness” so that it doesn’t sting so much
      • Help students realize that mistakes and errors are part of the discovery process
      • Give students practice critiquing errors, so that they can get better at recognizing them in their own work
    • If you have developed a good rapport with students, you might ask them to provide their own wrong solutions to a problem, and ask the class members to pick their favorite. For their favorite wrong answer, ask the students to identify where the solution path things started to go awry, and to explain why it’s their favorite.