Interdisciplinary Web-Based Teaching Laboratory Materials

Wiess School of Natural Sciences
George R. Brown School of Engineering
Rice University

Proficiency standards for laboratory-related skills

To make progress toward the goal of becoming a completely self reliant critical thinker, problem solver, and communicator, it is first necessary to know one's own strengths and weaknesses. Our "yardstick" for achievement consists of six levels describing how people approach new problems and tasks.

It is very likely that you have met or exceeded the expectations that people have set for you, yet you have not achieved what you consider to be proficiency. Many academic courses and programs limit expectations to a narrow range and do not even give you an opportunity to acquire or demonstrate some of the levels of achievement that are described below. To a great extent, your present level of achievement is a reflection of your past experience and opportunities that have been made available to you.

The descriptions are carefully worded, but we're not perfect either. If you have questions about what is meant by a particular category of achievement and/or are not sure how to rate yourself, please ask an instructor's advice. This is a team effort, after all.

(1) I have demonstrated this kind of proficiency, even when I had to independently identify and master new knowledge and the necessary skills to achieve results.

Level 1 refers to the ability to recognize when your current skill level is not adequate with which to handle a particularly complex problem, and to EFFECTIVELY seek resources with which to acquire the needed skill. This level can apply only if level 2 also applies.

(2) I have demonstrated this kind of proficiency, even on new problems, by relying on my existing knowledge and skills to achieve results.

Level 2 refers to an experience level more than an ability. It means that when you are presented with a particular problem or task you figure out what "tools" to use. It means that you have determined for yourself what style of writing was appropriate for a project, what number of pages would be appropriate, in what form to submit the work, etc. It means that you have learned the skill in one context and transferred that learning to another context. For example, suppose you learn how to curve fit a graph using error bars in a sophomore biology lab. Suppose that later you take an advanced Bioengineering lab course and plot data for replicate samples as means plus/minus standard errors. Level 2 means that based on prior experience, you fit a curve among the data in order to represent the putative relationship, rather than to simply connect the data points, and do so knowing full well that you are doing it right.

(3) I have demonstrated this kind of proficiency by relying on my own independent knowledge and skills to achieve results, but only when working on familiar problems.

Level 3 differs from level 4 in that you don't rely on a set of instructions or guidelines this time. Either you have had sufficient practice so that you can carry out the task without further help, or you know where to look for guidelines, a formula, etc.

An example of thislevel might be technical writing. Suppose you have written papers in the standard form for a scientific journal for a summer internship or past course work. Suppose you are in a new internship or course, and you are asked to write a paper to be submitted to a journal, and are not given explicit guidelines. Level 3 applies if you write your paper in standard form and style. Another example is with precision and significant figures. Suppose you carry out a calculation that is based upon a real or hypothetical set of measurements. All measurements have some limit on their accuracy, of course. Do you ALWAYS round off the result to a carefully determined number of significant figures

(4) I have demonstrated this kind of proficiency, but only when I have clear, explicit instructions for how to perform.

Some educators refer to this level as an "algorithmic" level. You may not be entirely comfortable with the concepts, such as the application of statistical methods to data analysis, but as long as you have guidelines you generally carry out the process without difficulty and come up with reasonable results.

(5) Demonstrating this kind of proficiency has been difficult, even when I have clear, explicit instructions for how to perform.

Here are two examples. The textbook may have described exactly how to round numbers when doing a calculation, but for some reason you never get the "right" answer. You have explicit instructions for how to keep a laboratory notebook, but when it comes to going back and gleaning the information you need in order to write a paper, you have to ask someone else for information that you should have recorded yourself. This level suggests that you need more experience, that is, more practice. It does not suggest that you are incompetent in this area. People learn in different ways, and even a simple set of instructions that is worded effectively for one person is not effective for another person

(6) I have little or no experience in this area.


Developed by the laboratory educators in Natural Sciences and Engineering, Rice University 11 Jul 03
(Contact: Updated 19 Jul 06