Practical Magic: surviving the first lab exam

On Friday, I gave my first practical exam of the semester in the lab I teach, General Biology II. The first lab practical is always the hardest. Most of the students have never taken a lab with practical exams, so they don’t really know what to expect and many don’t realize how hard it can be to identify tiny bacteria under a microscope when you only have one minute per station! So the first practical is usually a wake up call and afterwards students pay much more attention in lab and come to office hours much more often, a stark contrast to my empty office hours in the past couple weeks.

In addition to the first practical being the hardest for the students, in this course, the first practical is the hardest for the TA’s as well. But it certainly builds on many essential skills. Most of the specimens we have studied so far in lab must be viewed with a compound microscope, which are pretty heavy. So we get to work on our biceps and triceps lugging about 20 of these microscopes out of the cabinets. Then we work on our eyesight and precisions skills, placing the microscope pointers so that they hopefully point towards some structure on a Protist or Cnidarian that we want to ask about. This can be tricky and time consuming, so we also practice excellent time management skills: can I make sure to arrive at the lab with enough time to set up my practical without students beating down the door to start, but not so early so that I have to wait around for a while after it is set up?

Once everything is set up, I greet the students at the door to remind them of all the instructions. I try to be firm but kind, because I know they are horrified, I can see it in their faces. Backpacks at the front, cell phones away, no talking, one minute per station….etc. Now they must face the music, and I sit back and watch as they take the practical. Its a bit boring, but I can usually find ways to amuse myself. Can I tell by a student’s face whether they know the answer? Have no clue? Its right at the tip of their tongue but they just can’t think of it!? That face is the worst, I can really feel their pain.

Finally once they are done a huge burden is thrown off all of their shoulders and I can physically feel the relief in the room. Whether they think they aced it or did horribly, everyone is simply happy its over with. And I am too, because now comes the the best part for me, they help put the microscopes away!

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