What students really think: The 6 most common barriers to an effective and enjoyable lab class

As undergraduate science students, my course friends and I know we are lucky to have the opportunity to access a teaching laboratory and all its cool equipment. We love science, and I would describe us as relatively conscientious students, so you’d think lab sessions would be a fun time for us in which we would learn a lot.

However, if I am being honest, that is far from our reality. In fact, we have bonded over our shared dread of those 9 to 5 sessions surrounded by all those fancy machines. Perhaps more disconcerting, sometimes we aren’t even all that clear about what the purpose of those long sessions are.
But why is that? It doesn’t seem to add up.
In an effort to get to the bottom of this, I decided to interview my friends who study various scientific disciplines at different universities, and asked them two questions:

  1. Do you find labs useful? Why/Why not?
  2. Do you enjoy being in the lab? Why/Why not?

While their responses weren’t all negative, many of their struggles were the same.
Here’s a summary of six of the main pain points that repeatedly came up. It is my belief that using virtual labs could help with these issues, making lab-work a more effective, and more enjoyable, learning experience.

1. They don’t feel prepared

Okay, so this one is often self-inflicted, but surprisingly common. Students are often supposed to do some pre-lab reading of the cookbook instructions for the experiment they’ll be doing that day. The reality is, assessed coursework and other responsibilities tend to take priority over this. Students either start doing the experiment anyway, feeling under-confident, or waste valuable lab time sitting down and reading before they can get started.
4Why Labster could help: If used as preparation for the real lab, playing a Labster simulation is more fun than reading a protocol, and gives students a more visual, hands-on idea of what to do.

2. They’re in a rush

Often there’s a tight schedule to get everything finished and cleaned up before the next group of students come in. No one wants to be that last person left in the lab who is holding the demonstrators back from their lunch, or who has to come back on a different day. Students want to get out of there as fast as possible. As a result, their focus shifts from understanding the experiment well, to doing it quickly.
Why Labster could help: There’s no rush in a Labster simulation, so students can go at their own pace, checking theory whenever they want, until they’ve mastered it. All without feeling watched.

3. They’re anxious about messing up

The demonstrators will periodically remind students how much each piece of equipment they are using costs. It’s often quite shocking how expensive it is, so they treat it with the respect it deserves. On top of this, there will often be a limited supply of chemical reagents or biological samples, leaving no scope for messing up or spilling.
Every one of the students I interviewed reported feeling anxious about making mistakes in the lab. This can cause them to make mistakes, leading to a vicious cycle. It’s not uncommon to hear students double (and triple) checking every move they make.
3Why Labster could help: In a simulation, students can make mistakes and learn from them without worrying about wasting time, breaking equipment, or feeling embarrassed. This frees them to focus on understanding the material, and helps build up their confidence.

4. The steps aren’t in logical succession

Generally, students carry out experiments in groups of 2 to 4 to save time and resources. Whilst this can help develop teamwork skills, it comes with downsides.
First of all, students often split up the work. So, for example, one partner does Part A of the experiment using machine A, while the other partner will do Part B using machine B. The problem is, at the end of the day, students have no idea what their partner did during that time, or how to do those techniques. Then, the next time those techniques come up, the students stick to what they know, leading to gaps in their knowledge.
Other times, an experiment is carried out, but the results aren’t ready for a week or so. By the time the students can look at them, they have forgotten what they added to what and why because they are distracted by the work they’ve been doing in the meantime.
Why Labster could help: Labster’s simulations let students see the whole experiment from beginning to end, and lets them personally complete each step chronologically.

5. Waiting waiting waiting

Whether students are waiting for a machine to be free, waiting for the demonstrators’ attention, or waiting for some cells to grow, a lot of time in the lab is spent waiting. Students bring a pack of cards to pass the time. One person I interviewed even admitted to having made up a dance routine with their friends to pass the time!
2-1Why Labster could help: There are no waiting times, because in a virtual world, we can control time!

6. They lose track of the bigger picture

In hindsight, the theory behind many of the labs students get to do is really fascinating. So why, if you look around the lab, are you not met with faces full of fascination and wonder?
The answer is probably in part because students don’t always need to think about the theory. The truth is, you can get by, and save time, by thinking about the experiment only on the level of “Add contents of test tube labelled A to test tube labelled B”. Add the ingredients, mix them in the proper order, wait the assigned amount of time, voila. When the results are ready, some students just check that they look vaguely like other students’ results, and then they can go home.
One interviewed student admitted that sometimes it’s not until it comes to the night before an exam, or when they’re writing up a lab report, that they stop and think “What was in those tubes? Why did I mix them?”
Another even joked about feeling as though they’re undercover, as though everyone else understands what’s going on, except them. They follow the steps, blending in, and pretending they know what they’re doing, but are secretly afraid of being revealed as a fraud at any time.
6Why Labster could help: In all Labster’s simulations, you’re given a “mission”, allowing you to see the real-world relevance of the science you’re learning, and giving the experiment a sense of purpose!
Labster has 100+ unique simulations covering techniques in several STEM subjects. Have a scroll through our ever-growing simulation catalog to see the full range.

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