‘What do you think the aims of doing a practical chemistry course are?’ A comparison of the views of students and teaching staff across three universities

Stephen R. George-Williamsa, Angela L. Ziebella, Russell R. A. Kitsonb, Paolo Coppob, Christopher D. Thompson*a and Tina L. Overton*a
aSchool of Chemistry, Monash University, Victoria, 3800, Australia. E-mail: Stephen.george@monash.edu
bDepartment of Chemistry, University of Warwick, Gibbet Hill, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK

Received 15th September 2017 , Accepted 18th January 2018

First published on 19th January 2018

The aims of teaching laboratories is an important and ever-evolving topic of discussion amongst teaching staff at teaching institutions. It is often assumed that both teaching staff and students are implicitly aware of these aims, although this is rarely tested or measured. This assumption can lead to mismatched beliefs between students and teaching staff and, if not corrected for, could lead to negative learning gains for students and become a source of frustration for teaching staff. In order to measure and identify this gap in a manner that could be readily generalised to other institutions, a single open question – ‘What do you think the aims of doing a practical chemistry course are?’ – was distributed to students and teaching staff at two Australian universities and one UK university. Qualitative analysis of the responses revealed that students and teaching staff held relatively narrow views of teaching laboratories, particularly focusing on aims more in line with expository experiences (e.g. development of practical skills or enhances understanding of theory). Whilst some differences were noted between students at the three institutions, the large amount of similarities in their responses indicated a fairly common perception of laboratory aims. Of the three groups, academics actually held the narrowest view of teaching laboratories, typically neglecting the preparation of students for the workforce or the simple increase in laboratory experience the students could gain. This study highlights gaps between the perceptions of students and teaching staff with regards to laboratory aims alongside revealing that all three groups held relatively simplified views of teaching laboratories.


The role of laboratory instruction in teaching science has been a topic of discussion for well over a century. Indeed, the argument of whether or not teaching laboratories should focus on theory or practical skills dates as far back as the early 1800s when Michael Faraday produced a book titled Chemical Manipulation (Faraday, 1830). It was unique for its time as it ‘did not discuss mathematical equations, argue for new chemical laws, or try to interrelate experimental data and theoretical ideas’ (DeMeo, 2001). It is important to discuss the aims of teaching laboratories as, in the words of Shah (2007), ‘It would be rare to find any science course in any institution of education without a substantial component of laboratory activity’.

Originally, teaching laboratories in the mid-1800s typically aimed to teach technical skills required for industry and research (Good, 1936; Elliott et al., 2008). This has changed over time, becoming more complex and including more diverse aims (ICSU-CTS, 1979; Shymansky and Penick, 1979; Kirschner and Meester, 1988; Linn, 1997; Johnstone and Al-Shuaili, 2001; Reid and Shah, 2007) which can be broadly considered as (but not limited to):

(1) A chance for students to learn science in a more tactile, engaging way.

(2) Complementing underlying scientific theory.

(3) Developing technical skills.

(4) Imparting scientific methodology.

(5) Enhancing transferable/soft skills (communication, time management, etc.).

The importance of communicating these aims to students is well known and forms the basis of the passionate plea of Reid and Shah (2007) – ‘There is a need for a clarification of aims and objectives, and these need to be communicated to learners’. Significant strides towards measuring the perceptions of academic staff around the aims and goals of teaching laboratories has been undertaken in the US. They have been investigated either through interviews (Bruck et al., 2010; Bretz et al., 2013) or the Faculty Goals Survey (Bruck and Towns, 2013; Bretz et al., 2016).

The interviews (Bruck et al., 2010; Bretz et al., 2013) highlighted that academic staff held a range of aims ranging from the development of transferable skills (such as teamwork, independence, critical thinking and scientific communication), the development of practical skills and imparting theoretical understanding. The results of the survey (Bruck and Towns, 2013; Bretz et al., 2016) identified aims that appeared to be course dependent. For example, when comparing organic chemistry to general chemistry, laboratory writing was rated more important, whilst teamwork was less so. It was also noted that the stated aims changed with year level.

It is important to identify the perspective of the students themselves, as their positive perceptions of teaching laboratories are closely linked with their success with respect to both affective and cognitive learning goals (Rentoul and Fraser, 1979; Fraser, 1981). Several studies have investigated the expectations of students towards how they will think and feel during a laboratory exercise, particularly through the lens of Novak's theory of meaningful learning (Galloway and Bretz, 2015a, 2015b; Galloway et al., 2016). Whilst the underlying cognitive and affective expectations of the students were successfully mapped, these studies did not actively address what students’ perceive the underlying aims of the teaching laboratory to be.

