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Best Practices: Getting Started in an Online Laboratory Course

by Stephanie Songer, PhD, Distance Learning Specialist on April 28, 2015
Best Practices: Getting Started in an Online Laboratory Course

Self-Assessment of Student Readiness

Although today’s students are increasingly familiar with online learning, there are still many for whom an online lab course may be a novel experience.  Thus, it is beneficial to ask students to self-assess before beginning any online course in order to determine their readiness for a learning environment that requires a high degree of self-regulation.  If your institution does not already offer such a self-assessment, MERLOT has a collection of bookmarked assessments of student readiness for online learning.  Ideally, the self-assessment will occur before a student enrolls for an online course, but it may also be offered prior to the end of the drop/add period so that students may make an informed decision about whether or not they should continue.

Laboratory Materials

Assuming that you wish your students to conduct at least some hands-on experiments, as opposed to virtual labs or simulations, an important part of your course planning will involve deciding how students will obtain necessary supplies and equipment.  There are three approaches:  distributing a “shopping list” for individual items that students must obtain on their own, building a kit yourself, or having students purchase a commercially-prepared kit.  The shopping list approach can save your time, but increases the burden on students, who will need to invest the time and effort to gather materials from diverse locations, and may end up with large amounts of leftover materials.  Assembling your own kit may reduce the expense incurred by students, and reduce the amount of unused materials, but can be very time-consuming for you.  Having students purchase a commercially-prepared kit is convenient for both students and instructors, although financial cost is a consideration.

It is best if information about the laboratory supplies and equipment can be made available to students prior to the start of the course so they may budget accordingly.  For example, your course registration system may permit a note to be added indicating that students will be required to purchase their own lab materials.  Or you may e-mail a welcome letter to students enrolled in the course well in advance of the start of the term, including purchasing information for the kit.     

If you have selected a commercially-prepared kit, you may wish to inform students of their purchasing options.  Will they buy the kit or a redeemable voucher from the campus bookstore, or will they purchase the kit directly from the vendor?  When should they place their orders, and when must they have their kits in hand?  Be sure to allow enough time for kits to arrive before any laboratory assessments are due. 

It is useful to require documentation of kit ordering and arrival as part of the initial course assignments.  Students can submit proof of purchase (with any sensitive information, such as credit card numbers, removed), and proof of receipt of the kit, such as a photo of the student posing with the unpacked kit.  Students should also be advised to go over a list of all the materials that should be in their kits immediately upon receipt, so that any missing or damaged items may be replaced.


One of the greatest concerns in having students conduct laboratory work at home is safety.  If you choose the shopping list approach, or build kits yourself, don’t forget to include appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment) in addition to detailed safety instructions.  PPE and thorough safety information should be included with any quality commercially-prepared kit. Some companies have liability coverage for their kits.  In any case, it is a good idea to require students to review all provided safety information and turn in a signed statement that they understand and agree to abide by all safety instructions well before they start to run experiments.


Even the most motivated student can occasionally be caught off-guard by an experiment that takes a long time to complete.  Thus, students should be informed at the outset of each course module of how long it will take to run their experiment(s) so they will know when to begin the work.  Encouraging students to schedule their time appropriately will eliminate many last-minute requests for extended deadlines, and reduce a great deal of stress for both you and your students.


One of the potential pitfalls of an online laboratory course is a lack of immediate help from the instructor when a step in an experimental procedure is unclear or something appears to have gone wrong.  Thus, it is crucial to have good communication in the course.  You should check in at least every 24 hours to respond to posts or e-mails, but students should also be encouraged to communicate with one another about their experiments via chat rooms or discussion boards.

Partner with us to build an exceptional distance learning experience for your students.

We’re here to provide guidance every step of the way throughout the process of selecting investigations and building kits. Contact a Distance Learning Specialist today to discuss your own specific needs.