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Developing a Policy Outlining Acceptable Lab Practices

Think about your expectations with respect to data acquisition and reporting. For example, what degree of collaboration is acceptable, what kinds of general problems may arise and how should students deal with them? Addressing the role of lab partners is especially important.  Generate a list of acceptable and unacceptable practices in as much detail as possible, and use them to develop a policy for acceptable laboratory practice.

The policy should be clear and detailed but not confusing. Consider keeping the specific policy brief, but following it with a "Frequently Asked Questions" section where the details can be presented in clear language.

For example: A common policy in undergraduate labs is to have students work in pairs to gather data, but write up the reports separately. The policy might read: “Students normally will work in pairs and share data between laboratory partners, but must write up laboratory reports independently.” The guideline seems easy to understand and straightforward, but there is a grey area as well as many un-addressed issues, leaving room for misinterpretation. Some possible issues to clarify are:

  • May lab partners discuss the meaning of their data? May they interpret the data together? May they discuss their data with other students and use their interpretations?

  • If their data make no sense, can they use someone else’s or just make some up? If either is acceptable, must the change be documented and how should it be documented?

  • May partners (or other groups) plan the layout of their results together (meaning how the data will be presented)? Some students discuss in detail how to present the results, or one partner makes one copy and passes it to the next. The outcome will be identical "Results" sections in the two reports. Is that practice acceptable to you?

  • May they discuss the content and format of the report — what will be in the introduction, methods, results and discussion, what they will say in each section, how they will lay out each paragraph. What are the boundaries for this level of collaboration?

  • If one student is having trouble writing, is it acceptable for another student to give him/her a copy of his/her report as a guideline? Is it acceptable for a student to provide verbal help, such as “This is what I put in my introduction…”

  • Is it acceptable to purchase or in some other way acquire laboratory reports from previous years?

When your policy is clearly laid out, be sure that all students and TAs receive a copy. The best way to ensure distribution is to insert it in the laboratory manual.

Discuss the policy in class

A written policy is never enough, since many students will not read it. You must discuss the policy with your students, preferably during the first lecture.You should also instruct your TAs to discuss the policy during the first lab.

Your discussion should take place within the general context of ethics. Get students thinking about honesty and the importance of handing in original work. Include a discussion of scientific integrity—of the need for honesty in data acquisition and reporting and for keeping careful records. Emphasize that lab work is a crucial aspect of their scientific training.

Going over the policy in detail will help ensure that expectations are clear. Give as many examples as possible, and consider presenting the policy on an overhead for emphasis and to assist ESL students. If your TAs can assist with the presentation, that will reinforce their commitment to upholding the policy in the lab environment.

Use a Variety of Strategies to Reinforce the Policy

  • Have students sign a document at the beginning of the first lab stating that they have read and understood the policy

  • Administer an unannounced test so you are certain students understanding the policy

  • Use role-playing to clarify any gray areas

    • Professor John Heddle of York University suggested using this format  to enhance the discussion of  academic integrity in his first year Biology class. This is a very effective way to get your message across, and can be fun and entertaining. For example, you might discuss acceptable practices, then do a quick skit where students discuss their data and how they plan to write their report. Then ask the class: “Did these students violate the policy? Why or why not?" This exercise can be conducted in almost any classroom—even a large lecture theatre.

  • Include a discussion of the consequences of  being charged with a breach of academic honesty

  • The week before the first laboratory reports are due, make a quick announcement in lectures,  reminding students to consult the policy as they prepare their reports

  • Be sure to provide students with a source of additional information and/or help. “If you are still unsure about the policy and have questions, consult…”