4 Laboratory courses and tutorials

By the end of this chapter, you will know how to prepare as a TA for a laboratory session, including your roles and responsibilities as a lab TA.

Sections in this chapter

Laboratory TA roles and responsibilities

As a laboratory TA, your specific roles and responsibilities begin on the first day of classes and end when final grades have been submitted.

Your primary role is to help students gain a strong foundation of knowledge through application of concepts in laboratory and written work. Additionally, it is important to stimulate student thinking and reflection, engage a constructive relation with students, and provide meaningful oral and written feedback to guide, challenge, and motivate students.

In addition to supporting student learning, TAs are responsible for modelling ethical behaviour, preserving academic integrity, protecting student privacy, and maintaining a safe environment.

If you are a TA for an online laboratory course, most of your time will most likely be spent conducting synchronous online sessions via video conferencing software (e.g., Zoom, Teams) and asynchronous discussion forums.

Here are some examples of what an online laboratory TA position could involve:

  • More time invested on pre-lab meetings between the TAs and course coordinator
  • Conduct online discussions between TAs and students to try to recreate the dynamics of real-time labs, stimulate student curiosity, talk about current applications of techniques, and possible connect some material with the TA’s research
  • Conduct online office hours with assigned small groups of students to introduce/explain the lab material and activities, as well as laboratory related answer questions
  • Work remotely as tutors in a Help Center
  • Correct/mark online practical work associated with the course such as laboratory reports, assignments, quizzes, exams (likely submitted online through Brightspace or Mobius)
  • Create or help with construction of laboratory videos (e.g., good lab practice vs. bad lab practice examples) so that students can identify the errors in techniques, identify how techniques are properly conducted, and obtain and analyze quantitative data for writing up a laboratory report
  • Communicate with students via email (e.g., answer students questions, provide oral and written feedback after corrections are made)
  • Master skills to use the course tools
    • Zoom/Teams: video conferencing and document sharing
    • Brightspace: adding notes in the notebook, transposing questions in Word format to Brightspace homework activities, correct work submitted online
    • Transpose questions in Word format to activities (e.g., in Echo360)

Each TA position may have different responsibilities depending on the course. Your contract will provide you with a breakdown of an approximate number of hours required for each responsibility. Your initial meetings with the lab coordinator will provide you with more specifics about your exact role.

For example:

Description Work Hours Comments
Marking/Grading 34 Marking mid-terms, examinations, laboratory reports, entering grades onto computer
Contact with students 12.50 Virtual office hours
Contact with Students 12.50 Reading and responding to students’ emails
Training 6 Attending employee training sessions

Other specific responsibilities may include:

  • Respond promptly to emails from the professor as well as students (within at least 24 hours of receiving student emails).
  • Maintain open communication with the professor (e.g., discuss any clarifications to the marking scheme).
  • Be approachable, responsible, helpful, and familiar with content and techniques in the laboratory.
  • Arrive at least 15 minutes prior to the start of in-person lab or online lab session.
  • Proctor practical exams and final exams.
  • Report any suspected issues of academic integrity.
  • Manage course grades.
  • Ensure safety standards are followed.

To clarify your roles and responsibilities, contact your supervisor for more information. The communication chapter has specific recommendations.

Some students may need more extra help than you can provide. In these cases, you can suggest that they visit uOttawa’s Student Academic Support Services.

What is a laboratory tutorial?

Typically laboratory tutorials supplement laboratory courses. They provide opportunities for students to ask questions, discuss concepts in experiments and receive additional assistance. Considering that many laboratory course will be online, a laboratory tutorial TA could have more of a responsibility introducing and explaining the laboratory material and activities. The sections provided below will help you prepare for a laboratory online tutorial TA position.

