We know that instructors (and their students) are concerned about making up missed classes. This is particularly true for lab courses where it is not always easy to provide students with extra opportunities to complete missed labs and/or for students to take advantage of them. We have asked several IU lab instructors, as well as our instructional and instructional technology consultants, to share strategies for taking care of absences in lab courses. Thank you to everyone who contributed their strategies and suggestions.
Explain the purpose and benefits of taking lab courses
Whether labs require bench experiments, coding, dissections, the completion of simulations, field work, or a combination of these and other skills, they provide many important benefits. The first step to encouraging students to attend lab courses is to explain the importance of labs. Explain to your students how the skills and knowledge they will gain from labs will help them in their future classes and careers. Explain how you use the various skills in your profession and how they might use these same skills whether they decide to continue in this discipline, or decide to switch to a different career. Explain how completion of this lab course will help their future selves be successful by highlighting the communication, problem-solving and/or collaboration skills they will gain from it. You might consider asking former students, graduate students and your peers to share how their lab courses are helping them be successful.
Consider the purpose of your lab
In thinking through your options of helping students make up absences, revisit the main goals of your lab. Is it for students to get hands-on practice with particular techniques, instruments and software or to apply theories and concepts and/or understand procedures? Is it for students to analyze and interpret data? Is it for them to predict possible outcomes? Is it important for them to write up the results for different audiences? Identifying your primary goals will help you identify ways in which to introduce the flexibility needed in your lab courses and enable your students to succeed, despite a few absences.
Strategies based on learning goals
Provide hands-on experience
To give students the opportunity for hands-on experience, some instructors schedule makeup labs throughout the semester to allow students to get that hands-on experience when they can do so. This can be a logistical challenge, especially considering packed lab schedules and limited lab supplies. If a student missed a lab early in the week, is there space for them to join a lab later in the week? If labs build on one another, identify a deadline by when the hands-on experience needs to be completed. If they will get an opportunity to use those devices/techniques for another lab, then that could be another instance of a make-up opportunity. You could use the Canvas Scheduler tool to allow for students to sign up for any open lab spots.
If students are working in small groups their lab partners might be able to help them catch up missed lab skills in future labs. Care should be taken that partners are splitting the work equitably. Include an extra assignment for the student that missed the lab to ensure that they have gained the necessary skills. Incorporating rotating lab member roles and peer evaluations can help ensure that everyone is contributing to the group and gaining the skills necessary to succeed in the current and future courses.
Understand and apply procedures
Can you provide a short video of the lab procedure? Some publishers provide these videos and STEM lab instructors at IUB can also access the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE) through the IU Libraries’ subscription. JoVE provides peer reviewed scientific video journals with over 5,500 videos demonstrating experiments from laboratories at top research institutions. Also see the MERLOT virtual labs website for labs in various disciplines..
Students can complete the lab write-up or a related assignment that shows their understanding of the procedures. Provide students with specific prompts to ensure that they are focused on the skills and knowledge that you want them to acquire.
An instructor example from Dr. Parul Khurana, Department of Natural Science, Indiana University East:
I have recorded myself or a student performing the experiment or lab while pointing out the materials and explaining the methods with precautions. An alternative would be to take photos at each step. Sometimes faculty like to run an experiment themself before teaching it. That would be a good time to take pictures. These could then be included with the instructions and shared with students who are unable to attend the lab in person. Photos could also be taken by students during the lab (if possible and easy to do, perhaps by lab partners). The students who take the pictures can also use them in their lab reports.
I have done this for results as well, i.e., taken pictures to share with students (e.g. plates with bacteria or plants, or trays of plants with different phenotypes).
If students are absent and unable to conduct an experiment, we could ask them to complete a small extra assignment that in-class students don’t. Perhaps an extra reflection, a small summary of an article, coming up with a follow-up experiment, etc.
Analyze and interpret data
If students are working with lab partners, a partner can share their data for the absent student to analyze. Some instructors share data sets with students or use aggregate data from the class. If you incorporate group work into your labs, be sure to clearly communicate expectations for group work to ensure equitable division of workloads, and avoid potential issues of academic misconduct.