The student held beliefs of the importance of a range of identified laboratory aims was investigated by Boud et al. (1980). It was found that chemistry students perceived aims such as the development of practical skills or connection to theory as more important than the development of problem solving skills or ‘the use of labs as a process of discovery’. These results were compared to both graduates and practising scientists and employers, who focused more on developing observational skills and critical awareness, with enhanced student–teacher relations and enhancing engagement as less important. It is worth noting that this study only focused on a single institution and potentially restricted students to a given list of aims rather than allowing the students to raise their own.

In 2008, an effort was made to avoid leading the students through 13 interviews with university undergraduate students (Russell and Weaver, 2008). A grounded theory approach was taken to the analysis of the students’ responses after they were asked about their laboratory experiences and what they perceived the point of them to be. Their responses indicated that a significant mismatch existed between the opinions of teaching staff and students, with students primarily focused on merely completing the task for assessment purposes to the exclusion of all else. Studies can also be found in the secondary schools (Lynch and Ndyetabura, 1983; Wilkinson and Ward, 1997), indicating mismatches between students and teaching staff around the perceptions of the aims of laboratory activities.

A more recent study (DeKorver and Towns, 2015) sought to investigate students’ personal goals throughout a given laboratory experience. Video recordings of laboratory sessions were collected and supplemented with interviews with students. It was noted that students tended to focus on ‘affective goals’, namely through finishing the required tasks in a short time period. This was found to be at odds with any psychomotor or cognitive goals that the students may have held. Whilst important, this study was undertaken with a limited number of participants in general (or first year) chemistry and is, therefore, difficult to generalise to a large population. Furthermore, the students’ responses were focused on a single experiment, rather than on all laboratory experiences.

There are few studies that directly assess or measure the perceptions of students and teaching staff of the aims of teaching laboratories on a large scale beyond the US context. Hence, this study sought to investigate the contemporary perceptions of the aims of teaching laboratories held by:

(1) students at all year levels at three different institutions. This ensures a large scale, international study that may potentially be generalised to other contexts.

(2) teaching associates and academic members of staff at three institutions.


This study was undertaken at three institutions, two within Australia (Monash University and the University of New South Wales) and one in the United Kingdom (the University of Warwick). The aim of this study was to compare students’ and teaching staff's perceptions of the aims of practical laboratory activities within degree programmes. This was investigated using a qualitative analysis of responses to either a paper-based survey or an audio-recorded one-to-one interview. Further funding is also gratefully acknowledged from the Monash Warwick Alliance Seed fund. Ethics approval was obtained at Monash University and was accepted by the ethics approval boards and the other two institutions.

Data collection

Undergraduate students and teaching associates (sometimes referred to as laboratory demonstrators) were asked to answer a single open question – ‘What do you think the aims of doing a practical chemistry course are?’. The survey also included some general demographic questions about age and gender, and domestic/international enrolment for students, or the amount of teaching or industry experience for teaching associates.

It was made clear to both teaching associates and students that the survey was not compulsory and would not affect either their academic standing or employment in anyway.

At Monash University, all students enrolled in chemistry courses, at any year level, were given the opportunity to complete the survey. In total, two first year courses, three second year courses and four third year courses were surveyed. There were 1600–1800 students enrolled in these courses in mid-2016. Overall responses rates varied from Teaching associates were asked to complete the survey at the end of a compulsory training session in early 2017. There were approximately 120 teaching associates present who taught across all year levels.

At the University of New South Wales (UNSW), students were asked to complete the survey at the end of their first teaching laboratory in semester 1, 2017. Unlike Monash University, access was not readily available to all chemistry courses so three second year and two third year courses were surveyed. The number of enrolled students was also 1600–1800 students but only 1300–1400 received the survey. Approximately 120 teaching associates at UNSW received the survey during their compulsory training session in early 2017. These particular teaching associates only taught at the first-year undergraduate level.

Responses from students at the University of Warwick were obtained during three separate events where a free lunch was provided, scheduled on days when students were undertaking laboratory exercises early in their academic year (late 2016). Third year students were not surveyed until May of 2017 due to scheduling commitments. There were approximately 490 students enrolled in the first three year levels at the University of Warwick at the time of data collection. Approximately 60 teaching associates were encouraged to complete the survey during the same laboratory sessions as the students.

Lastly, academic members of staff at all three institutions were asked the same single question as students and teaching associates, but during an audio-recorded one-to-one interview. Another question, ‘With those aims in mind, do teaching laboratories at your institution succeed at meeting those aims?’ was also raised during this interview. Staff were approached via email and were not compensated in any way.

Research theoretical framework

The primary theoretical framework underpinning this study is Constructivism which postulates that learning constantly evolves and is heavily reliant upon day-to-day experiences (Leal Filho and Pace, 2016). Hence, in the case of a respondent's perceptions of the aims of a laboratory programme, it is postulated that their responses will be mediated by their previous experiences. Therefore, the responses from participants to being asked to reflect on the purpose of laboratory learning will be as a result of any prior understanding that they have built for themselves. The non-leading nature of the open question ensures the respondent will draw from their own personal experiences and understanding rather than being prompted by the survey, the researchers or by interactions with others at the time of the response.

