Unfold Learning

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‘Cubic’ ELM Assessments 2: A Laboratory Course…


Scattered cube

This post is the second in a series using “engagement and learning multiplier” (ELM) assessments to examine some common teaching and learning methods. If you’d like to (re)familiarize yourself with how these assessments work, you can refer to this previous post. If you’d like to compare this current post’s ELM assessment with others I’ve done, you can find the assessment of lecture here, and you can find the rest of the “cubic” assessments in the sidebar (which may be at the bottom of this screen if you’re reading this on a mobile device).

For each of these assessments, I’ll set the learning scenario and then present analysis about why that approach has a given “cubic” shape and why it receives a particular ELM score. These posts are designed to provide useful examples and guidance as you evaluate your own learning approaches and as you make your own teaching and technology choices.

A laboratory course


This secondary-level chemistry course is designed to introduce learners not only to the main concepts of general chemistry, but also to much of the basic equipment and lab protocols used in this field. Part of the standard science curriculum, all learners are expected to pass through this general education course prior to graduation. Because of its broad and introductory nature, the teacher has tried to make course concepts accessible and follows a carefully organized curriculum in which more complex concepts and skills build on the simpler ones that precede them. Each two-week unit begins with an introduction featuring a presentation by the teacher. He uses a variety of media to illustrate concepts, including videos and images made by learners in previous years, which he attributes to their authors. This begins the first phase, focusing on conceptualization. The teacher’s introduction is followed up with homework assignments and in-class scenarios designed to give learners practice in understanding and internalizing the unit’s central concepts. The teacher chooses five learners for each unit (eventually rotating through the whole class twice) who present their homework as a basis for class discussions. Their fellow learners are asked to critique and correct the work presented with the requirement that they double-check the science and also describe “something great and something that needs improvement” for each peer presenter. All learners are encouraged to find resources on the web or in the library that they find helpful, posting links to them in the course’s learning portal so others can access them for help understanding course concepts. At the next phase, focusing on experimentation, the teacher presents learners with a hypothesis that will anchor their laboratory explorations. He follows this with a brief introduction to lab and safety protocols, introducing learners to the equipment and procedures they’ll use to conduct the unit’s central experiment. Each learner is also assigned two partners for the experiment, with partners changing for every unit. The teacher has designed these rotating partnerships to help learners make more connections with their classmates as well as to distribute the “advantages” offered by high performing learners. The three-person lab teams record experimental data not only by writing results, but also by making photographs and videos. These will be used to illustrate lab reports, which are jointly authored and submitted digitally. Each partner is assigned specific parts of the lab report and is expected to identify the sections she has authored, but each must also “sign off” on the other partners’ work. During laboratory experiments, the teacher circulates to answer questions, correct improper uses of the equipment or errors in the experimental protocols, and to ensure that all teams are on task and distributing work evenly among learners. The teacher grades lab reports for scientific and experimental accuracy as well as for writing and media quality. For evaluation of the non-empirical aspects of the lab report, the teacher also follows the “something great / something that needs improvement” model, offering all comments via audio files which are delivered to each team via the learning portal. Learners receive both an individual and a team score. The teacher asks those who produce exemplary reports for permission to use them to illustrate concepts for learners in future classes.


Content: Although the teacher begins each unit with a lecture, the encouragement of learners to supplement this information with helpful materials they’ve discovered extends this course’s content dimension beyond “delivery.” Sharing these online materials via the learning portal creates an ever-growing, curated collection that forms a stronger informational foundation for the course than the teacher could provide on his own. The emphasis on learner participation as discussion leaders for each unit further extends this foundation, using social pressure to encourage learners to develop a more mature relationship with content: they must discover and present information rather than just being consumers of it. The significant emphasis on discovery through experimentation in this course means that learners must understand course concepts and skills thoroughly enough to apply them. Although the teacher controls the hypotheses and the structure and sequence of the labs, organizing them to expose learners to content systematically, the learners’ role in discovery forms this course’s central content practice. Overall content score: Discovered (n3).

Community: This course encourages social learning in several different ways. The learners’ roles in the shared tasks of presenting and critiquing homework, coupled with the requirement to describe both positive and negative aspects, is designed to create empathy and connection, building a “community of practice.” Similarly, the cooperative structure of experiments and writing of lab reports emphasizes interconnection and teamwork. However, while the rotation of lab partners is designed to maximize the number of connections among classmates, it also keeps those connections from becoming very deep. The fast pace of assignments means there’s little room (or encouragement) for learners to consult with past partners, minimizing more robust kinds of collaboration. While each partner must “sign off” on the work of others for lab reports, the rapid pace means that sections of the reports are mostly written individually and then only superficially reviewed by the other partners and integrated to form a single document; little effort is placed on full collaboration or full integration of the parts. The dual grading strategy, assessing individual and team scores, means that partners don’t have to be as committed to the team as they would be if they received only a collective grade. Overall community score: Connected (m2).

Context: Although the laboratory itself is a “generic” space with no particular connections to the world outside, the experimental focus of the course encourages learners to see their work in terms of both their own historical discovery and their current application. The teacher’s setting of lab and safety protocols for each experiment establishes contextual “rules,” and together with the building of skills and concepts over the term, this could be seen as a form of “gamification.” The establishment of the homework forum and the use of learners’ work for future years’ courses, likewise, situates learning by creating a particular “culture.” However, the learners’ relationship with this culture does not transcend the course itself, and the course does not directly connect learners to any outside contexts. While the teacher is working to keep learners from encountering dangerous situations or those beyond their capability, the lack of “real-world” connections and broader applications creates an artificial situation for learners, preventing this context from being categorized as “controlled.”  Overall context score: Artificial (x2).

