Dissertation project by Thomas Elert

Dissertation project by Thomas Elert Investigation of the relationship between prior knowledge, goal orientation and success in practical courses

Laboratory practicals are an integral part of any bachelor’s chemistry degree (Hofstein & Lunetta, 2003; Reid & Shah, 2007). Nevertheless, there has already been much debate about the actual value of laboratory-based practical activities for training capable chemists within universities. Critics argue that the cost of labs and their equipment, as well as the additional time required for the organisation and execution of laboratory practicals compared to lectures does not necessarily lead to better learning outcomes (Hawkes, 2004; Reid & Shah, 2007). Furthermore, there seems to be no consensus on the intentions and objectives of laboratory practicals (Reid & Shah, 2007). 

The ongoing discussion about the importance of laboratory practicals is particularly relevant for German universities, which complain about a dropout rate of up to 40% in chemistry within the first year of study (Heublein, Richter, Schmelzer, & Sommer, 2014).

It is notable that the students take a laboratory practical course in general chemistry during this time, which they must pass in order to continue with their studies. Although it seems reasonable to conclude that some of the students decide against further studies due to a lack of success in this practical course, it is not yet clear whether this lack of success is related to individual deficits or a weak didactic concept within the practical course itself. 

For this reason, this project aims to investigate prior knowledge as an individual factor (cf. Ausubel, 1968; Hodson, 1992) and goals as a structural factor (cf. Abrahams & Millar, 2008; Bussey, Orgill & Crippen, 2013) and to examine their influence on course success in a laboratory-based practical course for first-semester student teachers. The findings of this study can be used not only to develop measures to optimise the relationship between input and output of practical laboratory activities, but also to promote the long-term retention of chemistry students at German universities.