A comparison of student and demonstrator perceptions of laboratory-based, inquiry-oriented learning experiences

Publication Type:
Journal Article
International Journal of Innovation in Science and Mathematics Education, 2016, 24 (2), pp. 1 - 13
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Effective student-demonstrator interactions attend successful laboratory programs which engage students with the processes and products of science. We report a study on student and demonstrator experiences and perceptions of a physics laboratory program delivered to first year students in a large-enrolment subject for non-physics majors at the University of Technology Sydney. The program comprises experiments promoting learning through inquiry. Neither students nor demonstrators were completely comfortable with the open-ended nature of such experiments. Students expected instructions from demonstrators on how the experiments should be performed, and both students and demonstrators presumed the laboratory manual to offer more detailed instructions on each experiment than it provided. There was a significant and discouraging difference between student and demonstrator perceptions of a) the extent to which the skills developed in the laboratory assisted students in their future career, and b) the contribution that the experiments made to students' understanding of physics. Implications for practice emerging from this study include the need for academics to better communicate the reasons for an inquiry-oriented approach being adopted and clearer articulation of the expectations of student and demonstrators. Careful scaffolding of activities is necessary if students are to transition from recipe-type experiments to inquiry-oriented experiments. Aligning demonstrator professional training with the underlying philosophy of an inquiry-oriented laboratory program is not sufficient to ensure demonstrators are comfortable with that philosophy, suggesting a deeper consideration of the epistemologies influencing their actions is warranted. It is evident that the materials developed to support both students and demonstrators must undergo regular and critical review.
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