A Comparison of Student and Demonstrator Perceptions of Laboratory-Based, Inquiry-Oriented Learning Experiences

Les Kirkup, Meera Varadharajan, Michael Braun


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. The program comprises experiments promoting learning through inquiry. We found 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 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 development 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 their epistemologies influencing their actions is warranted.

Full Text: