We have defined four primary purposes for a lab course:

  1. Practice a specific skill
  2. Understand a process
  3. Analyze data
  4. Solve problems and collaborate with peers

Following each definition, is an example scenario to help guide your thinking and a link to an UM System faculty member’s description of how they transformed their lab to work online.

Practice a specific skill

Many fields require students to learn and practice a specific, specialized skill set. These labs are often the most difficult to recreate at home. However, they may not be impossible. When determining if this type of lab is necessary, think about what specific skills need to be practiced and/or evaluated. Then, determine the materials that would be needed to practice this specific skill; this may require some creativity. Work with colleagues, the bookstore, and the instructional designer in the Remote Labs Working Group with whom you’ve been in contact to determine the best way to get the materials to the students, or if there is a list of materials that students could readily get themselves from home, local retailers, or online retailers. From practicing a language, a nursing technique, or a methodology, many times students can use materials and their own homes to practice the required skills. Make sure to give students plenty of time to get the needed materials, and clearly communicate what is needed.


A basic surgical skills lab exercise that is intended to help students gain experience suturing tissue could be accomplished remotely by having students record themselves suturing together pieces of a banana peel at home, demonstrating their technique and the quality of their final product.


An introductory geology course includes a lab aimed at developing skills used to classify types of rocks (e.g., accurate size measurement; density testing; conducting tests of hardness, color streaking, reactivity to acid, and magnetism). The instructor demonstrates proper techniques in a series of close-up videos, provides students a list of items for the student to procure on their own (e.g., a penny, a nail, a piece of quartz, a piece of porcelain, a piece of tile, vinegar, a magnet, a cup of water and kitchen scale), and directs students to find three or four rocks of different size, shape, and appearance from their location (backyard, neighborhood park, local woods, etc.). Students then use the materials and the instructor’s video modeling to conduct their own classification tests, and record themselves completing the steps while discussing their observations, choices, and decisions made during the classification process. 


In Physics 2760, students must learn how to build an electrical circuit, and how to connect an ammeter and voltmeter in a circuit. For that, they use a simulation provided by PhET (University of Colorado at Boulder), build a circuit using the simulation, and then take a picture of it. Students are split into groups in Canvas, and within the groups, they share their circuits and discuss how the circuits work, how they can be altered to measure voltage and current in each circuit element, how changing the circuit in a certain way will affect the current, and so on. For this lab, I allowed students to self-assign into groups of six students and monitored their interactions/discussions using the Discussion tool in each group. Students submitted individual lab reports.

Understand a process

Some lab experiences help students understand a process. Students in this situation would not necessarily need to touch the materials or machines, but they would need to clearly see and observe the process and methods.

  • The instructor should decide if this process needs to be completed synchronously or asynchronously.
  • Faculty can use tools like Zoom, in which students could video call in and observe the experiment happening in real time.
  • Faculty also might consider taping lab experiences so that students could make observations on their own time.
  • Faculty could use the resources on the Journal of Visualized Experiments, which is a peer-reviewed scientific video journal with over 9,500 videos demonstrating experiments and methods from laboratories at top research institutions. Click here for more information. 
  • Recorded experiences, whether your own or other’s, can be beneficial as they afford students to get a good view, are able to stop and review and pause and reflect as the process is taking place.
  • As always, be sure to thoroughly review any external content before you use it, and keep in mind that while some resources are free now, they will not remain free in the future.

 Pro tip: As with all video and video conferencing, be thoughtful about your camera angles and sound. Use a microphone if possible or complete the lab in a room on campus that is already wired with a microphone and camera capabilities. Check with your department IT person to direct you to spaces that may be most useful.


In a typical biology lab, students learned how to extract DNA in a wet lab. The objective was for students to recognize the proper techniques for DNA extraction, including using specific tools in the lab. The instructor decided to record three different videos of herself extracting the DNA—one time doing all of the process well, once with most of the proper techniques being followed, and once with multiple significant errors. Students were asked to analyze the videos using VoiceThread and annotate any place in the video in which improper procedure was used.


A faculty member in the department of Animal Science determined that an essential objective of their lab was for students to experience mare horses foaling. Typically, students would sign up to observe the mares at the University farm one night during the season. This professor determined that video was also a suitable way for students to watch the experience, but for the online version of the lab class, a non-negotiable objective was to observe the timing and stages of birth. This professor decided to live stream using YouTube and a home video monitor. The students were able to watch the birthing process, including the specific timing, from start to finish.


  • If you are expecting to have students understand a protocol fully, make sure to have a thorough, detailed written protocol available for students.
  • To make sure that your videos are accessible, you will need to either provide a transcript or caption your videos.
  • When I filmed my first methods paper with the Journal of Visualized Experiments, the one thing that struck me was that the methods needed to be much more detailed and annotated than what we typically wrote in peer-review scientific papers for publication. Walking someone through, step-by-step, meant filming at multiple camera angles and breaking things down into smaller steps than I had imagined. If it helps, think of it like a cooking show—sometimes the easiest thing to do is film from above, or to the side, or through a mirror above or behind the setup to capture multiple angles at once. If you take the time to do it well, however, it ends up being a video that you can use many times to train students.
  • Make sure you are staying true to lab protocols—if one should wear gloves, protective eyewear, and/or a lab coat during the protocol, make sure you are wearing one in the video.
  • I had students use several videos of colliding cars to discuss the concepts of linear momentum, impulse, and conservation of linear momentum. There are many videos that one can find on the internet, in physics there are databases of such videos. It is also possible to make your own videos. You can link the videos directly into Canvas or upload them. I asked students to explain in words what they observed, and connect their observations to the concepts of linear momentum, impulse and conservation of linear momentum. They were provided with some guiding questions for preparing their report. In groups, they discussed their observations and put together the report.
  • Instead of having students do a lab, to help students understand concepts learned and the connection between them, I had them build a concept map. Students were split into groups, they worked together to identify concepts to be included in the map and their connections, and then each one of them had to build a concept map and submit it. They were provided with a rubric for evaluating the concept map. Also, each student had to evaluate two other concept maps and grade them using the rubric.

