Charging a cover for lab participation


I am considering implementing a new policy this fall in the lab portion of my primary course. The short version is: students would need to read/watch certain things before coming to lab that would prepare them for the day’s activity. Before entering the lab classroom, they would be handed a (relatively easy) quiz on those materials. These practices are pretty standard in lab courses, in my experience. Here’s the twist: if a student didn’t get at least a 75% on the quiz, s/he would not be allowed to participate in the lab, and would forfeit all points associated with it.

If you’re like me, your first reaction to that is, “Wo. That’s pretty harsh.”

Is it? Let me give the long version before you decide. It only took a few minutes for someone to convince me it might actually be brilliant. (But there are some serious questions that need answering, listed at the end of the post.)

It seems to be de rigueur in most lab courses for students to read a pre-lab handout describing that week’s activity, perhaps accompanying an article or two. In my case, the pre-lab handout will follow a video lecture covering material broadly related to that day’s activity. The purpose of these videos will be to provide enough background content that lab time can be used for more rigorous engagement with that content. Likewise, the purpose of the pre-lab handouts is to eliminate the need to verbally provide instructions and allow us to hit the ground running with each activity, also freeing up more time.

It’s also common for students to take a pre-lab quiz on the reading/video/pre-lab handout as a method of enforcement. By design, the quiz should be pretty easy if the student has read/watched the assigned material—questions would ask things like “what will you be measuring?” and “what will the control treatment be?” And maybe there would be one or two questions based on the video content.

Whereas in previous courses I’ve instructed, these quizzes were taken for credit but were not related to lab participation, here I would be taking the reverse approach: the quiz would not be for any direct course credit, but would serve as a ticket into the lab. If a student earned at least 75% on the quiz, s/he could enter and participate in the lab. If s/he earned less than 75%, it would indicate that s/he was not prepared enough to participate, and would thus not be permitted in. S/he would then forfeit any credit accompanying that lab (typically ~1.5% of the total course grade). Each student would get two free tickets per semester, to be used at any time.

The purpose of this strict approach would be to minimize the amount of time the TA and I have to spend explaining things to students who simply didn’t pay attention or bother preparing (“No, you aren’t measuring the females, you are measuring the males!”), which comes at the expense of time we can spend engaging with more prepared students on “real” stuff (“Do your data seem to support your hypothesis?”). To achieve this higher-level engagement, students need to arrive with a general sense of what they are doing and why. The purpose would NOT be to require students to memorize every detail of the activity—that seems both cruel and pointless. Designing quiz questions that require a reasonable level of understanding but not memorization would be difficult, so one solution I’ve come up with is to allow students to use their handwritten notes, but NOT the actual lab handout, during the quiz (if they want to copy over the handout ahead of time, be my guest—not very efficient, but probably effective enough to get 75%+).

In my perfect world, this policy would result in high-functioning lab periods that operate like well-oiled machines because we will have weeded out the students who demand the most attention due to their own unpreparedness, and will be left only with students who have come ready to work.

Ha. In reality, it would probably result in more than a few mutinous students who see this policy as totally unreasonable and as an affront to their very existence. But perhaps they will be outnumbered by the students who are grateful to have more productive lab periods and receive more instructor attention? Perhaps the feelings of rage will subside after the first couple weeks, as the students come to accept (if not embrace) the policy as “just how it is in this class”? I try to give students the benefit of the doubt regarding their approach to their own education, and most of them don’t disappoint—especially in an upper-level course like this one, with primarily junior and senior science majors.

But I see some unresolved issues to this policy that worry me a bit. Here are the ones I can think of—feel free to add to this list:

1) Is two free passes per semester the right amount? 20 students per section x 2 free passes each ÷ 13 lab weeks = average of 3 unprepared students per week. Too many? Not enough?

2) Similarly, is 75% the right cutoff for entry? Too high? Not too low, as I would want to keep the quizzes short—maybe 5-6 questions, some with partial credit.

3) Students are occasionally late to lab for excusable reasons unrelated to preparedness, and are thus students I wouldn’t want to exclude. How best to deal with this? I could take off one percentage point per minute late, such that being ten minutes late results in a 10% penalty on the quiz, bringing one closer to the 75% cutoff.

4) For someone whose current position is purely teaching and advising (me), and whose job performance thus depends heavily on student evaluations (also me), would this be job suicide?

5) The one that gives me the most hesitation: by implementing this policy, do I risk excluding the very students that need my help the most? For example, the student who did watch the video and read the lab handout, but who lacks a strong grasp on the scientific method, and therefore can’t correctly identify the control treatment, or the independent variable, etc. Two ways to avoid this would be to make the questions 1) more about memorization, or 2) absurdly easy. Ugh. Maybe letting the students use their notes during the quiz would ameliorate this?

