Research: Science and Education
Chemical Education Research
Diane M. Bunce
The Catholic University of America Washington, D.C. 20064
A Review of Laboratory Instruction Styles
Daniel S. Domin* Department of Chemistry, University of Wisconsin–Fox Valley, 1478 Midway Rd. Menasha, WI 54952-8002
Background The constructivist theory of knowledge states that knowledge cannot be transferred from one person to another; it must be actively constructed by the learner through interactions with the environment (1 ). Such a statement implies that the nature of the environment is as important as the characteristics of the learner when it comes to educating the individual, and altering the environment may lead to different learning outcomes. The environment can be operationally defined as those external influences that interact with the learner during the learning process (2 ). For simplicity, this article will limit the discussion of external influences to the general chemistry laboratory and the specific styles by which it is taught. Bloom has stated that curricular innovations are not “acts of faith” but rather new hypotheses, which should be empirically tested (3). Before systematic empirical evaluation of the different laboratory instruction styles can commence, a taxonomy must first be developed. The goal of this paper is to present a taxonomy of laboratory instruction styles and highlight the distinguishing features of each style. Throughout the history of chemistry education, four distinct styles of laboratory instruction have been prevalent: expository, inquiry, discovery, and problem-based. These styles can be differentiated by three descriptors: outcome, approach, and procedure (Table 1). The outcome of any laboratory activity is either predetermined or undetermined. Expository, discovery, and problem-based activities all have predetermined outcomes. For expository lessons, both the students and the instructor are aware of the expected outcome. For discovery and problem-based activities, usually it is only the instructor who knows the expected result. A dichotomy also exists for the approach taken toward the activity. Expository and problem-based activities typically follow a deductive approach, in which students apply a general principle toward understanding a specific phenomenon. Discovery and inquiry lessons are inductive; by observing particular instances, students derive the general principle. The procedure to be followed for any laboratory activity is either designed by the students or provided to them from an external source (the instructor, a laboratory manual, or a
Table 1. Descriptors of the Laborator y Instruction Styles
Style Expository Inquiry Discovery Problem-based Descriptor Outcome Predetermined Undetermined Predetermined Predetermined Approach Deductive Inductive Inductive Deductive Procedure Given Student generated Given Student generated
handout). Inquiry and problem-based methods require the students to develop their own procedure. In expository and most discovery activities the procedure is given to the students. Expository Instruction
Professor Expo wants her students to perform a laboratory activity that verifies the scientific fact, introduced in lecture and textbook readings, that heat can be released or absorbed during a chemical reaction. She also wants them to have practical experience in determining the amount of heat released by using the equation that relates heat flow to mass, specific heat capacity, and change in temperature. She has found just such an experiment in a commercial laboratory manual. It contains a pre-lab section with a detailed explanation of the chemistry the students will encounter, followed by a step-by-step procedure, a place to record data, and some post-lab questions.
The most popular, and yet the most heavily criticized, style of laboratory instruction is the expository (also termed traditional or verification) style. Within the expository learning environment the instructor defines the topic to be investigated, relates the investigation to previous work, and directs the actions of the students. The students repeat the teacher’s instructions or read the directions from a manual (4 ). The procedure the students follow is well stated so they may experience the predetermined outcome that is already known to both them and the instructor. The results obtained are typically used only for comparison against the expected result. As Pickering emphasizes, “[n]ever are the students forced to reconcile results, or confronted with challenge to what is naively predictable” ( 5 ). The traditional expository laboratory has been designed so that the activities can be performed simultaneously by a large number of students, with minimal involvement from the instructor, at a low cost, and within a two- to three-hour time span. It has evolved into its present form from the need to minimize resources, particularly time, space, equipment, and personnel (6 ). The predominant feature of the expository lesson is its “cookbook” nature, which emphasizes following specific procedures to collect data. Virtually no attention is given to the planning of the investigation or to interpreting the results ( 7 ). This manner of instruction has been criticized as placing very little emphasis on thinking (8), being an ineffective means of conceptual change (9), and being unrealistic in its portrayal of scientific experimentation (10). Tobin’s description summarizes these findings (11):
Although teachers appear to value laboratory activities they did not implement it in the manner that facilitated the type of learning that was planned. …In most cases the laboratory investigation is intended to confirm something that has already been dealt with in an expository 543
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All of which are characteristics of meaningful learning ( 16 ). A particular outcome should be expected when learning science. judging evidence. Higher-order thinking is exemplified by such behaviors as inferring. and require the students to generate their own procedure. Science is a full-time exploration for new. It is through deep processing that students are able to integrate new experiences with prior knowledge. Behaviors that would exemplify the lower levels of cognition include remembering. general. models. Kyle. and novel problem-solving tasks (35). The National Research Council describes inquiry as (29)
A set of interrelated processes by which scientists and students pose questions about the natural world and investigate phenomena. 27 ). criticizing. Linn argued that the inquiry approach of the 1960s placed too much demand on the learner’s short-term memory by requiring students to simultaneously attend to new subject matter concepts. designing experiments.
