Together or Apart? Lecture with Laboratory, or Taken Separately?

Think back to your days as a college student majoring in science. Was your college on the smaller scale such that your professor met with you weekly for both your lecture and laboratory in chemistry, biology and physics? Or was your university on the large size, and while you sat among dozens or even hundreds of your peers in an auditorium where your professor lectured, you then met weekly in a smaller laboratory session conducted by teaching assistants? Our past experiences as students may or may not bear similarities to our professional career teaching environment at present.

As college professors in biology, or related science disciplines, our student enrollment in the major and the headcount of part-time versus full-time faculty have likely dictated the course schedule each semester. Such quantitative data, meshed with the physical resources of chairs in a classroom and square footage of laboratory space for teaching purposes, may be the major drivers of curricular practices. Pedagogical tradition perhaps accounts for science course scheduling practices as well. Budgetary matters too weigh heavily on decisions to maintain the status quo, or to experiment with test piloting the implementation of emerging course designs.

I teach at a mid-sized public university that offers graduate degrees alongside our more populous undergraduate majors. Our biology majors number approximately 1,000. Our faculty include part-time adjuncts, full-time lecturers and tenured/tenure-track professors. We do not have graduate teaching assistants in the classroom. Most often the assigned faculty teach both their lecture and laboratory sessions for a given course. A recent trend in our college has been to identify traditional lecture/laboratory courses that could be split such that students enroll in completely separate courses for the lecture versus the laboratory. For example, our microbiology course that used to be one combined course meeting twice weekly for lecture and once weekly for laboratory is now two distinct courses, laboratory versus lecture, although both are taken in the same semester, each course posts an individual grade on the transcript.

When asked to consider if any of the courses I teach would or would not be appropriate for separation of lecture from laboratory, I went to the pedagogical literature to see what I could find on the topic. Where science courses are combined into a single course (one grade) with lecture and laboratory, the lecture may be to a large scale audience, while the labs are disseminated into smaller break out groups led by either the lecture faculty or else another faculty member or teaching assistant. On the other hand, a science “course” may have a completely separate course number where students enroll and earn a grade for lecture, and a distinctly different course number where they enroll and earn a separate grade for the laboratory. Knowing these two variations exist, the literature reveals other alternatives as well.

A paper in the Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning evaluated college introductory biology courses where either the same instructor teaches both the lecture and laboratory sessions versus those where there are different instructors for the lecture versus the lab. The author reports “no general trend indicating that students had a better experience when they had the same instructor for both lecture and laboratory than when the lecture and laboratory instructor differed (Wise 2017).” In fact, he states that students may even benefit from having different lecture and laboratory instructors for the same course as such would afford students exposure to instructors with different backgrounds and teaching styles (this paper’s doi: 10.14434/josotl.v17i1.19583).

When I was a teaching assistant during my graduate school days, I developed my teaching style by trial and error as the TA for the laboratory session break outs from the professor-led large auditorium style lectures for the undergraduate first year students majoring in biology. That was the early 1990s, and it was a mid-sized private university where at the same time they were “experimenting” with upper level undergraduate laboratory classes that were lab only. They called them “super labs” and they were not attached to a concurrent lecture course. Indeed, a 2005 paper in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education by D.R. Caprette, S. Armstrong and K. Beth Beason entitled “Modular Laboratory Courses” details such a concept whereby the laboratory course is not linked to a lecture (doi/epdf/10.1002/bmb.2005.49403305351). These modular laboratory-only courses are shorter in duration, ranging from a quarter to a half of semester, for 1 or 2 academic credits. Their intent is to apply the learning of specific skills, methods and instrumentation in their undergraduate biology and biochemistry curriculum. Of note, they recognized that their transition to such modular short-term laboratory courses was eased by their academic program already having their traditional curriculum with individual laboratory courses separate from the lecture courses.

Studio courses had in my mind been those taken by the art majors and other fine arts students. In the literature, however, there is an integrated “studio” model for science courses. A paper in Journal of College Science Teaching details how a small private college converted their Anatomy & Physiology I course, among others, from traditional lecture/laboratory courses to the integrated studio model. Their traditional twice weekly 75 minute lectures with 60 students and 150 minute breakout laboratories with 16 students per section, was reconfigured to 30 students meeting with the same instructor and teaching assistant twice weekly, each for 2 hours. These longer duration class sessions each consisted of, for example, 20 minutes lecture followed by 30 minutes of a context-linked laboratory, and then 20 minutes lecture followed again by 40 minutes of a linked laboratory They report fewer course withdrawals and unsatisfactory grades and cite that students felt “engaged and active” as did instructors who spoke of “immediate application and hands on” activity in the interactive classroom (Finn, Fitzpatrick, Yan 2017;

Based on my experience with comprehension by students with the content delivery, I have decided to redesign my upper level undergraduate Cell Physiology course such that the cell physiology lecture will be a standalone 3 credit course, and students will be encouraged to take either during the same semester or the following semester, the 1 credit cell physiology laboratory course. When viewed thru the course scheduling and facilities lenses, this “split” will afford more students to enroll in a single lecture course section, while then having multiple smaller capacity laboratory course sections. As this is an upper level elective, students may find that a 3 + 1 credit option as well as a 3 credit only option suits their needs accordingly. And they can decide for themselves, together or apart, lecture with laboratory, or taken separately.

Laura Mackey Lorentzen is an associate professor of biology at Kean University in Union, NJ, where her teaching emphasis is general biology for majors as well as cell physiology, neuroscience and senior capstone. She earned a PhD in Biomedical Sciences/Molecular Physiology and Biophysics from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston TX, an MS in Cellular & Molecular Biology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh PA, and a BS in biology from The University of Charleston, WV. She is a past president of the New Jersey Academy of Science (NJAS) and past editor-in-chief of AWIS Magazine, for the Association of Women in Science.

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