Student perceptions of the introductory physics laboratory: an exploratory study

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

The laboratory environment can prove to be a complex space, with its potential to foster scientific sense making abilities in students. One cause for concern is the frequent physics tearoom discourse that students do not like physics laboratories. However, before attempting to address this issue, it is necessary to establish to what extent it is true and then to probe the issues that might underlie such perceptions. The present study, part of a larger program that is aimed at probing student views with regard to the lab experience, describes (a) the development of an instrument that probes students' perceptions of lab engagement and (b) the results of a selected subset of the data as detailed below. A written instrument, the Physics Perceptions Lab Questionnaire (PPLQ), was designed to probe the following five areas: expectations of labwork, enjoyment of labs, the perceived degree of personal learning that took place, the perceived association between lectures and lab activities, and views about the relationship between experiment and theory. Each of the five questions that made up the PPLQ was constructed in the form of a debate in which different views were declared. Thus, the data that ensued were of two types: (1) a Forced Choice Response (FCR), and (2) a Free Writing Response (FWR). The FCR data were analyzed by tallying the various choices made for each question, while the FWR data were analyzed using a grounded approach. The PPLQ was administered to 100 first year physics students at the University of Cape Town, after they had completed four weeks of the lab course. The focus of the present work is on the results obtained for the (a) Enjoyment and (b) Learning probes, and thus the analysis and results of the FWR data are limited to these two questions. The FCR results of the two probes on which the present study is focused (Enjoyment and Learning) indicated two opposing trends. While the majority of respondents felt that they had indeed learnt a great deal from the labs, this largely positive outcome for learning did not translate into a positive perception of enjoyment of labs. In contrast, the majority of the respondents indicated that they had not enjoyed the labs. The grounded analysis of the accompanying FWRs led to the emergence of 15 reasoning categories. The categories are grouped according to their nature of being intrinsic and extrinsic to the laboratory task and also translate to being internal and external to the students' locus of control. In addition, each individual reason that was provided indicated a Positive (P) or Negative (N) Impact on engagement. The data were thus also coded for P or N impact. To improve the quality of engagement would thus require a collective effort that takes into consideration the link between cognition and emotions along with framing, as they encompass together the issues intrinsic and extrinsic to the lab task.