Data analysis

Of the surveys and interviews actually completed, 1917 undergraduate students (1108 from Monash University, 523 from UNSW and 283 from the University of Warwick), 118 teaching associates (91 from Monash University and 26 from the University of Warwick) and 34 academic members of staff (13 from Monash University, 12 from UNSW and nine from the University of Warwick) were transcribed verbatim. Typically, 40–75% of any cohort completed the survey. Whilst courses at Australian Universities are typically designed for students of a given year level, they are actually open to students of all year levels. Therefore, whilst for example most students in a second year course would be second year students, there may be some variation. The data were then analysed for emerging themes using the qualitative analysis program NVivo (version 11.3).

Analysis was first attempted on the largest dataset, which was students enrolled in first year at Monash University (n = 782). In order to ensure that the results were unaffected by the bias of a single researcher, themes extracted from the data by a sole researcher were then used by a team of six chemical education researchers to code a sample of the transcribed data (50 responses). Throughout this process, subtle differences in themes were noted requiring the addition of some new themes or splitting of existing large themes (such as students raising the development of specific practical skills versus simply becoming accustomed to the overall laboratory environment, which were both originally assigned to the development of practical skills).

The themes were subsequently reconsidered and revised and were again used to code the data, this time by three researchers over two iterations. This resulted in an inter-rater reliability (i.e. the percentage of times multiple researchers/raters choose the same theme) of greater than 90%. Hence, the values in this article may vary by up to 10%. These final themes were then used to code the rest of the responses from all three institutions.

All transcribed responses were coded to the themes generated and NVivo provided the number of participants who raised a particular theme. These data were then expressed as a % of participants who raised the theme and were presented graphically. In order to determine the significance of any differences between either universities, year levels or demographics, the coded data was analysed with SPSS using a Pearson's Chi Squared test to ensure differences held to the 95% confidence interval (i.e. p < 0.05). Cramer's V was calculated in order to measure the effect sizes of any differences (small, 0.05–0.25, medium, 0.25–0.5, or large, >0.5).

Results and discussion

The cohorts of students who responded to the survey and their demographic data are shown in Table 1. From the analysis of the largest subset of the qualitative data (Monash first years), and the subsequent inter-rater reliability tests, 11 major themes describing the aims of teaching laboratories emerged from the responses (Table 2). An additional theme labelled as ‘other/unassigned’ was used for a large variety of responses that were considered either nonsensical or irrelevant. The percentage of respondents raising a theme is shown in Table 3.
Table 1 The demographic breakdown of the students who responded to the survey at Monash University, UNSW and the University of Warwick
Monash University (N) 1st year students 2nd year students 3rd year students
782 187 139
Gender (%) M 46 51 60
F 52 47 37
Other 2 2 2
Age (%) 16–18 46 6 1
19–21 49 85 71
22+ 5 9 28
Enrolment (%) Domestic 92 92 90
International 8 8 10

UNSW (N) 1st year students 2nd year students 3rd year students
368 107 53
Gender (%) M 52 43 51
F 48 57 45
Other 0 0 4
Age (%) 16–18 65 12 0
19–21 29 79 80
22+ 6 9 20
Enrolment (%) Domestic 88 75 85
International 12 25 15

University of Warwick (N) 1st year students 2nd year students 3rd year students
148 58 77
Gender (%) M 45 49 54
F 55 51 46
Other 0 0 0
Age (%) 16–18 51 0 0
19–21 48 100 70
22+ 1 0 30
Enrolment (%) Domestic 90 95 90
International 10 5 10

Table 2 The themes generated through inductive analysis of the responses from first year students at Monash University
Code Theme Examples
TU Aid in theoretical understanding, retention and consolidation. ‘Consolidating what was taught in class’, ‘assist in helping students learn concepts in the course’
AP Allow students to apply, use or visualise theory. ‘Applying what we've learnt in lectures’, ‘To put into use theory in lecture’
WF Prepare students for their future careers in industry or research. ‘Get a job’, ‘In order to help prepare us for future careers in laboratories in industrial and other areas’
EX Increase students’ practical or laboratory experience/exposure/confidence. ‘Provide practical experience’, ‘Becoming used to working in a laboratory-based environment’
PS Enhance students’ practical laboratory skills and equipment/instrument use. ‘Build up practical skills’, ‘…learning lab techniques’
TS Enhance students’ general transferable skills. ‘To develop critical thinking and analysis skills’, ‘Getting proficient in doing… experiments within a certain time limit’
CX To contextualise theory in the real world. ‘Familiarising us with real-world chemistry’, ‘applying this knowledge to everyday life’
EG Enhance students’ engagement with the subject. ‘Making it more interesting’, ‘To make the content more engaging…’
SR Enhance students’ understanding and practice of safety and responsibility. ‘To familiarise myself with safe lab procedures…’, ‘Gain practical knowledge in basics of working safely in labs’
SM Enhance students’ understanding of scientific methodology. ‘Understand the methodology of a scientific experiment’, ‘understand methods for conducting experiments…’
LV Allow students to learn chemistry in different ways tactile/hands-on, visual, etc. ‘Applying concepts learned… in a 'hands-on' way’, ‘hands-on learning’
OT Other/unassigned. Varied-forced requirement, desire for marks, negative comment, advancement of science or unexplainable.

