High-impact learning practices in the redesign of an undergraduate laboratory course

03 Jun 2018 9:57 PM | Anonymous

Suzanne Wood (University of Toronto)

At large research universities, undergraduates can get lost in the shuffle. Both logistically and economically, it is more feasible to hold lecture-style classes and to leave undergraduate lab experiences to those who are selected for research assistant positions.  However, this places a significant strain on already overburdened research faculty and their labs and leaves many qualified undergraduates in the lurch.  These undergraduates may be curious about research but may lack the confidence to approach faculty members for open research opportunities (see Bangera & Brownell, 2014 for discussion). Running laboratory courses can meet the needs of these students and lead to many of the same outcomes as achieved through individual research placements in labs, including improvement in scientific writing, computational, and technical skills (Shapiro et al., 2015). Undergraduate research experiences have also been found to bolster student interest in science as a career (Lopatto, 2007).

One of the most exciting components of my position at the University of Toronto Psychology department was the directive to update the small (maximum enrollment of 20) psychobiology (behavioral neuroscience) undergraduate lab course with new, innovative methods. While I was fortunate that my department was already footing the bill for a massive renovation of the dedicated lab space, including the purchase of lightly used equipment, the accompanying course development was left entirely in my hands. To best utilize these resources, I set about designing a course that would leverage the power of high-impact learning practices which can lead to increased student engagement and retention (Kuh, 2008). These types of learning practices are highly encouraged at the University of Toronto and are documented periodically as part of the National Survey of Student Engagement (University of Toronto, 2014). The power of these practices can be harnessed for many types of courses, but are particularly amenable for a laboratory course setting.

High-Impact Practices

The key elements of high-impact practices were integrated into the course redesign as follows:

Undergraduate Research

While protocols for this course were established and approved ahead of time, students had the rare opportunity to gain hands-on experience with rodents before deciding to join a lab or apply for graduate school. In addition, while neural structures had been the focus of tissue staining techniques in previous iterations of this course, I updated the curriculum to include analysis of neural activity (c-fos staining). Experience with these types of technique are critical for those undergraduates hoping to pursue behavioral neuroscience graduate work today.

Collaborative Projects

Experiment days required participation from all students. Students were also encouraged to work on statistical analyses together, and time in class was allocated to help facilitate this collaboration. Only the writing assignments were completed independently. This distribution of work was an attempt to more closely mimic actual research settings (significant collaboration), while providing assignments for individual marks (written assignments).

Writing-Intensive Course

Students submitted multiple writing assignments throughout the semester. Time was devoted in class to faculty-student, or teaching assistant (TA)-student, one-on-one meetings to discuss each writing assignment. The manner in which students addressed their own weaknesses throughout the semester was considered when assigning grades.  This type of intensive feedback was only realistically possible with a small instructor (and TA)-student ratio.

Career Exploration in the Community

Preferences in enrollment were given to third year research specialists (high-achieving students who were interested in research, typically with intentions to attend graduate or medical school). With this in mind, I focused on what they would need to know after graduation, either when applying to jobs or graduate programs. I worked with the Career Centre to schedule a visit for students to a local, off-campus neuroscience laboratory during regular class time. To ensure the greatest learning outcomes, I scheduled a preparation session hosted by the Career Centre during class the week before the trip, as well as a debriefing session the week afterward. Students were encouraged to learn not just about the “traditional” research career paths, but also about paths in “non-traditional” science roles (e.g., fundraising, human resources, infrastructure, vivarium management, etc.).

Student-Faculty Interactions

The course offered undergraduates the rare opportunity to interact directly with a faculty member on a weekly basis in a small group setting. In my department, third and fourth year courses tend to enroll 50 students, with a small number of seminars offered with maximum enrollments of 20. This small group format allowed for many informal discussions regarding topics in related research areas, career paths, etc. The TA for the class was also tapped for information regarding graduate school applications, life as a graduate student, and other related topics.

Student Reactions

The university-wide, online course evaluation tool gathered opinions from students over the past two years concerning the perceived quality of their educational experience in this lab course. The responses were overwhelmingly positive. Below are sample quotes from the anonymous student feedback concerning the high-impact learning course components:

“This lab course is extremely novel and interesting…I’ve never learned anything this stimulating and applied in any of my other courses.”

“I learned valuable skills that are rare for an undergraduate course.”

“[The] personal feedback on papers was excellent and I saw a massive improvement in my scientific writing.”

              “Such a great course that is unique from most other courses at U of T.”

 “Why aren’t there more courses like this available to undergraduates?!”

Notably, one student applied to a graduate program in Health Services Administration after completing this course. She ascribes this decision to the class field trip and hearing from one of the neuroscience institute’s employees about “non-traditional” career paths.


While the above components of this course have been successful, I would be remiss if I did not mention some of the significant hurdles faced when developing this course. Specifically, three main obstacles continued to rear their heads whenever I seemed to finally settle on an activity or experiment: time, money, and the lengthy commute of my students.


