Demonstrators’ & Students’ Project

Matching demonstrators’ backgrounds with those of their students: does it make a difference?

About the Project

Titlestudents in laboratory

Matching demonstrators’ backgrounds with those of their students: does it make a difference?

For more detailed information, view the DRAFT report:

iolscience_icon_demonstrators Matching demonstrators’ backgrounds with those
of their students: does it make a difference?

[PDF 812 kB]


The laboratory is a rich learning environment accounting for upto 50% of contact hours in first year for students enrolled in physics subjects. Regrettably, there remains widespread student dissatisfaction of their laboratory experiences in physics leading to national calls for action in this area. Among other factors, laboratory demonstrators or graduate teaching assistants are known to have a significant impact on the student learning experience in inquiry-oriented laboratories. However, little has been written on their influence on student experience in inquiry focused undergraduate laboratories. The project seeks to examine this largely unexplored human dimension aspect of students and demonstrators and their interactions in the undergraduate laboratory.


To examine the effect of alignment between the background, ambitions, and views on teaching and learning of students and their demonstrators on student engagement and satisfaction in first year physics laboratories.


To improve student learning, engagement and experiences in inquiry oriented laboratories through changes in laboratory practices

To make suggestions on demonstrators’ recruitment, induction and professional development


Funded by the Australian Government Office of Learning and Teaching (OLT) Seed Grant

Partners and people

  • Institutions – University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Australia; University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa
  • Team leader – Les Kirkup, UTS
  • Team members – Michael Braun, Meera Varadharajan, UTS; Andy Buffler and Fred Lubben, UCT

Participants and Method

students and demonstrator in laboratoryProject participants included first year non-physics major students enrolled in a physics laboratory program at the University of technology Sydney. The program forms part of a large enrollment core physics subject with student numbers ranging from 150 – 700 depending on semester. Students are enrolled in medical, biological or environmental science degrees.

Participants were also laboratory demonstrators (or graduate teaching assistants). Demonstrators are either ‘Principal’ or ‘Assistant’. Principal demonstrator has primary responsibility for managing laboratory, introducing experiments, assessing the students’ laboratory-based work and assisting students throughout the laboratory session. Assistant demonstrator, who has limited physics background, assists students throughout the laboratory session with no assessment responsibilities.

Project method consisted of surveys, one on one interviews and laboratory observations.

Activity 1- Paper based Questionnaire

  • N= 417 students; N=18 demonstrators
  • Closed and open-ended items
  • 15 closed ended items- 5 Point Likert scale
  • 3 open-ended questions- one to two line response

Activity 2 – Student and demonstrator interviews

  • N=15 students; N= 11 demonstrators
  • One on one semi-structured interviews
  • Core questions as prompts
  • Audio recording transcribed

Activity 3 – Laboratory observation sessions

  • Video recorded observations of 5 laboratory sessions
  • Supplementing data from surveys and interviews
  • Observing student-demonstrator interactions and student engagement and learning

Laboratory Video

University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Australia

Superlab, University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Australia


Data analysis involved both quantitative and qualitative approaches. For the closed ended survey questions, a two-tailed t-test was applied to test a null hypothesis that the means of samples were drawn from the same population at the 0.05 significance level. Themes and patterns in participants’ responses were observed and analysed for the open-ended survey questions. Interview analysis paralleled a phenomenographic approach that qualitatively analysed participants’ descriptions to discover common themes and/or issues revealed.

Major findings:

  • Both students and demonstrators were not entirely comfortable with the open-ended nature of inquiry oriented experiments
  • Both students and demonstrators agreed laboratory manual book does not provide detailed descriptions of experimental procedures
  • Less students than demonstrators thought that physics is an important part of students’ education
  • Less students than demonstrators thought the practical skills developed in the laboratory would contribute to students’ understanding of physics and assist them in their future career
  • Increased dependency on demonstrators by students in laboratory sessions
  • Students were mostly satisfied with their demonstrator as observed in description of demonstrators’ qualities
  • Students assisted by demonstrators in functional and conceptual ways
  • Students suggested making the purpose of laboratory work clear and relevant to their lives.
  • Other suggestions include stronger lecture-laboratory link; smaller laboratory class sizes; effective communication skills and clarity in experimental investigation by demonstrators; opportunities for interaction and collaboration between demonstrators

There are significant differences between the students’ and the demonstrators’ perceptions of interactions in the laboratory. Overall, demonstrators appear to follow the precepts of the inquiry-oriented model of learning while students adopt a direct instruction model.

students in laboratoryLaboratory observations – University of Cape Town (UCT)

As part of the project, a visit to UCT was undertaken by the project team leader. In light of the similarities between the laboratories in UTS and UCT, the purpose of the visit was to observe and gather information on how laboratory learning is conducted and experienced by students. Laboratory observations and one-on-one interviews with selected students, demonstrators and academics formed part of the data collection. The data is yet to be fully analysed to provide effective comparisons between UTS and UCT laboratories.


Demonstrator survey questions

Student survey questions

Demonstrator Interview Questions

Student Interview Questions

Useful References


  • Office of Learning & Teaching Final Report 2015 –
  • STARS Conference 2015 –
  • ACDS conference – presentation at the Australian Council of the Dean of Science, July 2015: Students as learners, leaders and architects: reconceptualising curriculum design, development and delivery of student-centred, laboratory-based, activities. This short presentation was attended by Science Associate Deans Teaching and Learning or equivalent from across Australia and other influential academics including Deans and PVCs.

Future Directions

Through the project outcome and findings, we are looking into ways to effect systemic enhancement of laboratory learning experiences of students. By placing students as learners, leaders and architects, we can re-conceptualise current modes of curriculum design, development and delivery of laboratory based activities.

One way is to adapt and expand on existing and emerging work on student-centred curriculum design and delivery, learning outcomes, and the design of new laboratory learning spaces.

We are currently exploring this for 2016 and beyond.