Table 3 The percentages of students raising a given theme as per university and year level
Codes Monash University UNSW The University of Warwick
1st year 2nd year 3rd year 1st year 2nd year 3rd year 1st year 2nd year 3rd year
(%) (%) (%) (%) (%) (%) (%) (%) (%)
Top six aims raised
TU 49 32 31 39 34 28 43 34 32
AP 30 28 34 31 49 36 31 21 35
WF 20 30 30 20 32 30 42 41 34
EX 22 37 32 27 13 23 31 24 19
PS 23 36 47 38 36 50 49 53 60
TS 12 16 25 7 14 11 29 50 60
Bottom six aims raised
CX 5 5 8 4 0 8 3 3 6
EG 5 0 3 5 2 6 5 7 3
SR 5 5 6 7 3 6 4 2 9
SM 4 2 1 2 1 2 0 0 3
LV 5 6 1 3 3 4 3 7 3
OT 7 3 3 2 3 10 0 0 6

First year students

The most common aims raised by first year undergraduate students at each of the institutions are shown in Fig. 1. The six aims, TU (enhancing theoretical understanding), AP (application of theory), PS (developing practical skills), EX (gaining general laboratory experience), WF (preparation for the workforce) and TS (developing transferable skills), were all identified by at least 10% of the cohort (and therefore considered to be meaningful) at one or more of the three institutions. The other six aims, CX (contextualising theory), EG (enhancing student engagement), SR (imparting safety/responsibility), SM (developing scientific methodology), LV (learning by varied means) and OT (other) were raised by too few students to be considered relevant in this case.
image file: c7rp00177k-f1.tif
Fig. 1 The percentage of first year students raising the six most common themes at all three institutions.

Possible demographic effects in the data were considered, such as gender identity, age and domestic or international enrolment. To ensure enough responses in each sub-group, these effects were investigated in the largest cohort, the Monash University first year undergraduates.

Gender identity was noted to have minimal effects upon the data, with only two themes showing any significant differences. These were more female-identifying respondents raising application of theory (AP, p = 0.002, small effect, V = 0.114) and more male-identifying respondents raising developing practical skills (PS, p = 0.008, small effect, V = 0.096). Neither age (determined through the use of categories, 16–18, 19–21 or 22+) nor domestic/international enrolment showed statistically significant differences. It should be noted that as only 63 international students responded, this result could underestimate differences in their viewpoints. Overall, demographic effects were considered minimal and likely to be so in all other comparisons made throughout this study.

The fact that five of the six major aims (application of theory, gaining general laboratory experience, enhancing theoretical understanding, developing practical skills and preparation for the workforce – AP, EX, TU, PS and WF) were raised by more than 10% of the students who responded in each institution indicates that this result is likely to be generalisable between Australia and the UK as it appears independent of university, country, culture or prior schooling. This would imply that students generally appreciate that teaching laboratories aim to (a) provide a chance to apply theoretical knowledge, (b) provide general laboratory experience, (c) enhance and consolidate theory, (d) impart technical skills and (e) prepare students for the workforce.

Interestingly, the sixth major aim, enhance transferable skills (TS), was only raised by more than 10% of the respondents at two of the institutions, Monash University (by 12% of the cohort) and the University of Warwick (by 29% of the cohort). This large variation would suggest that the students’ perception of the importance of developing transferable skills is more variable than the other skills commonly identified. This may be the result of the different university systems in Australia and the UK. In Australia, students undertake a far more generalised degree compared to the focused nature of the UK system. Hence, UK students may be more focused on developing skills required in the workforce. Another possibility is that the UK higher education system is simply more focused on the development of employability skills in higher education, particularly as a result of the Dearing report (Dearing and Education, 1997), which highlighted the need for these skills approximately 30 years before this study.

There were some subtle differences between the prevalence of the common aims raised by students from different institutions. The most common aim identified by the Monash University cohort was enhancing theoretical understanding (TU, ∼49% of respondents) and indicated that, for these students, the main aim of teaching laboratories was the enhancement of their theoretical understanding. After TU, the appearance of the other aims decreases, ending with the least prominent aim (developing transferable skills, TS) at about 12% of the total number of respondents. It would seem that these students did not consider the development of transferable skills as a notable aim of teaching laboratories. Furthermore, even with employability becoming a major focus of many universities for many years (Taylor, 1986; Boden and Nedeva, 2010; Bennett et al., 2015), the WF aim was raised by only 20% of the students. Even something that may be considered fundamental to working in a laboratory, such as PS, was only raised by 23% of students. These students had experienced one semester of university chemistry teaching laboratories, so these results are unlikely to be a result of inexperience with the university system.

