Preparation for experiments is crucial
Preparatory study before lectures is a great way to enhance the effectiveness of the learning process in any course, but preparatory study for experimental courses is particularly crucial; the extent to which you will be able to understand your experiment will vary greatly depending on whether or not you prepare in advance.
In experimental courses, you carry out an actual procedure based on your understanding of the experiment. It is not acceptable to execute the experimental procedure without understanding what you are doing. After all, understanding the procedure you are executing is what experiments are all about; simply executing a procedure because you were told to do so, or because the textbook said to do so, does not qualify as experimental work. The consequences of failing to understand what you are doing in the lab are not simply that your experiment will progress poorly; in some cases, this can also be dangerous.
Of course, at the beginning of each class we will explain to you the content of that day’s experiment; however, it is difficult to offer sufficient explanation given the limited time available. For this reason, we will structure our explanations based on the assumption that you have at least skimmed the relevant sections of the textbook.
How should you prepare for your experiment?
First, carefully read the Introduction, Objectives of the Experiment, and Principles of the Experiment sections of the textbook. You may not fully understand the principles of the experiment; this is fine! Indeed, your primary goal here is to establish how much you do understand versus which parts you don’t understand; this will make it much easier to follow the description in class, and will also make it easier for you to ask questions. If possible, it is best to summarize the objectives and principles of the experiment in your notebook, as this will clarify which parts you don’t understand.
Next, read the Experimental Methods section. When reading this section, it is important to keep in mind the following questions: How do these methods reflect the principles of the experiment? What sort of data will I obtain by performing this experiment (i.e. by carrying out these experimental procedures)? What phenomena will occur? What will I observe? It is also important to understand the role of each individual experimental procedure within the larger context of the experiment as a whole. To this end, it is a good idea to take notes on the experimental procedure in your notebook as you read. The procedures may involve instruments you have never seen and steps that are mysterious and incomprehensible to you; again, this is fine! All you need is a rough idea of what steps will be taking place in what order. In practice, sometimes in class you will be told today we will omit this step or today we will slightly modify this step, and you will have an easier time understanding how these changes fit in to the full sequence of the experiment if you have at least a mental sketch of the overall procedure.
By carrying out this level of preparation in advance, the backbone of the first half of your report (objectives, principles, and methods) will already be in place. Of course, you may need to make certain revisions when you actually perform the experiment, but the preparations will unquestionably make it much easier to write your report.
Having said that, it is not easy to prepare this much in advance every week. There may be some days in which you simply cannot spare that much time. However, even in such cases it is important at least to glance at the textbook. Let’s agree to avoid situations in which you crack open the textbook for the first time after arriving in the laboratory!