Analysis of expository laboratory activities as they are currently implemented suggests that virtually no meaningful learning takes place (12–14 ). He expects this assignment to be vague enough that the students will have to decide the system to investigate. Analyses of the inquiry-based projects of the 1960s revealed many explanations for their failure. explaining. and determine the activity’s relevance to themselves.
An alternative to traditional laboratory instruction is an inquiry (or open-inquiry) approach. in doing so. in their review. Hofstein and Lunetta assert that laboratory activities have the potential to enrich the formation of science concepts by fostering inquiry. and evaluation (highest) (17 ). state the purpose of the investigation. Yet. Inquiry-based activities
As reflected in the above statement. or applied principles ( 31). 76 No. Inquiry-type activities require the students to formulate the problem. The students will be given the following assignment: Investigate the heat gained or lost for different systems. design their own experiments. inventing .edu
. or evaluation. which introduces the students to a fundamental thermodynamic concept: heat flow. This classification scheme is often dichotomized into lower. Inquiry Instruction
Professor Inq is planning an open-inquiry activity. thrived in the 1960s. students acquire knowledge and develop a rich understanding of concepts. which results in students showing improved attitudes toward science instruction (10.
are inductive (22). namely. First. and collect and analyze their own data. contain less direction. 26.wisc. analysis. and perform the investigation (4 ). That is. Students are usually required to follow a recipe in order to arrive at a predetermined conclusion.chem. This is consistent with the results from content analyses of laboratory manuals from biology and physics (19–21). and we should make certain that our students understand the distinction between the two (30). analyzing . principles. and the development of such inquiry skills as formulating hypotheses.
Journal of Chemical Education • Vol. A strong movement toward establishing inquiry-type instruction. problem-solving skills. or applying a learned rule. Second. and drawing conclusions (33). Domin conducted a content analysis of eleven commercially available general chemistry laboratory manuals and concluded that the majority of them require students to operate predominantly at the three lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. comprehension. the inquiry-based laboratory activity gives students the opportunity to engage in authentic investigative processes. intellectual development. Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives is a hierarchical representation of six cognitive processes: knowledge (lowest). comprehension. Even though research shows inquiry-based instruction to be extremely beneficial in promoting positive attitudes towards science and in fostering critical thinking. This approach effectively gives the student ownership over the laboratory activity (24. application. identify the procedure. Not enough time is allowed for them to actually think about the science principles being applied in the laboratory. Students partaking in an inquiry-based learning activity are not only engaged in a process of learning the same concepts and principles that the scientist learned as a student. however. Inquirybased laboratory activities have also been found to improve students’ ability to utilize formal operational thought (28). Stewart contends that in traditional laboratory instruction students spend more time determining if they obtained the correct results than they spend thinking about planning and organizing the experiment (15 ). 4 April 1999 • JChemEd. unfamiliar laboratory equipment. and application (18). and give the student more responsibility for determining procedural options than the traditional format ( 23). As a consequence the cognitive demand of the laboratory tends to be low. but are also learning the processes and methods of science. recognizing. Raths et al. performing observations and measurements. predict the result. students are not afforded the time necessary for the deep processing of information. it has not been adopted extensively (8 ). pointed out 20 years ago that inquiry instruction is not scientific inquiry. relate the investigation to previous work. synthesis. traditional laboratory activities are designed to facilitate the development of lower-order cognitive skills such as rote learning and algorithmic problem solving. and evaluating arguments. have an undetermined outcome. or appraising. 25).and higher-order mental processes. These attempts at curricular reform failed to achieve their anticipated goals of improved student understanding of science concepts. establish a context for the purpose of the laboratory activity. Professor Inq will help them construct principles pertaining to heat flow. concrete experiences in carrying out scientific investigations. It is through the process of devising plans that intellectual and pedagogic methods are united.Research: Science and Education type lesson. but not when doing science ( 32). Two reasons exist for the inability of traditional laboratory instruction to reach its full potential. a popular notion exists among educators that inquiry instruction mimics scientific inquiry by placing the students into the role of junior scientists. planning. If done properly. in their current format. After the data have been analyzed and the students have made preliminary conclusions. (8) list the following higherorder thinking processes as components of inquiry: hypothesizing. and theories. analysis. Kohlberg and Gilligan believed that the inquiry activities “assumed formal operational thought rather than attempting to develop it” (34 ). and manipulative skills (12). They are more student involved. especially in biology with BSCS and physics with PSSC (22). synthesis. Virtually no activities require students to operate at any of the three higher cognition levels. knowledge.
not only in the general chemistry curriculum (10. but also in other chemistry courses (48–51). No laboratory manual was used and the instructor provided minimal guidance. Duschl concluded that at the same time science education was adopting the perspective of teaching science as an “inquiry into inquiry”.Research: Science and Education
Content analysis by Herron ( 36 ). You don’t know where to look. 39). Through this experience and post-lab discussions. Hodson describes discovery instruction as not only philosophically unsound.