A Pearson's Chi squared test was used to measure the differences between the responses from students at all three institutions. When comparing the responses from UNSW to the Monash University students, the enhancing theoretical understanding (TU) aim was less emphasised (p = 0.002, small effect, V = −0.091) and the gaining general laboratory experience (EX) aim and developing practical skills (PS) aims are more prominent (small effects, p = 0.020, V = 0.069 and p < 0.0005, V = 0.157 respectively). This result is potentially an artefact of the delivery of the laboratory activities at UNSW, which assess practical ‘core skills’ thereby placing more emphasis upon the practical environment and the skills developed within it. There was no significant difference between the two universities for the AP and WF themes.

When considering responses from the University of Warwick, all six aims were raised by more than 20% of the respondents, with three aims (developing transferable skills, developing practical skills and preparation for the workforce – TS, PS and WF) being raised by more than 40%. The prevalence of the TS, PS and WF aims was significantly different to Monash University (p < 0.0005, small-medium effects, V = 0.208, 0.213 and 0.193 respectively). These results indicate that students at the University of Warwick begin their undergraduate careers with a broader view of the aims of a laboratory program. They appear to see the development of practical skills, the enhancement of theoretical understanding or preparation for the workforce as equally valid. These aims are then followed to a lesser extent by the application of theory, gaining general laboratory or practical experience and the development of transferable skills. It is difficult to say if this is due to the UK university system compared to the Australian university system, but it is possible that the students at Warwick, by being required to choose their specialisation so early, are simply more engaged and have more appreciation for the learning potential within chemistry teaching laboratories. Australian students often take first-year chemistry subjects as required elements for other degree paths and it could be this difference between the two systems that is responsible for the different views of the students.

Overall, this study suggests that students identify very similar aims of laboratory programs in chemistry regardless of education system. However, the degree to which they focus on the individual aims can vary.

Higher year students

To measure the impact of their time at University, the responses of second and third-year students were gathered and are shown in Fig. 2–4. As before, only aims that were raised by more than 10% of the students appear in the graphs.
image file: c7rp00177k-f2.tif
Fig. 2 The percentage of students at Monash University raising one of the six main aims.

image file: c7rp00177k-f3.tif
Fig. 3 The percentage of students at the University of Warwick raising one of the six main aims.

image file: c7rp00177k-f4.tif
Fig. 4 The percentage of students at UNSW raising one of the six main aims.

For all institutions, the six main aims (enhancing theoretical understanding, developing practical skills, application of theory, gaining general laboratory experience, preparation for the workforce and developing transferable skills – TU, PS, AP, EX, WF and TS) were generally raised more than 10% of the time in any year level (except for TS from UNSW first-years). Hence, it is reasonable to suggest that a typical student will expect to be addressing these aims throughout their teaching laboratory experiences over their undergraduate careers. Of the six main aims, three (application of theory, gaining general laboratory experience and preparation for the workforce – AP, EX and WF) appeared to show erratic changes that did not correlate with the year level of the students. The other three main aims showed clearer trends, with the enhancing theoretical understanding (TU) aim decreasing in prominence whilst the developing practical skills (PS) and developing transferable skills (TS) aims increased. Hence, it would seem that as they progress through their degrees students began to focus less on developing theoretical understanding and more on obtaining practical and transferable skills. The statistical significance of these changes were evaluated using a Pearson's Chi squared test.

For Monash University the appearance of the enhancing theoretical understanding (TU) aim significantly decreased (p < 0.0005, V = −0.129) whilst the developing practical skills (PS) (p < 0.0005, V = 0.201), gaining general laboratory experience (EX) (p = 0.007, V = 0.089) and developing transferable skills (TS) (p = 0.001, V = 0.121) aims significantly increased (small-medium effects). For UNSW, none of the changes were significantly different between year levels. Lastly, for the University of Warwick, the only significant change was the large increase in the amount of students raising the TS aim (medium effect, p < 0.0005, V = 0.276).

The apparent lower level of change at UNSW and the University of Warwick could be due to a lesser impact of the laboratory program (compared to Monash University) on the students’ perceptions of laboratory aims. Regardless, the constant appearance of the six main aims (with the exception of the developing transferable skills (TS) aim from the UNSW first years) alongside the consistent trends noted, implies that these results could be generalisable to many other universities.

