Teaching lab practicals in COVID conditions: 6 tips from my first classes

This week I taught four full days of practical classes to a class of 33 MRes Clinical Sciences students working within the COVID-secure model at the University of Liverpool. We were the first group to test the systems that have been put in place and I thought it could be valuable to share some of our experiences and associated tips for making the most of working through these challenging times. 

Tip 1: Recruit extra demonstrators

Three simple reasons for this: 

First, you may lose some demonstrators to last minute COVID positive tests. Two of mine became unavailable on Saturday night. Scrambling on Sunday to find cover for the Monday was not fun!

Second, as the students are spread out and working on their own, they can’t (shouldn’t) rely on their colleagues to help them understand anything they are unsure of. You need a few extra people to be on hand to provide help where needed.

Third, it’s a challenge marshalling the people in relation to social distancing; you need help to keep them on track (see tip 2). 

Many thanks to Stephanie and Joni for stepping in at the last minute and to Jess, Hala, Veronica, Debbie, and April for all their work!

Comment: This year it was much harder to recruit volunteers than ever before. Why would you choose to expose yourself to potentially infectious people if you don’t have to. Certainly something to consider when working out if practical sessions will possible or not.

Designated stations – students used the same seat every day

Tip 2: Don’t expect your students to be COVID aware

Or, more accurately, be prepared to repeat yourself again and again and again about COVID rules.

If you have ever taught a practical class, I am sure you have experienced the joy of having to repeatedly tell students that they need gloves, safety specs, lab coats, to put mobiles away, to wash hands, to tidy up etc etc etc. Well this year, you are going to be adding to that with maintaining social distancing, wipe down your equipment, don’t bunch together, keep your masks on. 

It is frustrating. You feel like you are constantly moaning. But remember that the students are new to this specific environment and rule set.

They have been receiving hundreds of slightly modified rules everywhere they go. So, even though the rules are ostensibly obvious, common sense, and clearly explained, and although most students will try to follow the rules, you will still need to repeat yourself. Sucks, but that’s how it is. 

EDIT – thanks to feedback: a tip could be to have the COVID rules printed/laminated on the end of benches. We do already have loads of signage but perhaps this could help?

Clear signage everywhere!

Tip 3: Visit the lab to see the mitigation strategies before your class

The night before my first class I was running through my mind all the potential mitigations we would need to put in place and how they would work. I didn’t sleep as well as normal. However, once I arrived it was clear that the technical team had already planned for everything. It was thoroughly impressive.

Not just a handful of signs here and there but every piece of kit organised so that students didn’t need to move around, cleaning stations in place on each bench and loads of other little adjustments that made my life so much easier and made following the rules simple. Once I saw how the lab was working it was a lot easier to make some slight modifications to my protocols 

The net effect? I shouldn’t have been as worried. A sleepless night for nothing. My advice therefore is to go over in person to see what will be going on.

Huge shoutout to Lynn, Hazel and the team for getting everything in place. They’ve done an amazing job.

Tip 4: Plan for things taking longer than usual

I went into this week wondering if working on their own would make the students work more efficiently. Fewer distractions = faster, right? For some that probably was the case; however, the overarching concern of new students is that they will do something wrong. When they don’t have a partner to talk things through and convince themselves that they are doing it correctly then that leads to slower work rather until someone checks in (hence more demonstrators required). Be realistic and adjust timings to suit.

Tip 5: Reduce the amount of in-lab teaching you attempt (and schedule extra sessions to make up)

I’m very sad about this one. Usually my labs involve a bit of experiment set up and then during an incubation period I teach. Those little ~20 min chats are great. They fit the short attention span required, and are a chance to contextualise the procedure, to layer on the added details or to talk about the real-world application of what we are doing. 

This week, I tried to do everything as normal at first, but then quickly realised that these little chats were a lot less effective than usual. Partly the students found it harder to engage (their words) when they couldn’t see me as they were spread across two labs, or hear me effectively due to the mask/microphone/muffling combination. Partly, it was harder for me to hear answers to any questions I asked. Without the instant feedback from the class with regards to their level of understanding the whole process felt stilted and ineffective. 

The result: I did much shorter sessions to each lab, talking about the core stuff, but decided to move the deeper more discussion-focused material to later sessions. This makes me a bit sad; yes, I taught to the module specifications, but we missed something. The material that comes up in discussion is where we push a practical class from a “follow the protocol” to a “understand the science” and onto “design your own experiments”. These less formal chats really help the progression of the students and the feedback I usually get from the course reflects that.

I have sessions scheduled next week and extended our post-practical discussion session today, to try to recapitulate the parts I dropped. However, if I were to design the module again, I would slot in a few extra sessions so they were in the timetable already.

Tip 6 [Added following feedback] Provide pics of the lab set up to the students before they arrive

Today I had a online teaching session with the students and discussed what they would need. Most of them had zero anxiety about coming to the lab. However, some did. For them, in particular, they said that having images of the lab set up and descriptions of how it would work in practice would have eased their anxiety. Just as it did mine.

3750 calories… who knew teaching was an effective workout?

Note that I did share the risk assessments with the students before they came. The difference between a text-only document and images of what is going on is much easier (and more likely) to be absorbed.

It’s not all doom and gloom

Despite the challenges, it is worth the effort. Definitely. The difference between learning about something and doing something yourself is huge in terms of retention and understanding. Yes, it’s hard work, but the learning environment is still effective even with the limitations.

While you are here… Useful resources

Here are a series of MCQs on lab skills, RT-PCR, western blotting, microscopy, flow cytometry etc with explanations of the answers to reinforce teaching.

Some videos on techniques, experimental design and worked examples of common lab calculations.

Here are some guides to writing different aspects of manuscript-style reports.

Or you might like my book covering many aspects of life in the lab from experimental design, stats, figure preparation, writing, and presenting your work. The guidebook I want all new students to read!

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