Teaching Lab Classes Online

Lab classes may be particularly challenging to teach remotely due to their hands-on nature.  In thinking about how to give students as close to an equivalent experience of your lab class as possible, consider:

What are your top learning goals?

Think about the purpose of the labs that you are asking students to do. What are the most important things that you want students to learn?  What are the skills, content knowledge, and ways of thinking that are most important to you?  The School of Arts and Sciences lab coordinators recently articulated their collective lab objectives, which may be helpful for brainstorming goals for your lab class overall and for each individual lab activity. In addition to the content goals, consider how important it is for your students to work together or if they can do the work as individuals.


How can you achieve your goals?

Much of the work that you ask students to do to achieve your goals may not require them to be in a lab setting. You can often ask questions that will give them practice with the intellectual tasks that are important to you.  For example, you could ask students to:

  • Generate hypotheses
  • Design experiments
  • Design products or procedures
  • Visualize and interpret data (by either providing them with a data  set or by asking them to collect data using a simulation) 
  • Connecting data to larger concepts, conclusions, and limitations

The fact that students likely will not have access to the materials needed to do the hands-on work of your lab can make it challenging to achieve some of your other goals.  Consider how important it is for students to do the hands-on work to achieve your prioritized goals.  If it is important, are there any alternative solutions for getting a similar experience?  Below are potential approaches:

  • If you want students to be able to visualize a phenomenon or technique, consider looking for a video demonstration or make a video yourself.  For more on how to make a video on your own, see this guidance on how to create a video with Panopto

  • If you want students to identify items (e.g., anatomical parts), you can upload images to a Canvas quiz and ask students to identify them.  These quizzes can be set up to be ungraded or only graded for participation if you’re using this as a teaching tool and not as an assessment.  Here is a guide to the different types of quizzes you can use and how they are graded. 

Another major barrier could be that students may not have access to the computer software or hardware that is needed to collect, visualize, or analyze data.  See if there are alternative programs that could do most of the tasks that you would like students to do.  For example, working within Excel may be good enough for the data processing that you want your students to do, even if it doesn’t have all the capabilities of other programs.  If that’s not possible, some programs can be remotely accessed if you are in SEAS.  All other faculty should contact their local IT support to find out if remote access is possible.


How will you organize the lab course materials?

In some lab experiences it can be important to step students through the lab, getting them to interact with lab materials and questions in a particular sequence.  If you would like to simulate this experience remotely, particularly if you want to use multiple modalities (e.g., video, then simulation, then questions), you can make use of the module structure in Canvas. With modules, you can require that students step through the pages in a particular order.  See these instructions for how to add requirements to a module.

You can also use the online lab notebook LabArchives to organize your material and provide a place for students to hand in lab reports.

If there are essential components of the lab course that you do not think can be done remotely, talk with your department to determine how this should be handled. 

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