These results also appear to match those reported by Boud et al. (1980) with students more focused on practical skills and theory development/connection as opposed to transferable skills, such as problem solving. Interestingly though, the responses of these students contradicts the results of Russell and Weaver (2008), with students showing appreciation for aims outside of simple assessment. Overall, this large scale study would appear to show students have a broader view of laboratory aims than the Russell and Weaver study, but the same somewhat narrow view highlighted in the original survey by Boud et al. (1980). Additionally, these results differ from those noted by DeKorver and Towns (2015), with students freely raising a range of aims beyond the narrow view of simply finishing the experiment on time or to complete forced assessment. Furthermore, many of the additional cognitive or psychomotor aims were raised with no more than the original prompt further highlighting their importance in the students’ minds.

It is worth noting that understanding of the scientific method, or the ability to plan and undertake an experiment, are themes that were never raised by more than 10% of the responding students. This may highlight a need for either a greater number of experiences that focus on these aims (e.g. inquiry or discovery experiences) or a more overt conversation with the students to emphasise the importance of these aims.

Teaching associates

The perceived aims of the laboratory experience as viewed by teaching associates could significantly impact on the engagement and overall learning of the students. As per Dobson et al. (2012), teaching associates ‘set the tone for the type of learning that goes on in the laboratory’. Tables 4 and 5 show the demographic breakdown of the teaching associate cohort as well as the number of times a given theme was raised (Table 6). Note that there were too few responses from the UNSW teaching associates to be considered representative, hence this set is not shown.
Table 4 The demographic breakdown of the teaching associates who responded to the survey at Monash University
Monash University
N 91
Gender (%) M 54
F 45
Other 1
Age (%) 19–21 15
22–24 33
25+ 52
Teaching experience <one year 44
≥one year 56
Industry experience <one year 69
≥one year 31
Occupation Postgraduate student 75
Other 25

Table 5 The demographic breakdown of the teaching associates who responded to the survey at the University of Warwick
University of Warwick
N 26
Gender (%) M 57
F 40
Other 3
Age (%) 22–24 50
25+ 50
Teaching experience <one year 30
≥one year 70
Industry experience <one year 78
≥one year 22
Occupation Postgraduate student 100

Table 6 The number of responses (converted to percentages) of teaching associates raising a given theme by university
Codes Monash University University of Warwick
N % N %
TU 23 25 10 38
AP 37 41 9 35
CX 2 2 0 0
WF 18 20 8 30
EX 21 23 4 15
PS 57 63 15 58
TS 39 43 2 8
EG 5 5 2 8
SR 13 14 2 8
SM 0 0 1 4
LV 0 0 0 0
OT 10 10 0 0

Fig. 5 shows the results when teaching associates were asked the same open question as the students. As before, only aims that were raised by more than 10% of the teaching associates are shown, with two exceptions shown for comparison.

image file: c7rp00177k-f5.tif
Fig. 5 The percentage of teaching associates raising one of the seven main aims by university.

As with the student data, any potential demographic effects on the responses of the teaching associates was first considered, such as gender, prior teaching experience or time spent working in industry. Only the Monash data allowed for this, due to a smaller number of responses from Warwick University. With regards to gender identity, variations were found in the developing practical skills (PS) aim (27% more male identifying responses, medium effect, p = 0.010, V = 0.271) and the application of theory (AP) aim (27% more female identifying responses, medium effect, p = 0.011, V = 0.267) with both differences being significant. These results suggest that male-identifying teaching associates were more focused on the development of the students’ practical skills whereas female-identifying teaching associates were more focused on the students’ application of theory.

Whether the teaching associates had worked in industry for more than one year had no significant effect upon the aims raised by respondents. However, teaching associates with more than one year of teaching experience were 19% more likely to raise the enhancing theoretical understanding (TU) aim (small-medium effect, p = 0.041, V = 0.218) and 23% less likely to raise the preparation for the workforce (WF) aim (medium effect, p = 0.008, V = −0.285). It would appear that teaching experience resulted in a shift in focus from workforce preparation towards enhancing theoretical understanding. Overall, demographic effects were more pronounced in the responses of the teaching associates compared to the students but, for the purpose of subsequent analysis of this study, they will be treated as a single group apart from their institution. No literature examples of these differences could be found by the authors at this time.

The responses of teaching associates from Monash University and the University of Warwick indicate that five of the themes raised by them were also raised by the students (developing practical skills, application of theory, enhancing theoretical understanding, gaining general laboratory experience, and preparation for the workforce – PS, AP, TU, EX and WF). There are no significant differences between the teaching associate cohorts according to the Pearson's Chi squared test. The high levels of the PS aim (∼60%) indicates that many teaching associates at both universities mainly see teaching laboratories as a chance for students to develop practical skills.

