Time management – the art of correctly allocating time to tasks so that they can be completed on time and without undue stress – is an invaluable skill for students in a chemistry laboratory setting. The chemistry lab is a unique environment, with many challenges for students who are learning the basic skills. A chemistry experiment relies, in large part, on the correct allocation of time-based resources. The students only have a certain amount of time to complete a given experiment, usually three hours for a standard lab course. During those three hours the student needs to lay out his workspace, assemble the needed glassware / apparatus, perform the actual experiment, and cleanup afterwards. While many college educators unfortunately choose to let their students “sink or swim”, there are strategies an educator can use to ensure that their students have the proper time management skills for an upcoming lab.
First of all, teachers need to stress the importance of preparation. More than any other subject, chemistry goes smoother when the students have prepared. It boils down to a question of safety. Lots of things can “go wrong” during a lab: a hotplate could overheat a beakers contents, causing it to boil over, or a corrosive acid solution could be spilled. If students are instructed about the dangers of a particular experiment, they will (in the interest of self preservation) spend the appropriate amount of time before the lab section preparing for these things. If the teacher fails to warn the students about potential hazards, not only are all of the students in the laboratory at higher risk, but many students will breeze into the lab having done no preparation and will be subsequently rushed trying to finish the experiment on time. It’s the students fault for not preparing, but the teacher bears a chunk of the responsibility as well. An educator has to warn their students about potential hazards in the interest of safety and to convince the students that this is serious, and that they should spend some time thinking about potential pitfalls.
Secondly, the teachers need to coach their students into having confidence in what they do. Many lab experiments call for the heating or stirring of a flask for extended periods of time. Most students – especially the very earnest ones – make the mistake of watching the flask intently during this time, pen poised to write down any observation, no matter how inconsequential. This is a mistake. While the proper amount of attention should be paid to any experiment that is underway (for interests of safety) there is far too much to do during a chemistry lab session to waste any time. Students need to be encouraged to monitor their experiments while simultaneously doing other tasks. It’s basic multitasking, but students somehow feel unsafe splitting their attention to other tasks while a reaction is underway. Teachers need to break them of this habit. Building confidence by setting a reaction up correctly and letting it complete – without staring it down intently – is the only way students will develop speed and accuracy in a laboratory setting. So, while warning the students about potential hazards in a lab experiment, teachers also need to warn students about becoming overly careful to the point where it costs them valuable time. They could be washing dirty glassware, or writing up a lab summary. They should never be far from their reaction apparatus, but lab time management requires them to have the confidence to leave it alone.
Finally, teachers need to teach their students the correct scientific method. It’s a way of thinking that scientists, including chemists, adopt. There is no wrong or right answer when it comes to a laboratory experimental report, not really. There is the expected result – what theory suggests should be the answer – and then there is the answer that the students report. Many lab students begin to panic when they realize that their answer does not match what they were expecting, and attempt to “do the experiment again”, or “heat it higher” if their product is not distilling over, or whatever. These rushed attempts are possibly dangerous. Students should never rush in lab; motion should be a calm, deliberate series of steps with a full understanding of each part of the process. These rushed attempts are also completely unnecessary: all students need to do is dictate what they observed, and provide a reasonable scientific explanation for why their result did / did not match the expected result. They might still get a bad grade (if their result was far from the expected value) but it’s still the right thing to do. This is a very important point for educators to drill home to their students. The students should not waste time panicking if their results are off, and should instead calmly write up their experiment and provide details as to why their result does not match the value predicted by theory. Everyone is safer, and the student never feels rushed. It’s good time management, and it can only come about if teachers emphasize that a reasonable explanation for bad results beats rushed, panicky, untrustworthy, possibly hazardous experiments.
In the end, an experienced chemist will always be faster and more productive in the laboratory than novice chemistry students. However, educators have an important role to play in developing lab time management skills in their students, and this role should not be neglected.