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Investigating Student Learning in Two Active Learning Labs: Not All “Active” Learning Laboratories Result in Conceptual Understanding

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Active and Inquiry-Based Learning

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.973.1 - 22.973.17



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Paper Authors


Jonte Bernhard Linköping University, Sweden

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Jonte Bernhard, Ph.D. (Eng.), is an associate professor in experimental physics, especially electronics, at Linköping University, Campus Norrköping, Sweden. His research is presently focused on engineering and physics education, and he has initiated the Engineering Education Research Group at Linköping University. Dr. Bernhard has developed and taught undergraduate and graduate level courses in engineering physics since 1987 and graduate level courses in science, physics and engineering education since 2000. Previously Dr. Bernhard has an extensive record of research in magnetic materials with a Ph.D. in Solid State Physics and a M.Sc. (Eng.) degree in Engineering Physics from Uppsala University. Presently he is chairman of the SEFI Working Group on Engineering Education Research (WG-EER) and co-ordinator for the Nordic Network for Engineering Education Research (NNEER) funded by the Nordic Council.

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Investigating student learning in two active learning labs - Not all “active” learning laboratories result in conceptual understandingPrior research has suggested that a common attribute of successful physics laboratory activitiesis, as Trumper states, “ that they are learner-centred. They induce students to become activeparticipants in a scientific process in which they explore the physical world, analyze the data[and] draw conclusions”. Mechanics, first experienced by engineering students in introductoryphysics, is an important set of foundational concepts for success in engineering. To betterunderstand which aspects of learning environment help students better understand these concepts,the mechanics lab-unit of an introductory physics course for engineering students was split in twodifferent treatment groups. The students participated in the same lecture and the same problem-solving sessions of the class, but with different activities for 16 hours of mechanics lab.The labs normally taken in the course were so-called Richards’ labs (N = 86) in which thestudents explore the relationship between different physical variables for a given physical set-up.The students are free to choose their own procedures and hence these labs could be categorized asinquiry type labs or as an example of active learning. As an alternative a set of “conceptual” labs(N = 25) were offered. The lab-instructions applied task-structure in line with variation theoryand have many similarities with RealTime Physics. Hence, on the surface both sets of labs couldbe seen as inquiry type labs and of active learning.The Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation (FMCE) was administered as a pre- and posttestand students’ activities in the labs were recorded using digital camcorders. The video-data werethen used to detect typical interaction patterns through a data analysis approach inspired byethno-methodology and conversation analysis. Thus, the focus was on students’ practical,contingent and embodied inquiry in the lab setting.The FMCE pre-test results show that the differences between the groups were not statisticallysignificant. However the differences in post-course understanding were striking, and statisticallysignificant (t=2.93, p=0.0003), with a normalized gain of 48% for the conceptual labs and 18%for the regular Richards’ labs. The normalized gain for Richards’ labs is similar in magnitude tothose reported for traditional “cookbook” labs. As a general finding, analysis of video recordingsfrom the conceptual labs showed that students’ activities are framed by encounters with theinstructions, the probe-ware technology, the teacher, and other students. In order to complete theassignments the students must deal with certain concepts in certain ways, i.e. they have to makecertain conceptual distinctions. Students in the conceptual labs explore the relationship betweenand the meaning of different physical concepts. On the other hand, students in the Richards’ labsmade little use of physical concepts in the completion of their assignments.The results show that not all “active” learning environments are effective in developingconceptual understanding. The findings suggest that variation theory is a good tool for designinglabs to promote conceptual understanding.

Bernhard, J. (2011, June), Investigating Student Learning in Two Active Learning Labs: Not All “Active” Learning Laboratories Result in Conceptual Understanding Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18201

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