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.
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.
Instead of learning how to think like a physicist, students interviewed for the paper reported that they spent their time following tedious instructions, filling out reports with expected values, and worrying about finishing before the lab ended.
The findings left Holmes and Wieman concerned that young minds are not learning the skills nor mindset necessary to perform experimental science. To remedy this, the authors proposed a new model of lab instruction, dubbed structured quantitative inquiry labs (SQILabs).
The SQILabs approach was developed by Dr Holmes for her PhD thesis, and describes replacing the current "plug-and-chug" model with self-directed experiments to encourage critical thinking. The goal of SQILabs is to encourage the students to delve deeper into the experiments. For example, instead of just fudging numbers when the observed values are off, SQILabs students will design a follow-up experiment to investigate why they found discrepancies from the projected values.
The team note that although "one can argue that labs might be achieving other educational goals that are not being measured," further research into the matter wouldn't go amiss.
As satisfying as it is to hear physics professors dissing labs with such conviction, it remains unclear how this research will affect the field of physics education. Until then, we can all agree that there is one type of physics lab far worse than the ones studied in this paper: the mandatory kind.