Students conduct laboratory exercises using supplied chemicals or other materials as appropriate. Procedure and Product are then reported. In some instances, the virtual lab will not suffice, and students will attend a session on campus for the laboratory exercises physically face-to-face. In some cases, the actual lab may be semi-virtual, however, fully virtual lab exercises would be considered a simulation and are included in that activity category.

Appropriate Content Areas

Often used in Physics, Biology, Chemistry, and related fields.

Goals and Objectives

Laboratory exercises can have many goals. Often, the goal is to learn a specific physical or chemical principle. Sometimes, a simulation can suffice. Sometimes, process and skill are also necessary components, and hands-on activities are required.


Some form of background knowledge is expected in order to adequately interpret the exercise taking place. Students should not use laboratory equipment until sufficiently trained in its use and provided with adequate safety precautions. Often, an exercise prior to the laboratory will help to frame the experience and answer any questions concerning the exercise. A pre-lab exercise will help insure student understanding prior to beginning the actual event.

Materials and Resources

What needs to be prepared in advance by the teacher? – The material requirements can change drastically depending on the nature of the laboratory experience. First, all prior reading concerning the exercise needs to be made available. Chemicals may need to be prepared, equipment may need to be shipped to the student or purchased, travel plans may need to be coordinated if the students will conduct the exercises in person, and a careful explanation or laboratory procedure needs to be available to the students.

What does the student need to bring to the lesson? – Prior knowledge. A pre-lab exercise is usually required. Students at a distance may need to purchase some materials to complete the exercise.

Guiding Questions for this Activity

What effect(s) does X have on Y under Z conditions?

Typical Activity Outline and Procedure

  • During a unit of study, students are provided and/or acquire the materials needed to perform a controlled laboratory exercise. The requirements are provided at the beginning of a course.
  • Students complete any readings necessary for the given activity. A pre-lab exercise may be required in which understanding of the materials if verified in text prior to performance.
  • Students follow the provided procedure (usually lasting less than an hour as longer more detailed laboratory exercises may require a campus visit). An initial lab exercise is usually required that the students submit prior to beginning to insure understanding of the procedure and what is to be learned.
  • Following the exercise, products are turned in which include a write-up of the experience. In some cases, products may be mailed to the instructor. Video accounts of the procedure may also be used.

Teaching Strategies

  • A synchronous session might be conducted so that students can get quick answers to questions that might come up. This session could coincide with the time that the students set up to perform the exercises. Such a session can also help insure that the students are actually doing the work.
  • For more complex procedures, the students may need video as well as written instructions.
  • Some hands-on work is valuable, but consider also using simulations.
  • If the students have the capability and the instructor has the available software, a video conference might be transmitted by the instructor to walk students through a difficult procedure.
  • Alter procedures so that commonly available items can be used rather than expensive laboratory equipment; however, inform the students of the changes and what the exercise they are doing relates to in a professional lab environment.


What accommodations may be needed for students with disabilities or other special needs? There could be any number of accommodations needed, all the way to providing an alternative activity. Students with some physical disabilities may especially need assistance in completing some procedures.

Bandwidth may be an issue over dialup. Some video may be presented on CD or DVD for local access.


Generally, at least an hour will be required for set up and conducting the experiment. Additional time will be required for the pre-lab and post-lab exercises.

Ideas for Activity Evaluation and Teacher Reflection

How did the students like the lesson? End of semester evaluations should ask about the usefulness and learning accomplished through such activities. Student should also be asked about the viability of obtaining any required resources during the exercises. They may also comment on the applicability of alternatives.

Additional questions to ask include: How was student learning verified? What was done to insure that the students were not taking part in some form of academic honesty? Were followup questions asked to verify retention of information? Were quiz or test questions linked to activities in the simulation?

Additional Readings

  • Martínez- Jiménez, P., Pontes-Pedrajas, A., Climent-Bellido, M. S., & Polo, J. (2003). Learning in chemistry with virtual laboratories, Journal of Chemical Education80, p. 346.
  • Reeves, J., & Kimbrough, D. (2004). Solving the laboratory dilemma in distance learning general chemistry, Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 8(3), pp. 47-51. Retrieved January 18, 2007, from
  • Senese, F. A., Bender, C., & Kile, J. (2000, October). The Internet chemistry set: Web-based remote laboratories for distance education in chemistry. Interactive Multimedia Electronic Journal of Computer-Enhanced Learning, 2(2). Retrieved January 18, 2007, from

Chemistry Kits

For some courses, the local grocery store. Some physics stores may make use of materials from local hardware stores too.