There's A Reason You Hated Physics Lab

Remember college physics class? Nomad_Soul/Shutterstock

Aliyah Kovner 04 Jan 2018, 00:36

If you took a physics laboratory course in college and don’t remember learning anything about physics during the experience, you’re not alone.

A paper published in Physics Today found that for introductory physics courses, supplementary instruction labs – the kind where you roll a metal ball down a track, record the time, and write down a totally different time to get the "right answer" – showed no benefit in helping students grasp the subject matter.

Somewhat surprisingly, the research was done by two physics professors: Natasha Holmes, an assistant professor at Cornell, and Carl Wieman, professor at Stanford University and a Nobel laureate.

Holmes and Wieman may sound on paper like they are more inclined to assign protracted hours of lab class rather than question its purpose, but after analyzing courses at three institutions, their conclusions were unsparing.

“Although one may think that labs are inherently active, our research shows that in traditional labs students may be active with their hands but they’re not really active with their brains,” said Holmes in a statement. “Following rote procedures to get a proscribed outcome at the end isn’t doing a whole lot.”

The lab courses assessed were optional, designed to support the material being covered in the students’ lecture classes by using hands-on, real-world examples of physics at work.

This sight may elicit dread. If you didn’t roll a ball around, a pendulum was surely involved. Feel good studio/Shutterstock

After following almost 3,000 students in nine classes, Holmes and Wieman found zero distinguishable difference in exam scores between those that took the labs and those who opted out. Their paper noted that “with a high degree of precision, there was no statistically measurable lab benefit.”

These results held true even when the authors excluded scores from math-heavy questions to evaluate how students fared on those requiring conceptual reasoning, a skill that is supposed to be bolstered by said lab classes.

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