The next aims (application of theory, gaining general laboratory experience, enhancing theoretical understanding and preparation for the workforce – AP, EX, TU and WF) vary slightly in prominence, ranging from 15% (University of Warwick, EX aim) to 41% (Monash University, AP aim). This indicates that these aims, whilst still relevant, are a secondary focus for teaching associates. Following these five aims, there are stark differences between the two cohorts. The teaching associates at Monash University raised a new aim, SR (Safety and Responsibility). It is reassuring to see this as the teaching associates are usually directly responsible for the safety of the students. However, its placement as the least prominent aim could be considered a matter for concern. The other major difference was that the teaching associates at the University of Warwick raised the developing transferable skills (TS) aim less than 10% of the time. This is particularly interesting, as students at the University of Warwick were very likely to raise this aim in their final year which indicates a major inconsistency between student and teaching staff expectations.

The teaching associates at Monash University held views generally consistent with students in the final years of their degrees. This could be due to the teaching associates’ potential position as role models shaping students to eventually have viewpoints that matched their own. If this were true, one would expect to see the students at the University of Warwick responding in a manner more consistent with their teaching associates as well, which is not the case (particularly in the developing transferable skills, TS, aim). However, in Australia the role of the teaching associate is well established and teaching associates take more ownership and responsibility for the laboratory teaching environment that their counterparts in the UK. Furthermore, teaching associates in the UK are less varied than those in Australia, who are from more varied backgrounds and generally have more teaching experience. It is possible that this leads to stronger role modelling in Australia and, hence, more similarities between teaching associates’ views and those of their students.

In general, the data from the teaching associates at both institutions highlighted a range of similarities and differences between student and teaching staff perceptions of the aims of teaching laboratories. Importantly, the results were different for the two universities, implying that one cannot assume the mind-set of the teaching associates; it must be investigated at each institution. As teaching associates have a potentially high impact on a learning experience, the influence of the beliefs of the teaching associates should not be underestimated. This influence could be addressed through enhanced training of teaching staff (Dobson et al., 2012) or better communication with students, depending on which group held aims more consistent with those desired by a given institution.

Academic staff

Whilst teaching associates arguably spend the most face-to-face time with students in the laboratories, it is generally the academic staff that direct and design the overall teaching laboratory activities. Through controlling which activities will be undertaken, academics (either intentionally or unintentionally) can determine which laboratory aims will be focused on. Hence, gathering the views of academics on teaching laboratories is important and was achieved through interviews rather than a written response to a survey. Two main questions were asked, ‘What do you think the aims of doing a practical chemistry course are?’ and ‘With those aims in mind, do teaching laboratories at your institution succeed at meeting those aims?’

Through the inherent nature of an interview, much longer responses were obtained from the academics than either the teaching associates or the students. Assignment of themes was simplified as they typically justified their statements, shown in the following in depth example (as well as the assigned codes):

‘I think that, er, that we want students to be learning a set of techniques that they’re going to be using… It is also about learning concepts and encountering concepts in a practical setting. It's about, um, learning to work safely… It's also about learning to work cooperatively, certainly in an environment that is a bit closer to, um, a working environment… I think we need to think about the broader aspects of learning and exploring within a safe environment and working together are increasingly important.’ (PS, AP, SR, WF and TS)

Of the 34 academic members of staff, only their professional titles are shown in Table 7 as no demographic evidence was collected during the interviews. Table 8 shows the number of times a given theme was raised.

Table 7 The role titles of the academic members of staff who participated in the interviews at all three universities
Title Percentage
Lecturer 13
Senior lecturer 16
Associate professor/reader 39
Professor 32

Table 8 The number of responses (converted to percentages) of academics raising a given theme
Codes N % Codes N %
TU 10 30 TS 11 33
AP 17 52 EG 2 6
CX 0 0 SR 1 3
WF 2 6 SM 2 6
EX 2 6 LV 0 0
PS 22 67 OT 1 3

Results of the analysis of the academics’ responses are shown in Fig. 6. Again, only themes raised by more than 10% of the cohort are shown and, due to a limited number of responses from each individual university, the results responses from all three institutions are combined. The graph shows yet another variation from the student responses, with only four major aims being raised. These four aims do however coincide with those raised by both the students and the teaching associates. The most consistently raised one was PS, the development of practical skills. Other skills, such as transferable skills, appeared but to a lesser extent, and more in line with enhancing theoretical knowledge and applying that theory to real examples. The notable lack of the preparation for the workforce (WF) or gaining general laboratory experience (EX) aims indicates that many academics do not see the teaching laboratory as environment in which students could be more prepared for the workforce or as a chance to gain general laboratory experience (although this may be simply due to the subtle difference between this and simply developing practical skills).

image file: c7rp00177k-f6.tif
Fig. 6 The percentage of academics raising one of the four main aims.

Although there are too few responses from any institution to allow for generalisation, additional themes, such as understanding of scientific methodology or independent inquiry (SM) were raised by some individuals. This is exemplified in the following quote and shows that some academics do hold a broader view of the aims of the teaching laboratory:

‘… I guess the main purpose is to get students to start thinking about independent inquiry… they get to try out following their own idea and that's when it becomes quite independent, the nature of it. I think it's quite nice. It's a nice transition from a first or second year lab to like a research project.

