Re-evaluation of the MMG 302 lab manual

After several semesters of being a TA for MMG 302 I decided it was time to assist Dr. Marsh in the re-evaluation of the course materials that he provides to the students.  He agreed that it was well-past due and thus we embarked on a semester-long journey.  

As the weeks went on I would take notes on the sections of the lab manual which confused students due to it being poorly worded or simply inaccurate within the current iteration of the course.  My purpose was to smooth out these sections so the students wouldn’t have to worry about whether following the manual’s instructions would lead them astray.  While small changes always manage to creep into lab courses (merely due to science not always being “an exact science”), it should not be the norm.  

Well used...
         My well-used 302 manual

In addition to the small changes such as mis-numbering, odd phrasing, and the occasional change in experimental parameters, there were several aspects which I was more than adamant about changing:

  • One main point was that I hoped to change the organization of the experiments within the lab manual to be more congruous with the activities performed in lab.  At the start of most class periods we would have to tell students to begin their day with the 2nd or 3rd experiment presented within the lab manual.  For most students this was a non-issue, but I know that some students enter the lab with a specific ‘game plan’ and the disruption caused by changing things up like this threw them off.  So, while not an essential change – I thought it was a valuable one. 
  • The inclusion of several conclusion questions to expand upon new experiments that were added to the manual was another main focus.  Several new experiments had been added to the course in previous years but questions and conclusions about them had not.  As such, students would receive ‘free’ points for doing the required tasks, but were not forced (read encouraged) to interpret the data.  In my mind this was a complete waste of both class time and resources.  So, I suggested a few conclusion questions and Dr. Marsh agreed that they were worthy of inclusion in the manual.  Now students will need to demonstrate an understanding of biofilm formation and the growth of mixed cultures on selective media – take that free points!  
  • The main lesson that I learned from all of this, however, is to never get too attached to your materials.  Things that are out-dated or dysfunctional should not be kept around.  They don’t work for a reason – and unless you figure out what that reason is and fix it, they are doing a disservice to your student.  There were large sections of the manual which students had not touched (or read) for years and therefore there is no reason to make students pay for and cart them around.  I encouraged Dr. Marsh to remove the sections and he agreed that most were unimportant (in terms of the course, of course) at this point in time.  He suggested leaving several in as valuable microbiological techniques which I was unable to argue against.  Regardless, I believe the manual next year will be much slimmer and valuable for the students.  
We shall see how these changes affect the students during the summer semester of 2013 as Dr. Marsh will roll out the new iteration of the manual then.  It is unlikely that it will be perfect, as things seldom are, but I hope that it will lead to a smoother run-through of the course.
Closing question:  Does anyone have something atypical that they like to put into their laboratory materials to help their students with comprehension?

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