The Physics Laboratory in Higher Education in Libya

  • Saffia Ali Hamed

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Laboratory work is considered to be a vital part of the entire learning experience in physics and work in the laboratory has the potential to help make physics more real and tangible for the students while they can develop experimental design skills as well as developing observational and problem-solving skills. Sometimes, difficult concepts can be illustrated while laboratory work also offers opportunities for learners to develop skills in thinking, questioning, planning, and interpreting data as well as an opportunity to develop group working skills. Above all, physics, like all other sciences, gains its insights by means of experimentation and learners need experience of this.

    In addition, laboratory work has an important role in understanding a subject like physics in that it can make physics more real for the students. More importantly, there is great scope for developing laboratory learning which will enhance understanding as well as give the students an experience of how experimental evidence is used to develop the insights in physics. The question here is: does laboratory courses in higher education actually achieve these goals in a developing country such as Libya where the laboratories are not highly equipped while the staff and the teachers are not trained adequately?

    Studies have shown that, in laboratory learning, students follow instruction sheets like recipes with little understanding what they are doing, tending to generate negative attitudes. Some key studies have shown clearly that cognitive overload is the source of the problem: the learner’s has to cope with too many ideas at the same time. This study explored this idea and considered how the cognitive load can be reduced, enabling cognitive capacity to be available for greater understanding.The entire work was carried out on three stages with the students in the Faculty of Science at Sebha University, a typical university in Libya.

    The first experimental study (N = 150) aimed to gain an overall picture of the problems in Libya, look at how learners saw their school and their university experiences in laboratory work in physics. Questionnaires were designed to establish a picture of what was going on and where the problems lay. The survey showed the learners’ need for the security of instruction sheets but they were following these like recipes and not understanding what they were doing.

    In the light of these findings, pre-laboratory exercises were designed and post-laboratory exercises were constructed, for each experiment. The pre-laboratory exercise involved a set of simple tasks for the students to complete allowing them to revise underpinning ideas, grasp the key point of the experiment and how it was to be done. The overall aim was to reduce the pressure on limited working memory capacity as they undertook the experiment. The post-laboratory exercises were also short and were designed to allow the students to apply the ideas they had learned. The post-laboratory exercises were marked and the scores were used as a measure of understanding.

    When used with a sample of students (N = 95), the changes brought about by the use of pre-laboratory exercises were explored by considering their performance in the post-laboratory exercises while student perceptions of the experience were considered using a questionnaire. It was found that the pre-laboratory exercises improved understanding quite markedly with the students at Sebha University and their attitudes towards the whole pre-laboratory experience was very positive.

    In the third and final stage, pre-laboratory and post-laboratory were also employed with a sample of students (N = 106)but the post-lab exercises were extended considerably. The laboratory instructions sheets were re-written completely to make the whole learning experience a more cohesive whole. The outcomes were considered using performance in the post-laboratory exercises while student opinions were surveyed again.

    In both stages two and three, performance in the post-lab exercises offered insight into how well the students understood what they had done. In addition, at the end of stage three, semi-structured interviews were carried out with university teachers to explore the views of university teachers relating to physics laboratories in Libya.

    The findings of the third stage and second stage were compared to see what is new in students’ perceptions (N = 106). The question being explored here was whether the key to the greater success lay in the pre-laboratory exercises on their own or whether the re-written instruction sheets made further major improvements. It was found that there were only very small further improvements, thus confirming that the pre-learning from the pre-laboratory exercises was the key.

    The overall conclusions, this study has demonstrated the power and effectiveness of simple pre-laboratory exercises in a typical Libyan university physics course in enhancing understanding in physics. In almost all the survey items, the responses of the students who worked with pre-lab (with pre-laboratory group) were significantly more positive than the responses from the students who worked without pre-lab (without pre-laboratory group). Comparing the second stage and the third stage revealed little change, suggesting that the key to the performance improvement as well as the changes in student perceptions was largely due to the pre-laboratory exercises.

    Implications of the findings are discussed, especially in the context of education in Libya.
    Date of Award2013
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorNorman Reid (Supervisor) & Susan Rodrigues (Supervisor)


    • Laboratory work
    • Pre-laboratory exercises
    • Working memory capacity
    • Higher education

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