6) Is this approach fundamentally unethical? If so, why?

If you have thoughts on these questions or this proposed policy, I’d love to hear them. I’m especially keen to hear from anyone who has actually implemented this method—did it work? What roadblocks did you encounter? Will you use it again?

12 thoughts on “Charging a cover for lab participation

  1. I don’t know if you have the resources to do this, but If you did the quizzes online, instead of at the start of class, students could find out before lab if they didn’t understand something important, and then come talk to you. Also, via online quizzes, you could let them retake quizzes where they get <75% until they get 75%. Or until they get 100%. Then you don't need the free passes, which seem to be sending the messaged that you can come to work totally unprepared twice and it'll be just fine. And if students don't get the 75% with a retake option AND they don't come see you with questions, then you're pretty justified in not letting them come to lab. That's kind of how my undergrad physics class worked, and it seemed like a great system.

    If you can't do online quizzes, well… maybe you could post the quiz questions before the lab, so they know exactly what you'll be asking. Then they can come talk to you before lab and the quiz if they don't understand something. Either way, answering the questions should force them to be prepared, so I don't see how posting them in advance would detract from your goal.

  2. I agree with what was said above by dinoverm, posting quizzes beforehand may be better, since it may help guide student understanding before class. My first thought when I read this was; What will students be doing while you grade the quizzes at the start of the period? To me it would seem that the time spent doing this may not be less than “time wasted” explaining things to students, of course I suppose that would depend on how fast you grade the quizzes.

    Also, I would imagine that if you were to give free passes, the distribution of their use would be relatively long-tailed, with most students using them up front as they start getting used to this new requirement. That may also help cut back on complaints.

  3. Good ideas to consider—thanks! I had originally included some more details about this stuff in the post, but it got too long. The students will actually already be taking an online quiz before lab that will ask them to apply what they’ve learned in the video lectures, and will thus be very content-based (e.g., “Which of the following is a prediction that logically follows this hypothesis…”). These will be low-stakes and will allow students (and me) to recognize where and when they are getting confused, but won’t affect lab participation. Perhaps, then, the entrance quizzes should be exclusively on major procedural details of the lab, and not require much of any content comprehension? For example, questions like “Name two behaviors you’ll be observing in this week’s study species,” or “Why are we using one-way mirrors in our experimental set-up?” …Such that a student could be confused on the broader concepts of the lab (e.g., hypotheses vs. predictions) but clear on the basic logistics of the day’s activity, and therefore pass the entrance quiz.

    Re: posting the questions ahead of time, I wouldn’t want students to 1) scan the lab handout to find the answers and not read the rest of it thoroughly, or 2) hand the answers to their friends such that the friends don’t even need to read the handout at all. But I think there’s a good workaround to this: I could post a list of questions long enough that answering all of them requires a careful reading of the whole handout, and then just pick a few for the quiz. I already do that for my essay exams and it works great (and really reduces student stress). Maybe that’s a perfect compromise!

    Re: spending class time grading, not a big concern as long as the quizzes are short and very easy to grade (multiple choice, one word/sentence answers)—could probably eyeball each one in ~20 seconds. Given that many students arrive early and I have a TA, I think we’d be through most of them before the official start time.

    Re: the passes sending the wrong message…I think that would be okay. Everyone occasionally shows up to stuff less prepared than s/he should be (myself included), and as long as it’s rare, I can live with that. Maybe I could offer small bits of extra credit for unused passes so that there is no incentive for students to slack the last couple of weeks if they have passes remaining.

  4. Online quizzes would be a good idea, but more work. Unless you have a large pool of questions, you also run into the problem of some students finding out the quiz questions from others and learning only that part of the lab ahead of time.

    Would be interested in finding out how this works, should you decide to try it.

  5. This would not work at my institution. If students miss a lab because they did not pass a quiz….when would they get the make up hours for the lab time they missed? That would mean MORE WORK for me (as opposed to more work for the students).
    I also have to have students work in teams. So student or group of students who don’t gain admittance would leave a small group working on what was work for a group of 4.
    I find that my students are kind enough to help their fellow students and those who are clueless are given help by their lab group. Students quickly adjust to what skills each person has. These are not bad skills to develop…how to be productive in a group.
    Also…..a colleague (not yet tenured) tried something like this (handing pre lab learning to the students) and her students gave her horrible evaluation that hurt her 2nd year review.
    I guess I see my students as larval scientists and the experience of hands on use of equipment, data acquisition and analysis, and experiences with live animals (or plants) in the field and the lab are very important.
    I certainly don’t want to let my administrators know that a quiz can substitute for a lab experience….or that some students are kept out of the lab (making the lab activity less important than reading about the lab).

