Teaching Matters

Introducing problem-solving in the laboratory

Developing a problem-based approach for an inorganic laboratory for Year 3 students.

Laboratory instruction is a core component of chemistry degrees. Four approaches to laboratory instruction have been identified (Domin, 1999) including expository and problem-based.  It is acknowledged that chemistry laboratories generally rely on the expository style, where students complete a provided procedure in the lab. In a PTAS funded project, Prof Jason Love, Dr Murray Low and Dr Chris Mowat are developing a problem-based approach for an inorganic laboratory for Year 3 students.

Problem-solving in the laboratory has the advantage of introducing a broader range of learning outcomes.  While students ned to be able to complete the practical work as would be required with the traditional expository approach, invoking a problem-based approach means that they also have to develop their skills in designing experiments. This shift in emphasis means that students become much more involved in the experimental design, with more careful consideration as to why each step of a particular procedure is being completed. This greater engagement with the laboratory class is one of the significant outcomes of this approach, with a greater focus on exploring concepts and techniques. Assessment focussed on students’ results from the lab, with students explaining their reasoning and comprehension of the results in a face to face manner. This approach lends itself to a much richer discussion on the students’ understanding of the underlying chemistry.

A further consideration of this approach is to incrementally develop students’ problem solving and independent laboratory skills before they complete their final year project. This project is being used to inform design of other laboratory classes.