Monthly Archives: September 2016

Aligning the Stars: Reflections on Integrating Research into the Teaching Lab

reaching-for-the-starsThis summer and fall has been a tumultuous season: I moved halfway across the country to start my first tenure-track job, and promptly embarked on the challenges of unpacking my house while setting up my research lab and preparing to teach two brand-new classes to a brand-new group of students I’d never met before. It’s been a period of happy chaos.

One of the biggest adjustments from my visiting-faculty life to my tenure-track life has been the new need for me to balance teaching and research. For the past two years, I’ve been focusing almost exclusively on building my teaching skills, conducting research only during the summer. In my new position at a small liberal-arts college, teaching remains at the heart of my job, but it’s again important for me to build and maintain an active research profile. Because I work with cell culture and neonatal rodents, and because I want to offer research experiences to students during the academic year, I’m now running my lab year-round while teaching three lab sections per semester. I’d already learned over the past few years that my research can inform my teaching, giving me plenty of interesting examples and anecdotes to share with my classes. Now I’m working on the next step of learning to successfully function as a teacher/scholar: developing strategies to merge my research life with my teaching life. Here’s what I’d suggest based on my experiences so far:

  • Do the crucial groundwork yourself. I’m incorporating an ongoing research project on neuronal differentiation into a neurobiology course this fall. However, my research students and I are plating the cells, and making and sterilizing the proliferation and differentiation media, ourselves. This lets the lab students get valuable experience working with cultured cells (on the first lab day of this project, they replace the proliferation medium with the differentiation medium and harvest a plate of control cells), but is relatively low-risk.
  • Simplify the experiments. Many of my experiments require multiple expensive growth factors to be administered at precise time points. I’m paring down my teaching lab differentiation protocol to a single-step protocol, using inexpensive reagents and only one media change. This still gives the students an authentic experience, but saves time, trouble, and money.
  • Focus on different aspects of your research in different classes. In my neurobiology class, students will be spending a great deal of time examining the morphology of their differentiated and undifferentiated cells using fluorescence microscopy. However, for a developmental class next semester, I’m planning on using the same cell line but running an inquiry-based lab, asking students to predict the outcome of various differentiation protocols based on their knowledge of developmental signaling pathways. This means that the students and I can continue to benefit from the interplay between research and teaching, but students who take multiple classes with me won’t be doing the same project (or even similar projects!) for each class. This strategy might also help students draw links between material presented in different courses, but connected by labs using the same model system.
  • Fit the research-based project to the class. My upper-level students generally know how to pipet, how to use a microscope, and how to comport themselves around scientific equipment. Students in classes at the 100- and 200-level can’t really be expected to work with cells in culture, or to pipet accurately enough to perform qPCR. However, examples drawn from your research can still be used even at the introductory levels. Fixed and stained slides of my neuron-like cells can show introductory students some key differences between mitotic cells and cells in Go Genomic DNA and cDNA from my cell lines could form the basis of a lab teaching budding molecular biologists about the differences between PCR and RT-PCR.

Incorporating your scientific research into your teaching isn’t necessarily a question of waiting for the stars to align until you’re offered the opportunity to teach an upper-level class in your exact area of research with only 6 enrolled students. Instead, you may very well have the potential to pull the stars into alignment yourself, designing labs that draw on the science that excites you the most, and connecting that passion to diverse sub-disciplines within physiology and biology.






Kat Bartlow received her Ph.D. in Neurobiology from the University of Pittsburgh. Currently, she is an assistant professor in the Biology department at Lycoming College, in Williamsport, PA. Her current courses include Human Anatomy for majors and non-majors, Neurobiology, and Developmental Biology; she’s looking forward to developing an upper-level neurophysiology course so she can rejoin the world of physiology education. Her research focuses on dopaminergic neuronal development and neurotransmission within the dorsal striatum. She is also interested in using undergraduate-led physiology and neuroscience outreach as a teaching tool.


Grading student lab reports (while keeping your sanity)

I love teaching undergraduate labs and watching students grow as scientists. However, I’m not at all excited by the prospect of grading student writing. There are three strategies I wish I had known about before giving my first lab report assignment.

  • Full-rubrics should be written for each writing assignment before the term starts
  • Students need practice and feedback. This can be achieved with short, low-stakes writing assignments, peer-review and scaffolded assignments, which require minimal grading on my part.
  • The biggest sanity and time saver of all was telling students that I am not their editor or proofreader.

Each of those is probably worthy of its own blog post, so this is a brief overview of strategies I’ve adopted to save my sanity while grading lab reports (and other student writing assignments).


1) Full-rubrics

A lab report is usually a long, high-stakes assignment, that is worth a substantial portion of the final grade. A full-rubric is invaluable for streamlining the grading process and communicating expectations to students. A full rubric is not just a check-list of presence or absence of criteria needed to complete the assignment. Instead, for each criteria there is a detailed description of different levels of mastery or quality. Rubrics can be used to give formative or summative feedback, analytical or holistic assessments, or a combination. Another advantage of rubrics is that they help standardize grading across multiple sections of a course that are taught by graduate teaching assistants.