Consider whether lab time can be split between students who are doing hands-on work and those who are doing analysis. This might be a way for students to catch up on hands-on experience while others are busy analyzing data or waiting for experiments to complete.
Alternatively, can absent students use Zoom to participate in the lab? The student attending via Zoom could record the data and be responsible for the lab write-up. If you are using digital lab notebooks in your course, students can easily review the data and lab notes to make sure all the important information was captured.
Predict possible outcomes
Some instructors use simulations or provide data sets and ask students to reflect on and document possible outcomes. Once students have been in the lab they can reflect on why their predictions were or were not accurate.
Share results with different audiences
At the CITL, we encourage instructors to ask students to complete authentic assignments since they help reduce the perception that lab work is just “busy work” and help students realize the broader relevance of what they are doing in your class and why they are doing it. Thinking of ways in which students can share lab results for different audiences in different formats (public service annuncements, blog posts, podcasts, short videos, infographics etc.) can be engaging to them and show them the relevance of course content to their lives and communities.
An instructor example from Dr. Megan Murphy, Biology, IUB
I use a combination of strategies. I drop the lowest couple of lab grades, which allows for flexibility when they need to miss. If the lab activities aren’t scaffolded in any way, that’s sufficient to give them flexibility. In other labs, I have students work in pairs or groups of three. When one student misses, they complete a related activity, though it’s never sufficient for actually giving them the lab skills they’ll need. So, they then rely on their partners to help them catch up with the past skills. I emphasize that each partner may need to miss at some point but that it’s up to them to ensure they’re splitting the work equitably (and I do course evaluations with a good amount of points dedicated to group evaluation to reinforce that idea).
Strategies based on lab format
Move some or parts of labs online
If some labs do not need to be completed in-person, can those be completed outside of class, freeing up lab time for students who do need to come in to practice their hands-on skills? While moving labs online is not easy, consider using existing materials from publishers and through other sites focused on labs for higher education (see the resources section below for these sites.) See this Connected Professor article to learn how IUPUI’s Gina Londino-Smolar moved her Forensic Science labs online. One way that instructors have online make-up labs is to give students a set of data for the lab they missed and the students analyze that data, write a report, etc. This would align well for labs that have a primary goal for students to analyze data. If instructors have access to previous students’ work, it would also be easier to implement since they don’t have to come up with a brand new lab.
Consider recording your labs and provide an alternate assignment that the teaching assistant oversees. Alternate assignments can take on many formats. Think of different ways in which students can demonstrate their learning, and give them choice, when possible, in how to demonstrate their mastery. Here is an example from an Earth Sciences lab where students are examining sedimentary rocks in in-person labs. For students who missed the lab, they could have a “scavenger hunt” assignment to find images of specific rocks, and use those images and online resources to describe the compositional, texture, and other characteristics of those rocks.
An instructor example from Jennifer Nelson (formerly of IUPUI), Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Purdue University:
In many introductory level Earth Science labs, students explore properties of rocks during hands-on lab sessions, where they can hold and examine samples. For students who cannot attend an in-person lab, an alternative “scavenger hunt” assignment could guide them to find images of specific rock types from online sources and use those images and additional online resources to describe the compositional, texture, and other characteristics of those rocks. Then, when they can attend lab again, a set of samples could be ready for hands-on examination before or after class
For field-based or independent labs
Schedule multiple dates so that students have opportunities to make up absences. Give students several weeks or a full month to complete the lab.
Create labs that students can complete at home
For lab activities students can complete at home, use lab kits or design labs where students can use commonly found items to complete labs at home. Students can upload photos or video(s) of their lab progress and results. Be sure to survey students to ensure they have access to the equipment and technologies needed to complete these labs. We recommend writing the online labs using the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TiLT) framework since the instructors will not be immediately available to clarify instructions. Using the TiLT framework to write your online labs can communicate your goals, activities and assessments clearly to your students.