Overall ELM assessment: n3 · m2 · x2 = 12

ELM Laboratory Course

Laboratory courses have traditionally been uncommon prior to secondary education — often due to the joint factors of equipment costs and the perception that younger learners don’t have the skills or knowledge such courses require. However, as digital platforms become more pervasive, offering portable and generally lower-cost access to a wide variety of tools, younger learners are starting to encounter lab courses as well. One of the chief benefits of these kinds of courses involves the way they situate learning both socially and experientially. Learners who have been through such courses often remember their partners and experiences years afterward, perhaps even after they’ve forgotten the specific content of the course. This happens for two key reasons. First, the conduct of such courses is more likely to engage longer lasting forms of memory than courses more focused on content delivery. Episodic, procedural, and event-specific learning experiences all lend themselves to richer forms of memory than learners generally encounter in less experiential courses. Second, laboratory courses are inherently more dimensional, engaging the three facets of learning on a deeper level. This dimensionality creates a richer ecosystem of supports and scaffolds, in which content, community, and context work together to buttress the concepts and skills being learned.

Yet laboratory courses also face two significant challenges. First, the expense and complexity of setting up lab spaces can mean that they become isolated, cut off from broader contexts outside of the learning space. While they represent a context internally, possessing their own “cultures” (rules, behaviors, practices, etc.), their self-contained nature can pose challenges for learners attempting to bridge from these artificial contexts into more genuine ones. The material and skills learners acquire in a laboratory setting can appear to apply only within the lab itself, just as the rules of a game can seem applicable only within the game’s self-contained context. What learners acquire in a lab setting can therefore become encapsulated, isolated from other kinds of learning and isolated from their broader experience or their ability to apply that learning in a broader context.

A more serious challenge grows from the ways teachers typically organize lab work. Interested in protecting learners and ensuring that they progress productively and systematically, teachers often become the authoritative “chefs” of the lab. They specify the materials and equipment, dictate the sequences learners must follow, and even sometimes dictate the hypotheses or rationales that guide learners’ experiences. Though well-intentioned, this level of control can make learners incredibly dependent. Without someone to direct their efforts and a clear “recipe,” learners can have a difficult time “cooking” anywhere else. Rather than genuinely experimenting in a lab, learners in such courses are only replicating steps, marching in relative unison toward a predetermined end. They may have little understanding of the nature of the tasks or elements they’re using or little comprehension about why they’re completing steps in a particular order. In these instances, learners are learning more about following procedures than they are about exploring and understanding the world around them, and this can further the isolation of the material they learn. In such circumstances, they may be unable to connect their learning to broader contexts or apply what they’re learning to new circumstances. Although teachers almost universally claim they want to create independent learners, this sort of course design can actually work against that goal.

Nonetheless, even in a “recipe”-driven lab, learners are often learning more than just the course content. The collaborative aspect of most lab courses means that learners have to work productively with others to complete their work. Though rarely undergirded by intentional instruction in how to make collaboration more effective, this communal aspect requires important interpersonal skills, and the ability to work collaboratively is often a key lesson that learners take from these courses. As one of the few places where learners aren’t expected to work the majority of time in isolation, lab courses offer some of the only real, sustained practice in collaboration that many learners experience in school. The inherent leveraging of concepts like Vygotsky’s “zones of proximal development” makes lab courses incredibly useful for many learners, even if they don’t end up pursuing the disciplinary fields taught in these courses.

Conducted to emphasize exploration and collaboration and linked closely to outside contexts, laboratory courses can offer critical learning advantages. As places for learners to try new concepts and skills, supported by others and undergirded by access to special equipment, lab courses can be a site for genuine discovery and the expansion of learners’ capabilities and understanding. Seen merely as “kitchens” designed to produce a consistent series of products, they can still be more effective than lecture courses, but they don’t offer the full range of benefits that more open and truly experimental courses provide. What is the central characteristic of lab courses? In labs, learners make, and when that making is an opportunity for true exploration and experimentation, they can provide a powerful context for learning.

What lessons can teachers take away from all of this — even if they’re not teaching in a dedicated lab? First, giving learners a space in which to try out new concepts and facilitating collaborative work with fellow learners can create a richer learning environment that taps into more durable kinds of memory. Second, involving learners in the conceptual analysis and design of course activities rather than having them follow “recipes” can make them more independent, offering them a space in which to engage with and process course concepts in a more meaningful and resilient way. Using introductory explorations and examples to help learners understand the impact of particular choices, elements, and procedures can empower them not only to design their own explorations, but also to build bridges between what happens in the “lab” and what happens in outside contexts. Finally, providing instruction and guidance in what makes collaboration successful can offer learners an important secondary skill that will benefit them not only outside the course, but also long after the course is over.

Because they’re more “dimensional” — even at their most rudimentary level — lab courses offer distinct advantages for learners. Their emphasis on application, making, and collaborative work makes them a rich ground for those designing more engaging learning experiences, inside of a laboratory or out.

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My next post discusses the ELM score of a problem-based learning course… Click here to see it.


©2017 William Rankin

Author: williamrankin

Explorer in emerging pedagogies, mobile learning activist, digital book prospector, information designer, medievalist