A good rubric is very time-consuming to create, but it has potential to save you many hours when it comes time to assess student writing. [This is especially true if you use an online course management system that has a built-in grading tool (e.g. Canvas Speed Grader). You can link your rubric to the assignment, and give comments and numerical scores for each criterion on the rubric. The tool will add the scores and put them directly into the online grade book. Hooray!]

Here is an example of a summative grading rubric from the methods section of a lab report.

Excellent Average Inadequate No Effort
Contains sufficient detail for the audience to validate the experiments Contains clear descriptions of all necessary steps for the reader to be able to validate the experiments without having to contact the author for more explanations. Descriptions of the experimental methods are provided, but some minor steps are missing so the reader will not be able to validate the experiments without further assistance. Descriptions of the experimental methods are provided, but one or more key steps are missing so the reader will not be able to validate the experiments without major further assistance. Descriptions of methods are so poor that the reader cannot grasp what experiments were done OR no description included at all.
Includes brief description of how data were analyzed (equations, statistics etc.) A clear description of how data were analyzed, including all relevant steps and calculations. A description of how data were analyzed but is missing some steps or calculations. A poor description of how data were analyzed and is missing substantial steps or calculations. Reader is unable to understand how data were analyzed OR no description is given at all.

 Resources to help you get started on your own rubrics


2) Practice and feedback

Students sometimes tell me that they are “not very good at writing”. My reply is that writing is a skill and as a skill, it requires practice, practice, practice. To this end, I use a mix of short, low-stakes writing assignments and scaffolding.

Low-stakes writing assignments are short, informal assignments that are designed to help students reflect on what they have been learning or doing, but don’t require much grading effort from the instructor. It’s important to give students the rationale for the assignment and present it as equally important as larger assignments, even though it’s worth fewer points. One popular example is a “minute paper.” These are brief in-class written responses to an instructor-posed question. Some sample prompts that align with writing a lab report:

  • What was the most surprising result from your experiment?
  • In your opinion, what would be a good follow-up experiment to yours?
  • What relationship did you see between ____ and ____?
  • Would you agree or disagree with this statement __________?
  • List the keywords, phrases and databases that you are going to use to search for references for your lab report.

Examples of other low-stakes, minimal grading assignments are timed “free-write” (write everything that comes to mind about the topic from memory for 5-10min), journals (separate from lab notebooks), outlines, or concept maps.

Scaffolding refers to taking a larger assignment and breaking it into smaller parts. I have my students write their lab reports in stages over five weeks. Each stage they receive formative feedback from me and/or go through peer-review. At each stage they are also required to explain how they incorporated feedback from the previous stage. By breaking a large assignment into stages, I can provide more detailed feedback so that their final lab report is more polished and easier to read.

Resources to help you with low-stakes assignments and scaffolding:


3) You are not the editor or the proofreader

Fixing spelling, punctuation and grammar are the student’s responsibility, not yours. Yes, students need to know when they have made technical errors, but it shouldn’t consume all of your time. One strategy is to simply make an X or other mark at the end of each line that contains an error. It is then the student’s job to analyze their writing and find the error. Another is to edit one paragraph and then instruct the student to look for similar errors throughout their writing.

Focus your time on making meaningful comments about content, especially on early drafts. Some of the most helpful comments are actually questions. For example, rather than tell a student to delete a sentence, ask the student how that sentence helps their argument. It is easy to overwhelm students with too many comments, so prioritize which comments to give. Don’t forget to give students positive feedback about the strengths of their writing! We tend to focus too much on the weaknesses.

Finally, plan ahead for how much time you realistically have for grading, and how much time you’ll need to grade each submission. Set a timer to keep yourself on track. If you find that one submission is taking too long, set it aside and take a break.

Resources to help responding effectively to student writing





Nancy Aguilar-Roca is an assistant teaching professor at the University of California, Irvine in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. She studied respiratory and cardiovascular physiology of air-breathing fishes for her PhD at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and did a postdoc in evolutionary genomics of E. coli at UCI. She currently runs the high-enrollment upper division human physiology labs and is in the process of revamping the course with flipped lab protocols and more inquiry based activity (instead of “cookbook”). She also teaches freshman level ecology and evolutionary biology and is interested in using online ecology databases for creating inquiry-based computer activities for this large lecture course. Her other courses include Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy, Marine Biology, Physiology of Extreme Environments and non-majors physiology. At the graduate level, she co-organizes a seminar series for graduate students  and postdocs who are interested in learning evidence-based teaching techniques.  She was recently appointed Director of the Undergraduate Exercise Sciences Major and welcomes any advice about developing curriculum for this major.