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  • Henry Liu

Test Tube Nightmare: How to approach your first lab course

As a premed or science student, one of the most difficult series of courses you will encounter are the dreaded lab courses. Unlike traditional lecture-based classes, these programs will take what you have learned previously and apply it in a hands-on environment. Although this may seem rather scary at first, there are several things that you can do as a student to maximize your learning and grades in the course.

1. Read the prelab readings

Even though the course is heavily hands-on, more often than not, there will be readings assigned before each experiment. Oftentimes, students will skip the readings as there is no enforcement on whether or not you have actually read them. This is not the time to be skimping out on your prep. Always read all the assigned readings. They typically give an overview of the experiment you are about to complete and will save you time in the lab. This is key, as you only have so much time to do each experiment. By doing the readings and saving time, you will save yourself from experiencing the panic of the dreaded end of semester pileup.

2. Attend Lecture

Although the lectures are often not mandatory (at least at my school), always attend the weekly lecture. These short lessons will review the theory at hand and touch upon any calculations you may have to complete once data is collected. By attending lecture, you will have an opportunity to ask questions and clarify anything which you do not understand before going into lab, which will again save you time.

3. Wash as you go

Often, you will be using lots of glassware and other tools in lab. It is good practice to wash glassware as you go along, especially during down times when you are waiting for a particular sample to run. That way, you avoid running out of clean glassware and having to stay after to clean up your station. This may not seem like much, but when it’s a Friday night at 10 pm, trust me, you will want to leave the lab as soon as you have finished up your experiment. No one likes staying longer than they have to, so clean as you go.

4. Manage your time

Playing off of tip 3, manage your time carefully! You always have limited time in lab and limited time with professors and TA’s. Always use your time efficiently. Whether this means you get a jumpstart on your calculations while your last sample is running, or get the introduction of your report written during down time, making the most of your time in lab is key to success. It always pays to ask questions when you are unsure, and if you don’t know what’s going on, its best to clarify with the instructors in lab than in a frantic email 10 minutes before the report is due.

5. Write small, not big

Lab reports are likely going to be the largest percentage of your grade, and will follow a general structure of introduction, background, findings/data, and conclusion/implications. Oftentimes, this will take about six to seven pages (not including the works cited). It is beneficial to write the report in small chunks rather all at once, as this will allow you to carefully craft your statements without being overly wordy. If there is one thing that instructors hate, it is long and wordy reports. For example, the introduction and background often consist of information which does not rely on the data, and can be written during the prelab portion. The findings/data can be completed as your data comes on over the course of the experiment. Finally, once you have all your findings and a clear picture of what is happening, you can draft a conclusion. This not only leaves time proofreading but also alleviates the stress of writing it all in one night.

6. Cite everything

The works cited may seem to be a bore, but do not skimp out on the portion. Plagiarism in college is no laughing matter, and professors will not take kindly to this, even if it is due to negligence. When in doubt, cite it. Paraphrases also need to be cited. Finally, make sure that all citations are in the format that the grader wants, whether this be MLA, APA, Chicago, or something else.

7. Ask Questions

When in doubt, ask! The teaching staff is there to help you, and it is of utmost importance that you ask them whenever you cannot find the answer easily yourself. The readings and textbook will provide many answers, but oftentimes, complex questions will require the expertise of the instructor. Do not hesitate to ask in engage with the professor. Trust me, they like it when students actively participate in lab discussions and engage with the class.

If this is your first lab class, do not be afraid. Although these types of courses often come with their own set of challenges, they are by no means impossible. These tips are meant as a brief guide of how to approach the course, but they are by no means exhaustive. Good luck in lab!

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