Guide to Instructional Laboratories and Experimental Skills

Version 1. February 28, 2022

Contributors and Reviewers

Editorial Director

Sarah "Sam" McKagan, McKagan Enterprises

Courtney Lannert*, Smith College and University of Massachusetts Amherst


Dimitri R. Dounas-Frazer, Western Washington University

Eugenia Etkina, Rutgers University

N. G. Holmes, Cornell University

Heather J. Lewandowski, University of Colorado Boulder

Laura Ríos, California Polytechnic State University

Synthesis Committee

Theodore Hodapp*, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

Willie S. Rockward*, Morgan State University

Carl Wieman*, Stanford University

Lawrence Woolf*, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.


David A. Van Baak, Calvin College

Kiko Galvez, Colgate University

Frank Geurts, Rice University

Joseph Kozminski, Lewis University

MacKenzie R. Stetzer, University of Maine

Review Committee

Michael Jackson*, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology

Carl Wieman*, Stanford University

Michael C. Wittmann, American Physical Society

Lawrence Woolf*, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.

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.

The Cycle of Reflection and Action

Effective Practices

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

Programmatic Assessments

Research-based curricular materials for laboratories

  • Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE): A research-based curriculum that helps students learn physics by engaging them in processes that mirror scientific practice. Includes ISLE-based labs.
  • Scientific Community Laboratories: Design labs for introductory physics courses in which students work in groups to design an experiment, carry it out, analyze it, and present their results to other groups.
  • Thinking Critically in Physics Labs: Research-based labs that aim to teach students about the nature of scientific experimentation and to develop their experimentation and critical thinking skills.
  • University of Colorado lab resources for instructors: Research-based course materials, frameworks, and assessments for engaging students in authentic scientific practices such as modeling, writing, and drawing conclusions and making decisions based on measurements that have uncertainty. For use in all levels of undergraduate lab courses.
  • See the Resources in the sections on Courses for Non-STEM Majors and Introductory Courses for Life Sciences Majors for curricular materials for laboratories targeted to these audiences.
  • PhysPort: Resources based on physics education research that support teaching. Includes overviews of research-based teaching methods and materials, open-source curricula, expert recommendations, and assessments for instructional laboratories in physics. PhysPort features an expert recommendation on how to develop

    Course-Level Student Learning Outcomes

    Statements describing what students should be able to do as a result of completing a particular course. Outcomes emphasize the integration and application of knowledge rather than coverage of material, and are observable, measurable, and demonstrable. They use specific, active verbs (e.g., “solve,” “describe,” and “calculate”) rather than “understand.” Course-level student learning outcomes are often abbreviated as course-level SLOs and are also known as course-level learning goals. Examples include:

    • Solve the Schroedinger equation in one dimension for commonly encountered simple potentials
    • Describe physical situations that correspond to simple potential energy curves
    • Calculate the electric field or potential due to a system of charges using Coulomb’s law

    Course-level student learning outcomes are generally specific to the knowledge and skills addressed in individual courses, in contrast to program-level student learning outcomes, which focus on overall program outcomes. For instructional staff, these learning outcomes clarify what the course will deliver and unite course content with course-level assessments. Specifying course-level learning outcomes in individual course syllabi is often a requirement for accreditation of your institution, or of the institution itself. Assessment of course-level student learning outcomes through course assignments or examinations should be aligned with assessment of program-level learning outcomes, when possible. See the section on Implementing Research-Based Instructional Practices for guidance on how to design and assess courses based on program-level and course-level student learning outcomes. For examples, see the PhysPort expert recommendation How do I develop student learning outcomes for physics courses?

    with examples from introductory and advanced physics laboratories.

Rubrics for assessing scientific practices and laboratory notebooks

Other resources

  1. E. Etkina, A. Karelina, M. Ruibal-Villasenor, R. Jordan, D. Rosengrant, and C. Hmelo-Silver, “Design and reflection help students develop scientific abilities: Learning in introductory physics laboratories,” Journal of the Learning Sciences 19(1) 54–98 (2010).
  2. D. R. Dounas-Frazer and H. J. Lewandowski, “The Modelling Framework for Experimental Physics: description, development, and applications,” European Journal of Physics 39(6) (2018).
  3. N. G. Holmes and C. E. Wieman, “Introductory physics labs: We can do better,” Physics Today 71(1), 38–45 (2018).
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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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