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Alternatives to campus-based lab activities

Material used courtesy of Chalmers University of Technology.


The following suggestions for methods to replace campus-based lab work are primarily suitable for the kind of laboratory work that is used to enhance or supplement the learning in a given course, i.e. not for laboratory exercises that form the core of a course. Depending on the design of the laboratory exercise, different methods fit more or less well. Your decision can also depend on what work has been done previously, either at your university or at other universities.

First, think through what learning is intended for each lab (or alternative) exercise. Can it be achieved in any other way? This probing might affect your alternative solutions. For example, an experiment might be good to address conceptual understanding, but it might not be the only way.

Method 1 – laboratory work as demonstration with subsequent follow-up

Divide the laboratory into different parts such as preparation, execution, processing of data and results analysis. Depending on the type of laboratory activity involved, the number and type of steps may vary. For each step, some kind of sequence should be created. Think about what the student should do linked to each step. Suggestions for these are as follows:


As a teacher, make a reference to the laboratory PM and record a video (or write a short intro text in Canvas, for example) where you clarify the learning goal(s) for the lab exercise. In this way, you put the lab in a context. Give the students a preparation task, for example to plan the implementation of a measurement. For inspiration, see a list of possible questions close to the end of this page. Of course, individual feedback on these preparation tasks is time-consuming; an alternative is to provide a key or a sample solution or a video with a review of the laboratory arrangement. In Canvas, it is possible to make such a review / video available only to students who have submitted a preparation assignment.


Film the activities when you do the lab work. Filming can be done in several steps where each step is either justified in advance or more clearly described afterwards. Keep in mind that each recording should be no longer than five to ten minutes. Have the students work actively with the material, for example by deciding on the next step in the laboratory via multiple choice questions afterwards or by submitting short notes. Make the next part of the material available when the students have completed the related assignment.

Data processing

If the laboratory itself and any associated software allow, it is excellent to share raw data with the students via the Canvas activity. Students can then analyze the data themselves as if it were their own. It may be good to include some kind of guidance that the students can use if they are stuck.

Results analysis

Students should be encouraged to write a shorter reflective text in which they compare the results they have obtained with the goals of the laboratory. Here it is wise to include a number of supportive questions such as "Have you received a clear answer?", "Is the answer reasonable?" and "What is the scientific explanation for the result?".

Method 2 – real-time video

Consider going to the lab yourself and doing the lab procedures yourself during an online class. Use your telephone's camera or a separate web camera if available to easily move about showing details while speaking to the students. Arrange for the students to be able to pose and answer questions while you demonstrate.

Colleagues report positive results from having a team of two teachers physically in the lab together, discussing with each other and with an online student group. Students can suggest next steps and the two teachers can react with both actions and verbalized thoughts.

Method 3 – simulation

It is possible to replace some laboratory work with computer-aided simulations. Of course, this requires that you have the programming skills and software that make this possible. Using existing simulations e.g. PhET simulations (University of Colorado) can be a complement, especially for basic courses. PhET simulations are free and are available in the following subject areas: physics, chemistry, math, earth science and biology.

Method 4 – on-line laboratory work

Setting up lab exercises that are available on-line is probably too demanding to be an alternative in the near future, but it can be done. There are some resources that are openly available on-line at present, but the quality does not appear to be that high and some have not been updated recently. Here are two examples of open resources:

And here is an example of one that requires registration and payment:

You can look further online, for example, based on the following page:

Method 5 – laboratory exercises at home

Some on-campus lab exercises can be (partially) replaced by labs that make use of household materials available to most students. Consider which learning can be supported with safe at-home lab exercises. Explain to the students exactly why you are suggesting this alternative. Consider asking students to upload pictures or short demonstration videos. Consider assigning different lab exercises to different groups of students, and then sharing.

Suggestions relevant for all methods

Supportive interaction

Schedule a number of occasions in the course as early as possible where it is possible to connect via e.g. Zoom to ask questions about the laboratory activity. It is important that the teacher who is available to answer questions also has proper knowledge and experience about the specific laboratory task and is well acquainted with, for example, what questions might be raised. Use online lesson time to discuss different aspects of the intended learning you would have wanted your students to experience had they performed the lab exercise themselves on campus.

Student preparations

Clearly state what the student should know before starting the "lab" and how to achieve (and possibly demonstrate) this prior knowledge.

Examples of questions

  • What type of experimental setup might one want to design in order to test/demonstrate the concept x?
  • What relevant parameters could one measure with the setup that you just saw on the video?
  • What hypothesis might one pose about the relation between measurable quantities?
  • What tools or instruments would you need to perform these measurements?
  • How many measurements would you suggest taking, and how would you change the setup to vary different parameters?
  • What safety instructions would you give to a colleague about to perform this experiment?

Lab notebooks

Consider asking students to take structured notes during such "lab" exercises, maybe handing them in as an assignment or an appendix to a formal lab report.

Lab reports, examination

If possible, laboratory exercises should be examined in the way that has happened before. If the students have previously written a laboratory report, they should do so now. If the laboratory has previously been examined on site by a supervisor, this form of examination should be replaced in some way. This can either be done by the student answering a number of shorter questions or submitting their reflection as described above in Method 1, Results analysis, or through an online meeting (oral hearing) with discussion.

Feedback to students after lab

Consider providing a video of the teacher demonstrating and commenting on the lab as a final feedback to the student group after they have completed the lab exercise.

Page Manager: Olof Siverbo|Last update: 4/29/2020

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Utskriftsdatum: 2023-12-07