Factors that affect student frustration level in introductory laboratory experiences

Tomas Estrada, Elizabethtown College
Sara A. Atwood, Elizabethtown College


Laboratory-based courses have long been an integral part of undergraduate curricula in both engineering and basic sciences, and much research has been devoted to gauging and improving their effectiveness . However, particularly in introductory courses with students from different majors and academic backgrounds, conducting successful laboratory experiences continues to entail many challenges, including the mitigation of student frustration level. Studies have shown that frustration may impede progress towards learning goals3, and various authors have studied frustration in different settings, such as web-based courses and programming courses . We build upon these ideas by investigating the impact on student frustration of various factors in laboratory-based courses. Our purpose is to identify qualities of successful introductory laboratory experiences which may help mitigate student frustration. Our study focused on two introductory level laboratory courses (College Physics Laboratory I and College Physics Laboratory II) within the ABET-accredited general engineering curriculum at a small (less than 2,000) regional liberal arts college. Total enrollment in these courses was 34 students, primarily freshmen and sophomores (94%), including 17 men and 17 women (50% each). The courses spanned engineering majors (41%) of different concentrations (electrical, mechanical, computer, and industrial), as well as basic sciences majors (59%). Following several of the laboratory sessions, the students filled out a survey. The survey included questions about their frustration level during the experiment, their perception of the duration of the laboratory session, the primary causes of their frustration (equipment or troubleshooting issues, difficulty with theoretical concepts, lack of support from the instructor, confusing lab document, difficulty working with partner, or outside distractions), whether there were any pre-lab exercises and whether these were helpful, whether the instructor's introduction was too brief or too prolonged, as well as their confidence level regarding both the technical and theoretical aspects of the course. We then examined the relationship between the characteristics of their laboratory experience and their self-reported frustration level. The factor that was most often cited as a cause of frustration was difficulties with equipment and troubleshooting, followed by difficulty with concepts from the theory, and confusing lab documents. In fact, in the two laboratory sessions where the average frustration level was rated as highest, 78% of the students cited equipment issues as a cause of frustration. Interestingly, for the experiment with the highest average frustration level, the second leading cause was confusing lab documents (61% of the students). This points towards the necessity to place particular emphasis on clear documents for introductory laboratory courses, as well as spending more time helping students with instrumentation and troubleshooting. The students generally felt that the 15-minute introduction by the instructor was appropriate and that, when assigned, pre-lab exercises were helpful. Students' confidence level about the technical aspects of the course correlated inversely with frustration level, but their confidence level about the theoretical aspects of the course did not show a clear trend. These results can help craft introductory laboratory experiences with lower student frustration levels. © 2012 American Society for Engineering Education. 1,2 4 5