If you’re a STEM student, especially Life Sciences or Chemistry, then it is very likely that you have laboratory classes every year. Labs can seem daunting at first and many people can feel overwhelmed at the sheer number of hours they might have to spend in a lab in a single day. However, there are a lot of things that you can do to not only maximise your time and efficiency in labs, but also ensure you get the best possible grade when it comes to completing that lab report!
Do the reading!
This may seem a bit straightforward, but it is very common for students to leave the reading till the last minute, or skim-read. You’re likely to receive a lab manual in advance of each lab session, which will have detailed instructions on how to complete experiments and questions you may have to answer before, during and after the lab class. Therefore, it is important that you do this beforehand to ensure you can enter that lab confidently! Reading the material in advance helps you not only know what you’ll need to do, but also helps you realise what information seems confusing. This will then help you ask the right questions during the lab to save time. One thing I used to do when reading the lab manual was watch YouTube videos of techniques or methods I hadn’t done before. This not only made me more confident when entering the lab, but also gave me an idea of how to complete experiments with minimal confusion.
Divide and Conquer
In the majority of cases, you’ll either work with a lab partner, or as part of a group. If this applies to you, then make sure you plan ahead. The most successful lab groups always work out each team member’s strengths beforehand to assign tasks prior to the lab session. Maybe your strength is calculations, or precise pipetting. Perhaps you’re not the best at setting up a microscope. Knowing where your strengths lie and what your weaknesses are can help you work more efficiently as a team. Assigning each member a task can help a lab session flow better and most of the time, quicker. A bonus tip is to debrief after each lab session so you know what each member did and information you may need for your lab report e.g. a result from an experiment that another team member completed. This ensures that everyone is up to speed about what’s already been completed, and you can identify if someone in the team needs more help to finish a task.
Make the Most of Your Time While in the Lab
The time that you’re in the lab is important and has to be managed well. Depending on your course or even module, you may only have a day to complete all the necessary tasks. Consequently, it is important that you manage your time in the lab effectively. Scheduling and allocating time to each individual task and experiment will ensure you not only finish on time but are able to devote attention to each task. Remember that not everything always goes to plan in labs, so make sure you keep your schedule flexible in case something unexpected pops up, like an experiment taking longer than usual.
The time while you’re in the lab is also important as it allows you to ask the lab convenor questions you may have regarding the experiment. You might not get another chance to have questions answered, especially if the turnaround time to hand in your lab report is quick. Therefore, it is imperative to make sure you have all your doubts cleared while you’re in the lab.
After the Lab
It can be tempting to take an extended break after a lab, particularly if you just spent over 6 hours in one room. However, the hours or the day following a lab are important as everything you just carried out during the lab are still fresh in your mind. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left a few days until I started writing a draft of a lab report, and realised I’d forgotten why I did a specific calculation or why I got a certain result for an experiment. So, to avoid this, make sure you note down all the important points from your lab in a document. It can also help to write a rough draft of your lab report with subheadings and bullet points so you have an idea of the key points you need to cover.
Most of all, remember that labs are supposed to be a learning experience and, to an extent, fun! Each lab is your opportunity to not only upskill, but also build on your knowledge and strengths. Labs are what you make of it, so try as much as you can to engage with each one and remember to ask questions!
Got any tips for labs success that haven’t been mentioned? Leave a comment below or tweet us at @warwicklibrary or email firstname.lastname@example.org!