5 Essential Elements of an Online Science Lab Syllabus

Based on a white paper By Linda and Dr. Peter Jeschofnig, Co-Founders of Hands-On Labs & IEDSE (The Institute for Excellence in Distance Science Education)

Online science instructors who are willing to invest initial time and energy into creating a thorough syllabus will save themselves innumerable headaches throughout the semester. An online course syllabus, regardless of the type of course being taught, needs to be very explicit and cover every aspect of the course. It should provide clear and complete explanations about how the course will be conducted and assessed plus explicitly state what is expected of the students. It should be posted as soon as possible prior to the beginning of the semester for those eager students who want to get a head start and for students to determine if the course is right for them before the refund/census drop date. It should remain posted throughout the semester so student can refer back to it when needed and as an arbitrator of disputes. Here are the five essential elements to include in an online science lab syllabus:


1.Course Information │ Try to give students a complete picture of the course and learning outcomes and expectations. This includes the course title and number, description from the catalog, credit hours, prerequisites, skill assessments, computer capabilities, and expected competencies and outcomes. Use the credit hour section to emphasize the amount of time required to perform lab experiments. Use the prerequisite section to mention important skills that are needed for online science lab courses such as self-discipline, time management, computer knowledge, and excellent math and language skills. Assessments of math and writing skills are particularly important in science courses to determine if students are capable of handing the course requirements. It is also important to assess online skills; a good tool to determine readiness for an online course is READI from eLearning Toolbox.


2.Course Materials │ Specify all required and optional materials and equipment, including textbooks, simulation CDs, software, hardware, lab kits, digital camera, video camera, and programmable calculator. Note any items that require proof of purchase such as a lab kit or simulation CD. Give as much detailed information as possible, including exact titles, ISBN numbers, and special purchasing instruction. A general estimate for the total cost of all materials and equipment should be given so students understand upfront what kind of financial investment will be required for an online science lab course.


3.Course Structure and Schedule │ Briefly describe how the course will be conducted and what activities will be undertaken, including a breakdown of assignments and assessments. Include a comprehensive course calendar with drop dates, due dates for assignments, suggested start dates for multi-step labs, and any dates you are unavailable. It is helpful to color code the calendar for easy reference by associating different colored texts with different types of assignment such as Red for Exams, Green for Labs, Blue for Quizzes, Purple for Readings, etc. Students should be able to rely on the calendar, so it should not be changed during the semester unless absolutely necessary. If any changes do occur, announce them multiple times and in multiple places.


4.Assignments │ A listing of assignments lets students know exactly what will be expected of them and allows them to work ahead if they desire and their instructor approves. Specify if any assignments are self-paced, if any assignments will be accepted early, when assignments will be graded and when grades will be posted. For online courses it is especially important to clarify how assignments should be submitted (email or LMS), what kind of files are accepted, how email subject lines should be titled, and if hand written and scanned or faxed assignments are acceptable. Keep in mind that submittal of hand written assignments should be discouraged as they are more difficult to read, store, and electronically grade. Advise students to save and back up all their assignments and lab reports to protect themselves in the event of a computer or system crash. Some common assignments in an online lab course include:

  • Required Reading: Include dates by which readings are expected to have been completed for discussion and quiz purposes.
  • Lab Assignments: Advise students to always read their lab assignments at least a week in advance, preferably upon completion of the prior lab assignment, in case there are any materials to be acquired or steps that should be completed early. It is also helpful to warn students in advance about experimental procedures that may take additional time such as a culture or reaction that will have to be observed for several days.
  • Discussion Board(s) Participation: Provide details about the expected quality and quantity of postings within set time frames for both the course and the lab discussion boards. Give examples of good postings that add to the group’s knowledge base and unacceptable postings such as: I agree.
  • Online Quizzes and Exams: Advise if and which quizzes and exams are open or closed book, if they are timed, if they can be repeated, and if they are randomized. Including a syllabus quiz encourages students to read the syllabus and a lab safety quiz reinforces safety concepts as well as encourages students to study their lab safety materials more carefully.
  • Proctored Exams: Tell students how to find acceptable locations and individuals to administer a proctored exam and what kind of communication will be needed from or with individuals to qualify them to be proctors for examinations.

5.Important Information & Policies │ Use this section to include any important additional information and policies regarding the course, including:

  • Net Etiquette: Include a summary of the instructor and institution’s rules and expectations regarding both online and off-line interactions and the consequences for breech of these policies. Include links to the students’ handbook, the institution’s net etiquette policy, and netiquette websites.
  • Drop Policy: Provide explicit details regarding your own and the institution’s drop policy
  • Late Policy and Incompletes: Unless the course is fully self-paced, late policies should be structured to keep students on track and on time in completing assignments and the course. Once students fall behind, it is very, very difficult for them to catch up.
  • Plagiarism and Academic Dishonesty: Students should be sternly warned against cheating themselves and risking their time and financial investment by engaging in plagiarism and academic dishonesty. Include your own and the institution’s policies and penalties for academic integrity infringements on all assignments, including lab reports. Since some students do not genuinely understand the fine line between referencing and plagiarizing information, provide examples and/or instructional websites to help them fully understand academic integrity issues.
  • Special Accommodation and Non-Discrimination: Include appropriate statements in compliance with institutional guidelines that reasonable accommodations can be made for students with physical and learning disabilities and that no student will be discriminated against on the basis of race color, national or ethnic origin, religion, sex, or sexual orientation.

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