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Creating and grading effective lab reports for STEM labs

In our final meeting for Spring 2020 on June 2, we discussed how to create and grade effective lab reports for online labs. The following ideas were shared.

  • Many different formats can work for online lab reports: a word document emailed or submitted on blackboard, a screenshot of a completed online simulation, etc.
  • Lab reports should help students practice specific learning outcomes
  • The outcomes students should master ought to be explicit, so that students can easily see why they are assigned to complete specific activities.
  • The instructions and expectations for lab reports should be clear to students.
  • Rubrics, which can be created and re-used in Blackboard, can be an excellent tool both for communicating expectations and for providing clear guidelines for grading. They also make grading more efficient (i.e., faster). A short demonstration ensued on how to create a rubric in blackboard, and how to use it for grading.
  • The demo for Blackboard rubrics led to participants sharing other Blackboard tips for the remainder of the meeting
    • Effective use of discussion boards
    • Creating exams and online exam protocols
    • Creating question pools
    • Using grade center effectively

Effective online activities for STEM labs

In our second meeting for Spring 2020 on May 12, faculty shared online activities they had used and found effective for lab. The list discussed appears below, and these (and others) were added to an online repository accessible to all STEM colleagues (for the moment, only KCC BIO Dept faculty have participated). This is the link, and all materials posted are freely available for anyone to use:


  1. A website on life cycles/meiosis/sporophytes. You can click on an item in the figure on a life cycle and see if you are correct.  It scores the user.  She also showed an app and demonstrated how it can be used interactively with plant phylogeny and plant evolution.
  2.  virtualbiologylab.org. You can create a series of islands that you can manipulate with reptiles, mammals, etc.  You can find equilibrium and can change/manipulate parameters and generate a bar graph to see changes.
  3.  iNaturalist.org/login. This is like having a dichotomous key.  You can use it to see world distribution of organisms, biodiversity and searches.
  4. Apps such as LeafSnap where you can take a photo of a leaf and the app identifies the plant/tree it is from.
  5. A website for microbiology students to measure zones of inhibition. It is: learn.chm.msu.edu/vibl/content/antimicrobial.html
  6. Many general biology virtual labs (see Dropbox repository).
  7. ELISA virtual lab
  8. Virtual Immunology Lab from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute

The group also discussed the following challenges in online classes:

  • Do students show their face during interactive sessions? Most responded, “No”. Discussion took place regarding why this is, and on options.
    • The book, Small Teaching Online, by Flowers has lots of tips for connecting with students. This book is the subject of another KCTL faculty interest group for Spring 2020.
  • Cheating, and how to prevent it online, was discussed by the group, e.g. timed exams, question pools that give each student a random selection of similar questions, randomized questions and randomized answer choices, limited time period for exam availability.

Teaching STEM labs online

In the first meeting of the Spring 2020 STEM faculty interest group, we had moved to emergency online teaching after the COVID crisis began. After 6 weeks of online teaching, we met on April 28 and discussed the following key questions. Here are some of the thoughts shared by the participants:

What are the goals for a STEM lab in general (online or otherwise)?

We want students to be able to

  • formulate hypotheses
  • gather data
  • draw conclusions
  • analyze data
  • think like a scientist

What has worked well in your online labs over the past month? What activities accomplish the goals of a lab experience?

What problems or challenges are you experiencing in delivering effective lab experiences?​

  • Students do not have access to a lab manual (a good reason to shift to online OERs or create your own)
  • Students cannot show up to synchronous sessions (for a variety of reasons)
  • Students have trouble understanding directions and cannot easily ask questions if asynchronous
  • Finding or creating quality resources is time-consuming

Next session:

  • Come prepared to share an online lab activity that has worked well in your class
  • We’ll discuss creating a repository for sharing resources more broadly