Short Guide 8: Reimagining Practicals

Reimagining Practicals

Short Guide #8, August 2020

1. Lab based learning

There are a multitude of disciplines that use lab-based learning to develop core skills and understanding in their students. The range of activities involved is diverse, including hands-on manipulation of equipment or materials, as well as computational and other activities. The continued uncertainty regarding social distancing guidelines gives rise to challenges in planning for the coming September. There is no set prescription on this, it is up to each school and department to make the decision on what works best in their context. Equally it is important that these decisions are communicated to staff and shared with accrediting bodies. This short guide provides an overview of different approaches being considered as well as sharing practices from colleagues.

2. Scenario planning

The benefits of live engagement in practice-based learning are countless. They can ensure the acquisition of particular technical skills, can enhance student learning and engagement, and provide moments for feedback on student understanding. In some cases, departments and schools are planning for more regular scheduling of labs with fewer students and increased cleaning protocols.

Ideally time spent face-to-face should be minimised so consider what activities can be moved online. This could include preparatory videos that frame the lab session, or organising online post lab discussions and working out of calculations. The inclusion of a quiz pre-lab can also motivate students to engage with pre-recorded content.

Certain equipment may make social distancing difficult such as microscopes, fume cupboards, centrifuges, spectrometers, balances etc. In some cases, the risks here could be mitigated by utilizing image databases or simulations (see Table on curated resources) or by taking your own pictures/videos to be shared with students.

Activities that readily can be moved online:

  • Pre-lab and/or post-lab assignment
  • Come up with questions to investigate
  • Interpret data / create models / reflect on results
  • Write a lab report
  • Create a class presentation
  • Give each other feedback on any of the above

Where face-to-face engagement is not possible, or indeed where topics are generic in nature and would benefit from becoming standard content, staff may choose to record the practical, point students towards existing available videos, or purchase off-the-shelf lab simulation systems. Generic content may include videos on hazard training, aseptic techniques, administering CPR etc.

One benefit of pre-recording and posting videos on Canvas is that students can review the video repeatedly. Also, if recorded in Panopto, the video is auto captioned and can be easily searched by the students. There is a technology requirement to enable staff to record their own videos, as well as practice in editing videos and breaking them into smaller chunks.

The advice for staff is that each video is no longer than 5-7-minutes and relates to one idea or theme. This makes it easier to hold students’ attention and is kinder on the video recorder who will have less to do if a reshoot is needed. It’s important to frame the video with a question to encourage active engagement. The discussion forum feature on Canvas could be very useful to enable communication and sharing of ideas in relation to the particular lab session. Other approaches include engaging students with open source datasets via Canvas Groups to develop core research skills such as the interpretation and analysis of data.

Activities which are more difficult to move online (See Strubbe and McKagan, 2020, for suggestions)

  • Observe a phenomenon
  • Design an experiment including troubleshooting
  • Collect data i.e. make measurements
  • Analyze and visualize data
  • Develop technical and practical laboratory skills

A third option is to combine pre-recorded video and ‘live’ online sessions. This combined approach is recommended for teaching and learning in general during this time of remote teaching. MS Teams is the preferred and supported platform for live interactions with students, and it integrates seamlessly with Canvas.  You could use MS Teams to facilitate students going through worked examples related to the recorded practical activity or simulation.

MS Teams has an integrated digital whiteboard which can enable rough calculations while presenting live. Alternatively, you could use a document camera, a webcam or even your phone to point at a sheet of paper and work out the formula, map out the process or circuit etc.


The move to remote teaching may support innovations in how you assess student understanding in lab based modules. First, look at the learning outcomes for your module or programme that relate to the practicals. How might students achieve these using an alternative assessment? You could ask students to identify the cause of error in a failed experiment. Students might engage with open data sets to interpret data and draw conclusions.  You could ask students to develop a lab protocol based on an observed video.