Analyze data

Understanding and analyzing data can be the primary purpose of some lab experiences. In these cases, professors could give students dummy data sets that would allow them to explore and analyze the data. This data could be actual data or it may be data that would lead students to a problem or solution to work through.


In the X-Ray Diffraction Laboratory setting, students have to start data collection and data processing for X-ray structure determination. Instead of a physical lab experience, faculty decided to provide students with existing data sets for processing and writing the final research paper. The issues faculty are running into while accommodating remote experiences are: under normal circumstances, students would meet in-person to access and work together on datasets; sharing large dataset files (0.5 Gb) back and forth to provide feedback until the data is finalized, using a flash drive/other external devices. This faculty’s solution was to assign and distribute datasets using an Assignment tool in Canvas, record Zoom sessions, and enable students to review one another’s work using a Discussion forum. Students used Google Drive to exchange large dataset files.


  • Remember that you will not be there to show students how to analyze the data, so provide an example and/or clear instructions on how the analysis should be conducted.
  • There are two different ways that I employed to have students analyze data: first, students get the data using video analysis software and then share data sets, and second, I provided them with data and had them analyze it. In the first case, each student obtained their own data, and shared it with a few others in their group. In the second case, I provide a short movie of the experiment so they can see how the data is collected and then give students the data. In both cases, students used Tracker, or excel (with instructions provided on how to make a graph) to analyze the data and worked in groups to prepare the lab report. It is very important to provide students with clear, step by step instructions on how to use the analysis software.
  • I am currently overseeing the Evolution of the Earth laboratory which transitioned online last week (March 19). They watched the recorded instructions uploaded by the TA, who was also available for interactions with them through the Canvas Discussion Board during the scheduled lab time. Synchronous participation was nearly 90 percent. This format worked very well last week. We will also experiment with a live Zoom session during maybe one hour of the three-hour lab period after spring break. Students are still collaborating with their team members using Google Docs for editing and compiling data.
  • I teach an undergraduate course that uses statistical software for data analysis. I recorded a video in which I talk through each step to determine if a process is in a state of statistical process control. This involves the use of several analysis tools and the interpretation of each one. I am making sure to explain why I am selecting each option from the drop down menus that I select, then what each graph is showing me, and why I am moving to the next step (or stopping the analysis). In addition, I added work instructions with screen captures as a Word document so that students could see each step easier rather than stopping/starting the video each time.

Solve problems and collaborate with peers

Lab experiences may serve the purpose of requiring students to collaborate, investigate, or solve a specific problem. Specifically, collaborative problem-solving skill is an essential 21st century skill, which requires that individuals communicate and share resources and strategies in order to achieve a common goal. In these types of situations you may have to consider how to encourage this collaboration in alternate ways. Collaborative documents, video chats, and discussion boards may all help replicate collaboration in this distanced environment. Given the current situation, it may be helpful to consider whether lab groups can be smaller (two or three people) or if students can work alone.


In the current workplace of the industry or military field, collaboration often refers to a group task in which not one individual within the group can solve the task alone. Group members bring different strengths in information, expertise, and experiences to work together and solve a particular problem. In this economic development or international trade political science class, the learning objective was to understand international political economy. Nowadays, countries compete against each other to manufacture products and sell them to an international commodity market trader at posted prices, which vary with supply and demand. Each country aims to make as much money as possible. The International Trade Game has students play in teams as countries that must trade their products (i.e., produced paper cuts) on an international commodity market. Students form teams of two or more, with each team representing a different country. Each team’s country is defined as a rich, industrialized country with all the materials and equipment that they need, a middle-income country, or a low-income country. The instructor can use Zoom breakout sessions to facilitate this International Trade Game.


In an economics or mathematics class, game theory is used to teach students to analyze social situations among competing players and make decisions. Students are divided into two groups, Firms and Consumers, and must collaborate with their team members to play a board game. The board game will examine the collusive behavior of Firms in oligopolies, if a few Firms exist in the market. Preferably, have at least three players in each group. One student can play the role of the Regulator. The instructor can use Zoom breakout sessions to facilitate this International Trade Game. 


  • Zoom breakout sessions work extremely well with smaller lab sections. Instructors can have, for example, four or five breakout rooms staffed by co-instructors and/or TAs that can manage student involvement, questions and in-depth exercises. When the students are finished in their breakout sessions, they can return to the main Zoom room and discuss how the project/lab went with the instructor/host of the Zoom room. As a side note, Zoom breakout sessions work very well for office hours (having a TA staff a single breakout room for individual students, etc.). There is also a waiting room option so students can wait in a single room until the TAs or the instructor is ready to meet with an individual student (preventing FERPA violations).
  • Provide each student in their collaborative group with a different piece of the lab, thus forcing them to work together. In case a student is unavailable, be prepared to sub in as the missing student or email the group with the missing components.
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