  6. Oh, it’s not unethical!

    But, is it efficient? It sure sounds like this approach can improve learning, but I’m not sure if the improvement is balanced out by the work/effort/worry of the instructor.

    As you suggest with question #4, would this affect morale among the students? Some students harbor the notion that they have the right to be a slacker and cruise by with a C (or lower). It’s downright awesome to find things that we can do to prevent slacking, but it’s got to be done in a way that you don’t get gripes of resentment from those who being forced to work. Students often respond best to high expectations, but enforcing high expectations against their will can backfire. I’d be reluctant to take this approach pre-tenure because of the remarks that might end up in evaluations as a result. It’s not even what the negative remarks would say, but you just want to minimize them and I think this kind of ‘entry ticket’ might generate them.

  7. I think your students will find the course much more enriching if you use this method. I wouldn’t do it any other way. As long as your syllabus is completely transparent, your expectations are clear, and your quiz questions don’t insult their intelligence, I bet you’ll get a great response. My guess is that you’ll get 100% participation. They won’t miss the quizzes if you are CLEAR about the policy. What if you offered two post-lab quizzes per student instead of the straight ‘free’ passes?

  8. I experienced a more subtle version of this approach in my undergraduate chemistry labs at UCSC. There was always one piece of critical equipment that there was only one or two of in the lab. If you did not want to waste 10-30 mins waiting for your turn for the limited equipment, you needed to hit the ground running. You had to have your pre lab ready to show the TA- which was a version of your quiz with your lab note book set up, so you pre read the lab a few times and you also had a pre talk with your lab partner. You also showed up on time for the lab. The reward was finishing the lab an hour early and getting to leave when you were done with the lab. We often were the first finished, felt that we got more out of the labs by being prepared and was rewarded for that with being able to leave when we were done, not when the class time ended. I do not think anyone was allowed into the lab without their pre lab completed, which was not possible without reading the lab before class. The TA were available to help you with any questions you could not answer on the pre lab, but you had to have 100% on the pre lab to start the lab. If you waited to talk to the TA, you got behind the crowd. I personally loved this system and never heard any complaints.

  9. We used a similar system at the institution I adjuncted at. For the allied health class, they had to get 5/10, and for the science majors class, they had to get 6/10. The students and I were stressed out about the first one, but it only took one for them to figure out that they needed to read and understand the lab before coming, and I got used to grading under pressure. Students who failed were not alowed to do the lab, but their lowest lab grade was dropped, so in essence they still got a free pass. The quizzes were only administered during the first 10 (allied health) or 15 (science majors) minutes of class, so students also showed up on time (or they had to use their “free pass”). Because the expectations were clear and the bar wasn’t impassably high, students didn’t resist the system at all, even the ones who failed a quiz (only a handful over the course of a semester teaching 3 labs). I’m in chemistry so almost every quiz had at least one question on safety procedures and waste handling, which worked like a charm. I had great camaraderie with all three classes and although they never sent me my evals, I didn’t perceive that the quiz system negatively affected the student’s impressions of me. I was a giant hardass about timeliness, which always feels bad, but even the students who were excusably late were not permitted to do the lab (but still got to drop their lowest). This alleviated the pressure on me to be the arbiter of legitimate excuses. My students had access to the lab protocol as well as kind of a visual guide to the protocol (this is what a hot plate looks like, the solution is this shade of red, etc) which seemed to help some of the students for whom English was not the first language. It was primarily among those students that I saw the greatest improvement in both quiz scores and lab scores, too, which was really gratifying. Now that I’m at a new school I’m trying to figure out how to implement a system as similar as possible for my class here – I’m thinking it will be online.
    Good luck! I’d be happy to email as you go forward.

  10. We do stuff sort of like this in my department. If a student is physically unprepared for lab (wrong shoes, no labcoat), they are booted out. Lab doors locked after 5 minutes. No makeups. For my labs I start the students off with a safety lecture and test. You can’t continue in lab for the semester if you don’t get a perfect score on the lab safety test (but they repeatedly take that test until they get it perfect).

    All of what you’re talking about seems reasonable, including the 75 cutoff, that’s a “C”, you at least need to know a Cs worth to continue. And knowing the lab procedure is a safety issue. You do not have to offer students makeups.

    If a student knows they don’t understand something, AND knows they can’t even do the lab if they don’t get it, then you’re actually encouraging them to use your office hours properly.

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