Pre-lab activity: A module in experimental design


We want students to be able to apply the research cycle* (see below). Students learn this while doing a laboratory class. In this laboratory class students have to design their own experiment from scratch and execute their designed experiment. To teach students these high cognitive skills, we currently offer two activities in the advanced 'FCH-30806 food chemistry course':

  1. First, students work on a digital case in which all steps of the research cycle* are performed (except for the actual experiment) related to a soy drink. Students learn to make hypotheses, to design experiments, to analyse the data and draw conclusions. The students should get insight that researchers make choices in their experiments and students should be able to recognize the choices made. 
  2. Secondly, students apply knowledge from the digital case in a pre-lab assignment with their lab group to set up their own lab experiment. 

We have noticed that there is limited knowledge transfer from the digital case to the pre-lab assignment. This is seen in: high workload/stress for the students in the pre-lab assignments; limited application of the skills practiced in the digital cas; limited application of the skills practiced in the pre-lab assignment in the laboratory class. In an idealized learning situation, the learner should experience, make observations and reflect, think about the subject to formulate abstract concepts of the situation and act to test the formulated concepts (Kolb, 2005). This does not match with the current activities. In the current situation only the experience is obtained in the digital case where in the pre-lab assignment the concepts are directly tested in a new situation. It is assumed that this lack of evaluation and clear formulation of abstract concepts results in little transfer from the digital case to the pre-lab assignment. To reduce the workload/stress for the students we aimed to teach the high cognitive skills in a known working environment. To achieve this, we need to build the good practice example, digital case, the pre-lab assignment in the same setting as the laboratory class (labbuddy). To deal with the limited application of the skills practiced in the digital case, the pre-lab assignment and the laboratory class, we want to incorporate the Kolb learning cycle.

*Research cycle: research question > hypothesis > design experiment (in such a way that you can check your hypothesis) > perform experiment > analyse data > evaluate the results > answer research question / check hypothesis.


The aim of this project was to increase the transfer of knowledge between the digital case and the pre-lab assignment. This should prepare the students for the lab class, and help the development of high cognitive skills. This will help to improve the application of theoretical knowledge into practice, to decrease workload/stress for the students and thereby to increase the independence of the students.

The aims were reached. The link between the new digital case and the pre-lab assignment was clear, since they were similar in content, structure and visual appearance. This resulted in less confusion of students when working on the pre-lab assignment.  Unfortunately, on the first day of working on the new digital case, the IT system crashed. The underlying error was identified and corrected. It did, however, result in the situation that most students had not finished the digital case before starting the pre-lab assignment. The workload (for digital case) seemed to be decreased, due to the stronger focus of the digital case on the concepts of experimental design. Therefore students did not lose time on unnecessary details. It was also visible from the fact that all students finished in time, even though there was some delay on the first day. In addition, the students indicated that the level of the digital case was manageable. Moreover the students thought that the example was a nice way to formulate abstract concepts and along with it, the students improved the application of theoretical knowledge into practice. It became apparent that guidelines provided in the digital case, to make decisions in protocols, were remembered and used to adapt protocols where needed in the laboratory class.


The most significant results were efficient practice of the research cycle, which is applied in the laboratory class preparation. In addition to the typical use of ExperD, to provide protocols, ExperD can also be applied to teach students to set-up their own protocols.


ExperD and the questions in ExperD can be used to guide the student to set-up an experiment from scratch (protocols, explanations for choices for settings and conditions). In such a situation it is important that the student is clearly warned of the fact that many different options are possible and many will give a ‘good’  result. The teacher should think about the guidelines that should be provided to the student to allow him/her to make decisions.