Of the academics interviewed, most held the view that whilst many laboratory activities were well implemented, some activities did not meet the aims that they themselves raised, and typically cited they were too traditional or expository. This is exemplified in the following quote:

‘I still think there's an element of spoon-feeding, especially in year one. I do not know year two as well but I still think we’re not allowing them to have enough fun.’

This situation is further complicated by the fact that academic staff are often either in disagreement about laboratory aims or are given insufficient guidance, as exemplified by the response:

‘I do not think we have any clear guidance or leadership on what our labs should aim for. I do not think we actually have a clear strategy on that. I think there's a lot of disagreement about what they should be used for, um, among the staff.’

These results are in strong agreement with the faculty-focused work conducted in the US (Bruck et al., 2010; Bretz et al., 2013; Bruck and Towns, 2013; Bretz et al., 2016). These studies highlighted a general consensus on the need to develop transferrable and practical skills whilst also imparting theoretical knowledge. Furthermore, the underlying development of scientific methodology or experimental design was generally lacking from both the participants in this and those earlier studies. Some US academics did raise the aim of preparing students for research but, as the number who raised this is unknown, it is difficult to determine if this a greater theme than that noted here.

Not only is it important for academic staff to attempt to come to an agreement about the aims of teaching laboratories, it is also important that they ensure that these aims are fully conveyed to the students and teaching associates. Either simply adding these aims to laboratory manuals or online resources is unlikely to be effective, and will require constant discussion and reinforcement with the students and teaching associates. If it is desired that students fully engage with teaching laboratories in a manner directed by teaching staff, then the value of these critical conversations cannot be underestimated. Without them, the situation represented in this article with academics, teaching associates and students all holding relatively narrow views of the aims of teaching laboratories (likely born from expository experiences) is likely to continue. It is also important for academics themselves to have conversations with one another in order to expand their viewpoints of teaching laboratories beyond the relatively simplistic aims raised in this article.


The responses from the students and teaching staff over the three universities generated a large amount of very rich data which directly related to the central aim of this work; to investigate what students and teaching staff perceived the aims of teaching laboratories to be. However, as in all studies, there are limitations to this work that need to be addressed when discussing analysis of the results. These include, but are not limited to: the delivery of the surveys and interviews, number of responses, the method of interpretation and demographics (e.g. gender, enrolment or age).

The number of responses at the University of Warwick appear low due to a lower number of enrolled students. The number of responses at UNSW are also lower than Monash University due to the inherent time pressure of their teaching laboratories, resulting in fewer students having the time to complete the survey. Neither effect was considered to negate the results obtained, as there was, in all cases, a response rate greater than approximately 30% and even as high as 80%. The number of teaching associates responding at the University of Warwick also appeared low, but again represented a significant percentage of the entire cohort (approximately 43%). Hence, the number of responses was not considered a major issue in this case.

The method of interpretation would likely be a major source of error, with some theme assignments shifting by up to 10% upon consultation with other chemical education researchers. However, it is believed that the iterative nature of the theme generation negated these issue to significant degree, as reflected in the high level of inter-rater reliability.

Demographic effects were considered throughout the study and could potentially effect the results to varying degrees. Having being measured, it should be noted that the changes discussed throughout this article were generally unlikely to be the cause of the overall changes noted.


The perceptions of 1917 undergraduate students, 118 teaching associates and 34 academic members of staff were transcribed verbatim from surveys and interviews focusing on the open question – ‘What do you think the aims of doing a practical chemistry course are?’. These responses were sourced from two Australian universities (Monash University and UNSW) as well as one UK university (the University of Warwick). Inductive analysis resulted in 11 themes being found, with only 4–6 being raised by more than 10% of any of the respective subgroups. These aims were quite narrow and primarily focused on those more in line with expository experiences, such as developing practical skills, applying theory or enhancing theoretical understanding. Other aims, such as the development of transferable skills, preparation for the workforce or gaining general laboratory experience were raised to a lesser degree, with the last two aims not raised by more than 10% of the academic members of staff. This study showed that whilst differences did exist between the perceptions of teaching staff and students, all three groups would likely benefit from either a greater number of conversations around teaching laboratory aims, or simply a larger variety of teaching experiences. Due to the large numbers of respondents alongside the use of three different international institutions, it is believed that this result is applicable to many modern universities around the world.

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts to declare.


The authors would like to acknowledge and thank, first and foremost, the students, teaching associates and academics who participated in this work, whose honest feedback will result in a far stronger learning experience. The authors would also like to acknowledge the technical staff at Monash University, the University of New South Wales and the University of Warwick, without whom, this work would not have been possible. The authors acknowledge Monash University for funding, and hosting, the Transforming Laboratory Learning program. Further funding is also gratefully acknowledged from the Monash Warwick Alliance Seed fund. Ethics approval was obtained from the Monash University Human Ethics Research Committee, application number 2016000584.


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