How to prepare for laboratory online tutorials

Planning phase

  • Identify the essential learning outcomes or topics
  • Decide how you will share content with students (e.g., whiteboard feature, share screen, powerpoint, website, breakout rooms, etc) and identify the tools necessary to do so (e.g., Zoom, Teams, Miro, Google Docs, Brightspace)
  • Become knowledgable with the content of the experiment
    • Watch the experiment
    • Read the lab manual/textbook
    • Refer to class notes and materials
    • Prepare slides for students
      • Provide students with slides in advance if possible
  • Prepare practice questions with feedback and group activities (e.g., poll questions)
  • Identify conversation starters for different situations
    • Adding to someone else’s point (e.g., To build on what [name] just said…)
    • Shifting the conversation (e.g., Many good ideas we discussed for [topic 1], let’s go over to [topic 2], and if anyone has anything else to add about [topic 1] we can go over it at the end of the session)
    • Proposing a brand new idea (e.g., We could try…)
    • Making a mistake (e.g., My apologies, I meant to say…)
    • Disagreeing (e.g., We could also consider… Could you tell me more about…)
    • Bringing someone into the conversation (e.g., [name], do you have anything you would like to add on this subject?)
    • Someone is being interruptive/talking too much (e.g., Thank you for your input on this subject, would anyone else have any other options on this topic?)
  • Practice! Especially as you get started, practice using the exact formats and tools you want to use in during the tutorial itself. You can watch training videos at uOttawa’s Teaching and Learning Support Service or the software’s own videos. You can practice by doing a videoconference with yourself or another TA.

20 minutes before the session

  • Set up and log in to websites
  • Open any slides/resources
  • Turn off any notifications

You can also refer to other ideas presented in the Discussion Groups (DGDs) | tutorials chapter

How to conduct laboratory online tutorials

You might consider starting with:

  • Introductions/check-ins with students. See chapter on Building a community
  • Establish etiquette for working in the online space. You can use or adapt the one below (adaptable file here; PDF here).

Online conversations

In the main part of the tutorial, you can:

  • Give a brief explanation on how the experiment relates to fundamental concepts of the course, and/or current issues in the discipline (2 – 5 minutes)
  • State the intended learning outcomes of the experiment
  • Inform students on the safety precautions if experiment was done hands-on
  • Teach students how to use online technology/software used in the laboratory course
    • Encourage students to explore, then show a few key options
  • Clarify any ambiguities and questions from the online experiment
  • If possible, provide a short demonstration or explanation of new techniques or theoretical aspects in the experiment using online software/simulations
  • Go through worked examples to allow students to think outside the box and/or gain a better understanding of concepts
  • Use Miro, Zoom/Teams whiteboard or share screen features to draw out important structures, mechanisms, procedures that would be useful for the students to visualize (using digital writing)
  • Provide general feedback and things to include when writing up the laboratory reports
  • Ask questions to help student master the steps of scientific inquiry
  • Allow time for students to ask questions
    • Refrain from giving outright answers on conceptual parts of the work
  • Be honest, professional, and considerate — you don’t need to know everything
    • If you don’t know the answer to a student’s question, consider finding the answer after the tutorial and emailing the answer or posting it on the discussion forum — telling students during the session where to look for it.

Preparing for an in-person laboratory session

Several upper-year laboratory courses will remain in-person for the upcoming Fall 2020 semester. The TA roles for these labs will largely resemble those in previous years with the distinction of using online communication (e.g., email) whenever possible and social distancing during the lab session.

Although most labs are designed for independent work, a short lesson at the beginning of the session is useful. You can outline the purposes and procedures of the experiment and explain the lab organization, management issues, timing, safety precautions, and relevance to the course.

The following questions will provide you with some insight on how to prepare yourself for a lab session.

What are the materials and equipment needed to conduct the experiment? Find out from the lab coordinator, lab tech, or supervising faculty member if there is anything you need to acquire on your own (e.g., capillary tubes and how to make them).
How much time will the experiment take? This estimate is important for understanding how to guide the students through each part of the experiment to ensure they are staying on track. Estimating the time also helps the students know how to manage their own time.
What are some potential obstacles or student questions? In the lab manual, highlight concepts, steps of the procedure, or techniques in the experiment that might cause confusion for students. Take the first couple minutes of the lab session to address and clarify important questions that could arise during the experiment. Alternatively, if time is short, email students in advance to address potential questions or obstacles and briefly outline them at the start of the laboratory session.
What are the safety hazards and procedures? As a TA, you are responsible for knowing the safety procedures relevant to the lab. Don’t be afraid to ask!
How can you encourage and enforce student clean-up duties throughout the lab session? You need to understand the waste procedures and disposal locations in order to instruct your students to follow the appropriate guidelines when cleaning up their workspace. Reach out to the lab tech or lab coordinator if you are unsure.

To go deeper

Up next

The next chapter addresses building a community.

Please feel free to contact us at any time with questions, suggestions, and concerns. In particular, we check this form weekly and will continue to update this guide as the situation evolves.



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Remote teaching: a guide for teaching assistants Copyright © by Meredith Allen; Alisha Szozda; Jeremy Kerr; and Alison Flynn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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