Lab based modules often involve significant group work so explore the use of groups on Canvas and encourage social and peer learning (see Short Guide #7: Group Work). If students are unable to interact with the materials, then instead perhaps they can interact more with each other.  

3. Use of simulations in teaching


Further resources

Jones, N. (2018) Simulated labs are booming. Nature, 562, 7725, S5-S7. Available from

IUA (2020) The EDTL Approach for lab based modules. Available from

Strubbe, L. and McKagan, S. (2020) I suddenly have to move my lab course online! What should I do? PhysPort.

Curated resources for creating low cost virtual labs

HHMI BioInteractive Virtual Labs Free fully interactive simulations in life science in which students perform experiments, collect data, and answer questions to assess their understanding.
Merlot Curated online learning and support materials and content creation tools (free or low cost; all disciplines).
PhET Interactive Simulations project at the University of Colorado Boulder creates free interactive math and science simulations.
Learn Genetics Genetic science learning center.
Science Bank Online Dissection resources Mix of free and paid animal dissection simulations.
NMSU Virtual Labs Virtual Labs to help students learn basic laboratory techniques and practice methods used by lab technicians and researchers in a variety of careers, using specific food science lab processes.
Atlas of Human Histology Virtual Histology laboratory.
BioDigital BioDigital Human, is a searchable, customizable map of the human body. Registration is required and basic version includes over 100 anatomy and health condition models in 3D.
ChemCollective Virtual Lab is an online simulation of a chemistry lab. It is designed to help students link chemical computations with authentic laboratory chemistry. The lab allows students to select from hundreds of standard reagents (aqueous) and manipulate them in a manner resembling a real lab.
Nobel Prize Educational Games Educational games and animated interactives, based on Nobel Prize-awarded achievements.
FoldIt Protein Folding Activity Foldit is a computer game enabling you to contribute to important scientific research.
Build your own brain Online simple neural network simulator for intro behavioural neuroscience.
SWIMMY Free Software for Teaching Neurophysiology of Neuronal Circuits.
Google VR Expeditions Google sheet of available VR field trips arranged into themes.
NOVA Interactives Interactive modules and videos for many subjects.
General Higher Education Virtual and Remote Lab Resources List of available resources on virtual and remote labs.
Open Educational resources Simulations and virtual labs.
Online Resources for Science Laboratories A shared Google doc with around 200 links and resources for online Science labs.

Training and Support

Getting Started webpage

This webpage introduces both academic and professional staff to the first steps in preparing to teach (and support teaching) remotely in September. Guidance is provided on how to teach remotely, the importance of Canvas, what tools to use and when, and signposting you to the relevant training and resources available in this regard.

Teach Digi Summer Training

Learn from academic and instructional designer Dr. Sarah Thelen as she delivers weekly asynchronous recordings structured around Think, Plan, and Teach and supported by Live Q&As. A great entry point for those who have their curriculum and learning activities already prepared.

Canvas training

Do you want to learn how to use UCC's virtual learning environment more effectively? Look no further. Sophie Gahan of the CDE is delivering weekly Canvas training over the summer.

CIRTL Learning Design workshops

Are you thinking about how you will teach in September, January, and beyond? The Learning Design workshop guides you through some collaborative structured exercises to provide a robust framework for curriculum and learning design. Patrick Kiely of CIRTL will host these workshops throughout the summer.

AVMS Guide to online video and collaboration

Panopto is not just about lecture capture you know? MS Teams is not just for meetings. Get oriented to the full capability of the UCC's video tools. A great starting point before pressing the record button!

ITS Teaching and Working remotely (tools)

Microsoft Office 365, Google Suite for Education, and everything else. A great resource for those who want to review and learn about all of the tools we have available in UCC. 

UCC Skills Centre

Supporting students through the closure and now a comprehensive resource for September and beyond. See where you can direct your students to help them reach their potential.

University College Cork

Coláiste na hOllscoile Corcaigh

College Road, Cork T12 K8AF