Adding value to physics labs to help build confident, knowledgeable teachers


  • Lorna Jarrett
  • Brian Ferry
  • George Takacs


This pilot study is being conducted by an interdisciplinary team and is funded through the University of Wollongong Education Strategies Development Fund. The project focuses on the first-year physics laboratories of preservice teachers enrolled in Bachelor of Science Education degrees. It aims to make the laboratory experience more aligned to the needs of future science and physics teachers, contributing to their confidence in using apparatus in the classroom and their effectiveness as communicators who can explain concepts fluently from a background of deep understanding. According to Mulhall (2006) and Johnston and Millar (2000), misconceptions are common even among successful physics students and explicit teaching strategies that address conceptual change are needed to correct misconceptions. However, our approach is also of value to general physics students. Our approach has three strands. The first involves identifying experiments in our labs that have content in common with compulsory practical investigations in the NSW year 11 / 12 physics syllabus. Experimental procedures and instructions for these labs are being modified to create explicit links between concepts, apparatus and procedures in the first-year labs and those in the school syllabus. Secondly, we are incorporating peer instruction using qualitative multiple-choice questions designed to probe conceptual understanding. These will be included in the laboratory manual, at strategic points in the experimental procedure. Students will discuss and agree on responses before proceeding with the experiment. This approach is based on the work of Mazur (1996), Crouch and Mazur (2001) and Cox and Junkin III (2002) who reported that it developed confidence in communication and was effective in challenging misconceptions. Finally, in designing the laboratory manual we will employ principles of Cognitive Load Theory to decrease extraneous cognitive load and make learning more efficient ( Chandler & Sweller, 1991; Paas, Renkl & Sweller, 2004; Purnell, Solman & Sweller, 1991). Our project will run from February 2009 until January 2010. Syllabus mapping has been carried out to identify appropriate experiments for the study, and three have been selected. High school physics teachers have been interviewed to discuss corresponding practical investigations in the school syllabus and findings are being used to inform the modifications to the procedures and manual for our laboratories, which will run in Spring Session 2009. The impact of the modified experiments will be compared with that of the unmodified experiments, and with previous years’ results. This conference paper elaborates on the theoretical background of our strategies and reports on our progress.