Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Monday, March 12, 2012

Lab Coats

Big thanks to the folks at Nature Chemistry for putting this blog on their blogroll. Also on that page is information on lab safety in light of the deadly accident in a UCLA lab a few years ago claiming the life of research assistant Sheri Sangji. Many departments are now looking at laboratory safety more closely including our own. One change we are considering is requiring lab coats in undergraduate laboratories. I have been at several institutions as a student and as an instructor and not one required lab coats. Other instructors have told me the opposite has been true for them, and they were surprised they weren't required here. On this informal survey from Chemical and Engineering News in May of 2010 about 60% respondents indicated no lab coats were required for any undergraduate lab course at their institution. Obviously a lab coat provides protection from chemical spills and fires, but is it overkill in undergraduate labs where experiments tend to be on the tame side?

EDIT: Also from Jyllian Kemsley today, in a study students performed mental tasks better while wearing a lab coat.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Study Tip: Don't Study Right Before an Exam

Former major leaguer Joaquin Andujar was a solid pitcher, who made four All-Star teams and entertained with his flamboyant personality. Like most pitchers he wasn't very accomplished as a hitter, but whenever he stepped to the plate, he always had a plan. That plan was to swing with everything he had just in case the ball just happened to end up hitting his bat in a good spot. Occasionally he would get a hit or even a home run, but the result was usually a spectacular swing and a miss that would send his arms and body flailing out of the batter's box.

When I see students frantically flipping through their notes and textbooks five minutes before an exam, I see students figuratively swinging for the fences just hoping that the material they are stuffing into their brains right then would just happen to end up on the test. I would estimate 90% percent of students do this. The other 10% are 'A' students. Of course, the lack of last minute studying is not the primary reason the top students perform well. They are prepared and confident, so there's no need for additional study. For everyone else, one would think a little refresher couldn't hurt, but according to this Kaplan page, maybe it can.

"Research has shown that anything you study right before an exam is more likely to hurt than help your performance. Why? Because the last-studied information is still floating around in your short term memory and actually interferes with recall of information that you studied days, weeks or even months before.

While it would have been nice to see the source of this "research", it seems to make sense and it is something I have suspected since I was in college. As a student I made it a general philosophy to never study on the day of a test, because I believed that last minute cramming would put me in "recall" rather than "think" mode. For most of my tests, especially in the sciences, it was essential to think to reason, and to analyze--not to recall random facts. If I happened to forget a few things, it was usually no big deal. So I lose five points. On the other hand whenever I did try to cram last minute, everything I learned would just end up sticking in my mind like a song I can't get out of my head, and that would ruin my whole exam.

Obviously, different things work for different people and it takes a bit of a leap of faith to decide to not study right before a big exam. But if find you are constantly kicking yourself for missing questions you know you should have gotten right, maybe you should take a different approach. Try relaxing, clearing your mind and thinking positive thoughts in those anxious moments before your next exam. It may make a world of difference. As Joaquin Andujar always liked to say "you-never-know."