How to Be Successful in Your College Lab Class

One of the most frequent questions I get from my friends here at school is how I manage to be one of the first people out of all of my lab classes, yet manage to pull a good grade from the course.  I thought maybe I’d divulge some of my secrets here so future science majors may make a use of them.  After all, lets face it; Lab classes suck and no one wants to put more time and effort into them than they absolutely have to to get that one credit.  So, here are some of little secrets that keep me yielding good lab results even though I’m one of the first people to leave.

  • Clean your glassware!
Believe it or not, this is one of the most important things you need to keep in mind before preforming an experiment.  Chances are, whoever had your lab equipment before you didn’t bother to clean it before you checked into your drawer. I don’t care if you clean everything in your drawer the first day or clean everything your going to use before an experiment, but make sure that before you run your first experiment you wash whatever you are going to be using.  One of the biggest roadblocks people run into is random, off the wall results that leave you redoing the experiment from scratch.  One potential culprit is the left over chemical residue lining your beaker or test tube from the former occupant. Just do yourself a favor and wash your equipment. 
  • Read each sentence one at a time!

This sounds totally dumb, but reading each sentence and following the directions one at a time leaves much less room for error.  Often times, teachers write the lab manuals so that there may be 5 bulleted points, but there are several small steps in each point.  Leaving out one sentence can and will cost you an experiment.  So, if my step reads:

“Place 200 ml of H2O into a 500 ml beaker.  Add 3 drops of H2SO4 to H2O.  Stir.  Measure out 50ml of soln and place in a 100ml beaker”  

I literally measure out the H2O first.  Then I reread the next step.  Add 3 drops of H2SO4.  Stir.  Then I reread and make sure I am measuring out the right solution and putting it into the right sized beaker.  It seems counter productive if you want to get out of lab quicker, but in reality it eliminates little mistakes that a lot of other people make.  There’s nothing worse than realizing your forgot to add something and having to start again.

  • Don’t get caught up in lines for machines or chemicals.  Find other ways to accelerate your work.

Depending on the size of your lab, you may end up with long lines or masses of people milling around balance’s, the fume hood, or anything else that is in high demand and low supply.  My first plan is to beat out the rest of the people and get to the much needed things first.  However, if that doesn’t work, don’t get caught up waiting in the back of the line.  Look through the lab and see what else you can start working on.  Need to build an apparatus?  Start it.  Need the weight of a piece of equipment somewhere else in the lab?  Go get it.  Even just pulling out the things you need for your lab will help you move faster later.  Then, as soon as the line gets a little shorter, jump in, get your stuff, and get out.

  • Multiple Parts to the Lab?  Pick the Middle to Start!

Some annoying labs have three or four fully independent parts to the entire experiment.  It’s a lab teachers way of pushing together all the stuff that they don’t have enough weeks for you to do separately, and when you see one of these wonderful labs on the syllabus, you know almost certainly that you are going to be there for the entire two hours and forty minutes you are scheduled.  Not necessarily.  Start with the middle lab.  Most people will stupidly start at the beginning or at the end one.  Start in the middle, or pick the one that looks longest and most involved, if the other students seem to be evenly distributed throughout the sections.  

  • Need help?  Grab the TA pronto.

Don’t guess in lab.  Grab the TA, ask your question, and get cleared up.  Guessing leads to mistakes.  If you are shy, either bite the bullet or accept that you may be one of the last people to leave.

Other than that, try to work quickly and effectively, but carefully.   One misread step can send you back to the beginning like some bad game of Sorry.  And don’t feel bad if you hate lab; you’re not alone.  Most people don’t like having to put the amount of hours required to do well into a one credit class, but hopefully some of these tips will help you speed up your lab times and get out faster!