The COVID-19 pandemic created unique research opportunities. During the lockdown, a researcher investigated how students perceive laboratory teaching for quality learning in Denmark. The results illustrate that laboratory work is important in the students’ learning experience and further emphasise the importance of dialogue.
Laboratory teaching at universities is enormously resource-intensive and often the first thing universities cut back when they are under financial pressure. Precisely for this reason, a group of researchers decided to investigate how students actually perceive this type of learning. Denmark was locked down as a result of COVID-19 shortly after the student participants began their studies. This situation gave the researchers a unique opportunity to investigate students’ perceptions, since physical laboratory learning went online. Through interviews with a group of students, the researchers tried to determine what frustrated them and what they found positive about both the classical physical format and the online format that was implemented instead.
The participants were pharmacy students in their second year in an instrumental analytical chemistry course.
“We were originally going to interview students at the beginning and end of their course in instrumental analytical chemistry to monitor any trends in how the students perceived the role of laboratory teaching in quality learning. After we began our investigation, Denmark was locked down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We were initially confused about what to do with our study, but we soon realised that the lockdown in Denmark provided a unique opportunity to examine students’ experience of laboratory teaching when they had tried it and then when it was no longer available,” explains Laura Teinholt Finne, PhD student, Department of Pharmacy, University of Copenhagen. The study was carried out in collaboration with the Department of Science Education, University of Copenhagen.
Hard to understand how knowledge arises
In the study, the researchers interviewed 12 students about their experiences with the online teaching activities and their perspectives on what happened to their learning experience when the laboratory was replaced with theoretical online activities. The interviews were conducted 2–3 weeks after the teaching laboratories were locked down.
“Based on the interviews, we clarified two fundamentally important aspects of the laboratory learning experience: a pedagogical aspect and an epistemological one,” says Laura Teinholt Finne.
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature, origin and scope of knowledge. This study showed that the laboratory is especially important for obtaining basic understanding of science and how knowledge arises, and the students could not access this in the online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The teachers decided to hand over the data that the students were supposed to have obtained in the laboratory. So they analysed real data but without doing the work of obtaining the data themselves,” explains Laura Teinholt Finne.
In addition, the students said that their lack of practical experience in the laboratory created difficulty in understanding the scientific structure and causality behind the results.
The students did not feel a part of the process and lacked a narrative structure in the laboratory learning. This further worsened their understanding, and they did not remember things as well as if they had been physically present in the laboratory.
According to Laura Teinholt Finne, the analysis shows the role of the teaching laboratory in shaping physical understanding of the scientific process and knowledge production.
In addition to the epistemological aspect, a pedagogical aspect of the laboratory learning was also very evident.
“However, we found that dialogue between teacher and students and between the students themselves was what the students missed most. They emphasised that they missed the informal, spontaneous dialogue that occurs in a physical laboratory setting,” says Laura Teinholt Finne, adding:
“The results show that the laboratory experience and the close connection to teachers in the laboratory setting play an important role in scaffolding the students’ learning through dialogue and feedback.”
Emphasises the importance of laboratory learning
The study therefore concludes that students have to be present in the laboratory for relevant educational programmes, such as instrumental analytical chemistry, to understand how to think as a researcher and develop argumentation. The laboratory is a good environment for creating the dialogue and feedback needed to understand how a researcher thinks and argues.
“Both the students and their teachers greatly appreciate the more informal interaction in a laboratory and the dialogue that arises there. When you are present in the laboratory, there is time to have spontaneous conversations, give feedback and follow up on these. Giving priority to adequate time in the laboratory is important because otherwise the students experience massive pressure. Dialogue is important and takes time,” concludes Laura Teinholt Finne.