Guide to Instructional Laboratories and Experimental Skills

Version 1. February 28, 2022

Physics is an empirical science. Experimental skills provide the basis for experiments that enable physicists to explore the natural world and to construct, test, refine, and apply theoretical models. Experimental skills encompass experimental design and development, building and testing of models, troubleshooting, evaluation of uncertainties and results, literature review, use and limitations of equipment, analysis and interpretation of data, evidence-based argumentation, communication, lab safety, handling ethical issues, teamwork, and perseverance. Experimental skills may be incorporated into any part of the curriculum but are usually developed in instructional laboratories, which may be independent courses or attached to other courses. This section provides guidance on designing instructional laboratories that focus on developing experimental skills rather than teaching content that could be taught in other courses. This section includes curricular guidance that spans experiences from introductory and non-STEM major courses through advanced and independent laboratory environments. For guidance on developing experimental skills through independent or course-based research experiences, see the section on Undergraduate Research. For guidance on developing computational skills, see the section on Computational Skills.


Well-designed instructional laboratories provide a particular opportunity to teach the experimental skills that are central to the process of doing physics, to engage students in the process of science, and to support students in learning where models in physics come from and how to construct new models. These skills provide students with the opportunity to explore the nature of science, experimentation, and measurement. Instructional laboratories also provide an excellent opportunity to support students in developing identities as scientists and having positive experiences with physics. Laboratory experiences can support students’ understanding of, and excitement about, the discipline. Developing experimental skills enables students to pursue a variety of career options in public- and private-sector employment and graduate education.

Effective Practices

  1. Design and assess a coherent sequence of instructional laboratories using course- and program-level student learning outcomes

  2. Design and provide experiences that are central to the process of doing experimental physics

  3. Design and provide laboratory experiences that support the process of doing experimental physics

  4. Use research-based instructional practices and inclusive pedagogy in your instructional laboratories

  5. Support laboratory instructional staff and instructional support staff

  6. Create and maintain laboratory spaces and equipment and a safe environment

Programmatic Assessments

The Cycle of Reflection and Action

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1738311, 1747563, and 1821372. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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