What are students learning in practicals? A cross sectional study in university physics laboratories

Adam Richardson, Manjula Sharma, Joe Khachan


A primary objective of teaching in laboratories is for students to
understand the purpose and procedures for undertaking an experiment, an essential element of the scientific method. However, it is difficult to evaluate this aspect of learning in laboratories. For example, does the approach taken by
second year students differ from third year students? We have investigated such questions in a research focused Australian university. A random sample of 46 second year and 16 third year students were given a simple open-ended activity.
We found that there is a difference in the demonstrated levels of experimental sophistication between second and third year students. Furthermore, a comparison of the academic achievement of the best two levels of experimental sophistication showed a difference. On the whole students performed better than expected and most demonstrated an understanding of procedures and processes of experimentation. We propose that this is due to the local context of our curriculum
where students have had experience in open ended experiments. We discuss issues such as self selection and time lag in learning. There is no doubt that teaching and
learning in laboratories is a complex process, this study considers overall approaches taken by students when given a choice.

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