One of the challenges in running this lab course was carving out the time to prepare. In contrast to a lecture-based course, a lab course involves preparation of not only learning objectives, content, assignments, and the like, but also logistics such as obtaining the relevant ethics board approval, equipment set up and testing, federal approval for scheduled drug possession, piloting experiments ahead of time, etc. The departmentally assigned teaching assistant was only employed for the term, so, in preparation throughout the summer, I found myself working on tasks during the day that required business hour communication (e.g., federal drug approvals) as well as cognitively taxing jobs such as course design. I spent nights on more menial tasks such as setting up and testing equipment.

To help offset some of the time burden during the following year, I applied for a small university grant (Advancing Teaching and Learning in Arts & Science; ATLAS) that supported a TA to assist throughout the year in the design, implementation, and piloting of new protocols. The TA was invaluable in offsetting some of the burden of the background work involved in this course, leaving me the time to handle course design logistics. The TA shined in the development of the brain histology protocol and the listing of the necessary equipment and supplies to run it. He completed this task with gusto, leaving no detail out, and saving me countless hours.

In addition, recruiting help from the Career Centre was essential for setting up the field trip component of the class. They were a source of enthusiastic support during both terms. Again, this collaboration saved me an enormous amount of time in scheduling logistics.


Tied in closely with time constraints are money issues. As I mentioned above, an in-house grant helped me greatly, not only for the TA assistance outside of the regular term, but also for purchasing critical pieces of small equipment to complement what was already being supplied by the department. Specifically, I added in molecular biology techniques that reflected common practices in today’s behavioral neuroscience research (it is no longer sufficient to focus exclusively on animal behavior; genetic, histological, and molecular biological techniques are also expected). Equipment such as pipettes and glassware were not part of the lab renovation but were critical to the implementation of these new protocols.

For instructors at smaller institutions, or if no in-house financial support is available, you may consider the possibility of recruiting undergraduate volunteers who were superstars in previous iterations of the class. While you will benefit from their assistance, the students will benefit enormously from this experience: they will see the setup of the lab from the “inside” perspective and will solidify what they learned in the class. This type of leadership experience will set them apart from their fellow students when applying to graduate school or employment positions upon graduation. In general, undergraduate teaching assistants have been found to benefit greatly from their experiences with the class (e.g., Schalk, McGinnis, Harring, Hendrickson, & Smith, 2009).

Large, Commuter Campus

At a primarily commuter campus, the design of the class is constrained to events taking place during class hours only. This is particularly challenging in a psychobiology class where behavioral animal experiments are used. Extended learning tasks (e.g., Morris water maze, radial arm maze, etc.) are simply out of the question. I selected tasks that could be run within a three-hour class session: an abbreviated version of object recognition, comparing rats’ performance on low-dose amphetamine with saline; and open field locomotion, comparing mice injected with diazepam, amphetamine, or saline. Brain tissue histology was performed over the course of several weeks, with tissue being frozen between sessions.

Benefits can also be found with this type of situation. While students did not have the opportunity to run paradigms that required daily interactions with the rodents, having all laboratory work performed within class hours made this unique experience accessible to students who might not have the flexibility to participate in apprentice-style lab opportunities (e.g., those with lengthy commutes, jobs, or other time commitments; see Bangera & Brownell, 2014). In addition, I was able to leverage the urban location of the campus to coordinate a field trip within walking distance (see High-Impact Practices: Career Exploration in the Community section).

Take Away Points

While this piece focuses on a single course at a large research institution, the embedded lessons can be applied to many different settings:

  • 1)     Seek out and find help. Learn about the resource available to you such as institutional funding and offices on campus such as the career center, teaching and learning center, etc. Also, look to TAs and undergraduates to participate in the implementation of classes that are as technically burdensome.
  • 2)     Know your students. Do your students commute, or do they live on campus? Are they 3rd and 4th year students, or are they just starting out? Considerations such as these can help guide your instructional design choices (although all could probably benefit from some instruction on scientific writing, as well as a basic stats review).
  • 3)     While new equipment is fun, it does not make a class. Take advantage of what you have access to, but know that your job is not done once those boxes of new equipment and supplies have been delivered. Implementing high-impact practices can help to ensure important learning experiences for your students, regardless of sophistication of laboratory techniques.


Bangera, G., & Brownell, S. E. (2014). Course-based undergraduate research experiences can make scientific research more inclusive. CBE Life Sci Educ, 13(4), 602-606. doi:10.1187/cbe.14-06-0099

Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Lopatto, D. (2007). Undergraduate research experiences support science career decisions and active learning. CBE Life Sci Educ, 6(4), 297-306. doi:10.1187/cbe.07-06-0039

Schalk, K. A., McGinnis, J. R., Harring, J. R., Hendrickson, A., & Smith, A. C. (2009). The undergraduate teaching assistant experience offers opportunities similar to the undergraduate research experience. J Microbiol Biol Educ, 10(1), 32-42.

Shapiro, C., Moberg-Parker, J., Toma, S., Ayon, C., Zimmerman, H., Roth-Johnson, E. A., . . . Sanders, E. R. (2015). Comparing the Impact of Course-Based and Apprentice-Based Research Experiences in a Life Science Laboratory Curriculum. J Microbiol Biol Educ, 16(2), 186-197. doi:10.1128/jmbe.v16i2.1045

University of Toronto (2014). Results of the National Survey of Student Engagement. Retrieved on May 31, 2017 from http://www.provost.utoronto.ca/Assets/Provost+Digital+Assets/NSSE2014report.pdf

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