A note of caution from an instructor about lab kits: Although this would be a great help for making up labs, it is often hard to organize them at the last minute, and especially if we have to purchase them from a scientific company.
Provide scheduled make-up labs a week later
For labs that require a hands-on experience, create a routine where labs have a scheduled make-up date, so the instructor can anticipate that schedule.
An instructor example from Elizabeth Kenderes, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, IUB:
In EAS-E105: Earth-Our Habitable Planet, we hold a weekly, 2-hour laboratory. The experiments, measurements, and observation are fairly involved, and generally require the entire lab period to complete. Along with the setup and cleanup for the labs, this usually means at least 3 additional hours of work per lab makeup. During Fall 2021, I quickly realized that individually accommodating student makeups for excused absences was unsustainable, even with my two A.I.s and myself running makeups, not to mention the availability of the lab space. We settled on a system where we hold one laboratory makeup per week, on Friday afternoon, when it is usually most open in students’ schedules. Makeups are always scheduled for Friday, one week following the missed lab period, to accommodate positive cases and quarantine needs. My two A.I.s alternate hosting the makeups. To facilitate this, a student needs only to email me stating they have an excused absence. I send a generic email with the makeup time and instructions, and I add their name to a shared makeup list with my two A.I.s. The process has run very smoothly. I have found that we have significantly reduced the stress and uncertainty in the makeup process for both the students and instructors.
Rename your labs to “practical” sessions to encourage attendance. Explain why attendance is important and point out benefits such as having access to lab equipment and technologies, access to instructors who can answer questions, being able to discuss the lab with peers, and getting more practice with problem-solving while having access to experts who can help. Also highlight the spontaneous opportunities for additional learning that often occur during labs.
- Consider allowing students to drop a few of their lowest grades. Your syllabus can outline the number of permitted absences and the number of completed labs that are required in order to pass the course, and whether or not explanations are required. Include information on what happens once students have missed more than the allowed number of absences.
- Be flexible about which components of the labs students complete and by when. Consider scaffolding the assignments and providing due dates by when a student must be able to demonstrate a particular skill. Some instructors have students focus on practicing skills early in the semester and then move onto data analysis, interpretation, and presentation as the semester progresses.
- Make labs optional, but highly recommended. Example syllabus language: “We have noticed that those who take the time to ATTEND the live labs seem to do better in the course.” Consider expanding on this statement to include specific examples of how students do better in terms of knowing procedures, being able to use equipment etc., and being able to communicate about the lab, write it up for different audiences etc.
- Clearly explain students’ options for making up lab absences, performance expectations, and the expected minimum amount of time needed to complete labs in alternate formats. Sometimes students assume that make-up labs or alternate ways of completing the lab will not take as much time as the in-person lab would.
- Consider meeting with students in small groups to check in with them, explain lab formats, explain strategies for success etc. Making this part of lab time can serve as another incentive to attend.
- Encourage students to attend office hours to discuss their plan of action for making up missed labs.
- Survey students about their plans for being successful in class and how they think they will use the skills in their careers. Share the results with the class.
- Talk to students about how you work on collaborative research projects and the tools you and your collaborators use. Explain how the experience working within time and material constraints to complete labs is useful in your work. Share ways to relate lab work with professional experiences and how they could talk about lab experiences during job interviews.
- The IU Etexts program includes publishers’ materials, simulations tools and online labs via tools such as Labster and Labflow. View the Publisher Courseware and Course Materials sections on Tech Tool Finder page
- IUB instructors can access the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE) through the IU Libraries’ subscription
- Interactive Simulations: PhET
- Virtual labs: MERLOT virtual labs; Best Free Virtual Labs
- EDUCAUSE 7 Things You Should Know about Virtual Labs (includes contributions by IUPUI’s Gina M. Londino-Smolar, Senior Lecturer, Forensic & Investigative Sciences)
- Use a polling tool such as TopHat to engage your in-person and online students simultaneously.