It is often the practical component of a degree that is the most interesting! However, they can be very challenging, as they often occur in the same week where there are lots of lectures to attend! Fear not for this guide aims to help you balance both commitments!…
Prepare for your practicals
Whether you are a GCSE student to a well-established professional in academia, preparing for your labs will give you a massive head start when starting your lab class. Quite often, you will be given a “pre-lab” document which shows what experiment you will be doing. Be sure to give it a good read as it will make you more aware of what your experiment will be. If no document has been provided, be sure to ask a teacher or a professor for any upcoming labs. Speaking from personal experience, in my first year of university, I would often turn up to laboratory classes just on time and would constantly ask the demonstrator what I was doing every 5 minutes. I didn’t know what I was investigating in my practical half the time and would always finish last. Nowadays, I make sure to plan for my lab, including any hazards/risks I need to consider and what theories will be applied to the practical, so I can best explain what is occurring in my procedure. Since I prepare quite a bit, I can finish much earlier and relax after a long day. (For context, I would often finish at 4:30 pm during my first year but now I finish at 2 pm!)
Make effective notes whilst in the lab
You may recall my blog post about effective note-taking during lectures but the same can apply to your labs as well! Be sure to put the date and make a title in your lab books as well. When I am in the lab, I take down any observations of my experiment as they are useful when writing a lab report. You should aim to take clear notes to the extent that anyone with a reasonable knowledge of your subject will be able to repeat your exact procedure and would have obtained very similar results. Again, in my first year, I didn’t write anything, and I even forgot to write down some crucial data in my lab book! It was a very stressful experience, as asking for someone else’s data reduced my marks significantly, even when I fully referenced them. Currently, I write what I am doing as I go along, including a literature reference for my procedure and ensure to thoroughly explain what data this is from (I.e. Is it from performing reaction x and what technique did you use to analyse it?). By taking notes in the lab, my write-ups can be done very quickly, and I can spend more time on revising for exams. When finding literature references, the library’s Warwick proxy helps me access articles really easily. All I need to do is go to the website, open my bookmarks tab and drag the black box to my bookmarks (if you are using chrome). Then when I load an article that requires payment, I simply click on the link and I can access it for free! It is one of my favourite widgets the library offers, and I use it very frequently! Just be aware this can only be used if you are a Warwick student, as you will need to sign into your library account.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions!
The demonstrators are there not to scrutinise you but to help you get the data you need, to stay safe and to answer any questions. They are often friendly and happy to help! You may know the phrase “if you ask a question it makes you look stupid for 5 minutes – but if you don’t ask – you stay stupid for fifty years, so always ask questions in your life”. I can tell you now that there is nothing truer than this phrase, especially at university. Throughout my first year, the first thing I noticed was that everyone was at different levels academically due to coming from different backgrounds. Those who scored 80%+ often asked questions, even stupid ones. It made me conclude that it is better to ask a dumb question but know what I am doing rather than be too scared to ask a question and cause my experiment to go wrong or worse. This not only applies to university but to life as well!
So, in summary, abide by these three tips when you have an upcoming practical: Do some research into your lab, take as many notes as possible when carrying out your procedure and ask as many questions you want to the demonstrators! Do these three things and you will experience nothing but smooth sailing even through the most treacherous waters! Take control of the helm and enjoy the ride!