What factors contribute to students’ confidence in chemistry laboratory sessions and does preparation in a virtual laboratory help?

Barney Dalgarno, Andrea G. Bishop, Danny R. Bedgood Jr., William Adlong


Many undergraduate students studying chemistry subjects at Charles Sturt University (CSU) do so by Distance Education (DE). CSU has been offering subjects in chemistry in distance mode for more than 20 years. One of the greatest problems that confronts us, and others (Hollingworth and McLoughlin 2001; Kennepohl and Last 2000) in providing DE subjects is how to adequately address the teaching of a laboratory component. The practical work for CSU DE chemistry subjects is completed at intensive three or four day residential schools. Thus, DE students have only a few days to face the challenges that are spread out over many weeks for on-campus students. Providing a quality laboratory experience for these students within that short period and within the constraints of our resources is the subject of ongoing review at CSU. Problems associated with high stress and information overload for the laboratory component in DE had been noted anecdotally and in the literature (e.g., Loonat 1996). Adequately preparing DE students for residential school is a difficult task.

One strategy we have adopted to help prepare DE students has been the provision on CD-ROM of a 3D virtual laboratory, which is an accurate representation of the teaching laboratories. In a paper at last year’s UniServe Symposium (Dalgarno, Bishop and Bedgood 2003), we hypothesised that as a pre-laboratory familiarisation tool, the virtual laboratory would include the following potential benefits:
• students would feel more relaxed and comfortable in the laboratory;
• less laboratory time would be wasted looking for items of apparatus;
• students would be more likely to assemble and use apparatus in the correct way leading to more meaningful experimental results; and
• students could devote more of their attention to the chemistry concepts involved in the experiments because they would already be familiar with the procedural aspects of the task (p. 91).
This paper presents the results of a qualitative and quantitative study of the laboratory experience of DE students in first year chemistry subjects which provides initial tests of these hypotheses, as well as expanding our understanding of factors involved with the student experience of laboratory.

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