An investigative laboratory program in first year chemistry — experience and outcomes

Grainne Moran, Julian Cox, Brenda Tronson, Neil Duffy


A new laboratory program in first year chemistry was introduced in 2003, initially for a class of 200 students, with the aim of fostering collaborative student-centred learning and critical thinking. In the laboratory, students worked in teams, providing input into the design of some experiments and, towards the end of session they undertook a short experimental project. At the same time, the tutorial program was redesigned in order to introduce open-ended questions or questions with no single correct answer.

The changes to the program were overwhelming successful, in that 78% of students reported the laboratory component to be either good, or the best thing about the course. While students found the new experimental approach challenging, and even frustrating at times, the tutorial modifications were less successful with 50% of students feeling that this section did not have the appropriate balance between conceptual and practical material. An important component of the change was to align the assessment with the goals of the new laboratory program. A higher proportion of marks were reallocated from lecture-based assessment to laboratory work, with some reduction in syllabus content. New assessment feedback sheets were designed to enable quality feedback to students and to enable demonstrators to provide consistent marks. This feedback mechanism has since been extended to other first year courses. The course was evaluated using an online student questionnaire, which allowed open comments, class visits and debriefing interviews with laboratory demonstrators and tutors. A number of further refinements have been identified, the most important of which are better structuring of tutorials and more support and training for demonstrators.

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