The origin of discovery (or guided-inquiry) laboratory teaching has been traced back to the early 20th century British science educator Henry Armstrong. showing how the procedure fits the experiment. By studying a specific example of a phenomenon. Emphasis was placed on developing testable hypotheses rather than obtaining correct results. how to look. More likely.wisc. the basic definition of inquiry was changing from only learning how to test knowledge claims to also explaining and evaluating these knowledge claims (38. Problem-based learning was also a vehicle for curricular reform in the 1960s. or how to recognize it when you have found it” (32). as soon as one student discovers the principle of interest. Whereas in true inquiry instruction the outcome is unknown to both the instructor and the students. specific heat capacity. students are able to develop a general understanding of the underlying principle. The concept has already been introduced in lecture and in assigned readings from the text. the rest of the students will be given the information. he also recognized that its applicability is limited (54 ):
JChemEd. and the amount of heat a substance releases or absorbs is directly proportional to its mass. much as in an expository lesson. to encourage independent thinking. 4 April 1999 • Journal of Chemical Education
. is inductive. and Lunetta and Tamir (37 ) found that the manner in which the inquiry-based activities were employed did not allow the students opportunities to practice and develop such important inquiry skills as defining a research problem. different materials possess distinct heat capacities. Schwab argued that prior to classroom instruction students should partake of laboratory experiences in which the didactic laboratory manual be “replaced by permissive and open materials which point to areas in which problems can be found” (42). albeit to a lesser extent than discovery or inquiry-based learning. The students will be asked to rank a series of chemical reactions according to the amount of heat given off on a per mole basis. does this constitute discovery learning? It is also unrealistic to expect a group of students to simultaneously discover the same principle. however. the results obtained. Discovery (guided-inquiry) learning differs from inquiry (open-inquiry) learning with respect to the outcome of the instruction and to the procedure followed. and carefully moving the students towards a successful solution to the problem. like inquiry. making it more meaningful and better retained.
desired outcome. providing the necessary materials.chem. The instructor adopted a more active role by posing questions or problems to the students. Advocates of inductive learning emphasize both the value of learning by direct experience and the motivational value of “finding out for one’s self ” (32 ). Discovery learning is meant to personalize the information students acquire. they will be guided toward discovering that during a chemical reaction heat can be released or absorbed. Without any theoretical introduction. in a discovery learning environment the instructor guides the students toward discovering the
Problem-based learning is becoming a popular alternative to the other three styles of laboratory instruction. Discovery Instruction
Professor Disco is having her students perform a guidedinquiry activity that is intended to help them discover the concept of heat flow. and change in temperature. he expects that the students will better understand such concepts as endothermic. They will collect their data and draw conclusions regarding the nature of heat flow. In the same light. exothermic. and identifying limitations.edu • Vol. formulating hypotheses. Although Young recognized some advantages of expository instruction over problem-based learning (clarity in teaching of principles and techniques. The strategies of discovery learning also appear not to be transferable across disciplines ( 46 ). Inductive activities are praised for bringing the undergraduate to the frontier of science (44 ) and for illustrating to the students the methods of science (45 ). but also pedagogically unworkable. if the instructor points out the desired outcome. This is accomplished by giving the students directions for what they are expected to do. is not a new manner of instruction. As early as the beginning of the 20th century Smith and Hall (52) described a method of laboratory instruction in which students were encouraged to apply their understanding of a concept in order to answer questions for which they had no answers. He expects that the students have garnered enough information from the readings and lecture to design and implement a simple calorimetry-type experiment. Any activity that leaves the desired outcome open for discovery also leaves open the opportunity for it not to be discovered ( 46 ). and increased student confidence). 47 ). The discovery approach. Problem-Based Instruction
Professor Prob wants his students to perform a laboratory activity that will help them better understand the concept of heat flow. Bruner viewed the discovery method as “a necessary condition for learning the variety of techniques for problem solving” (43 ). planning an experiment. By attempting to solve such a problem. Tamir and Lunetta (19). It. 76 No. Professor Prob will be on hand to answer questions and help students overcome any obstacles they may encounter. “You cannot discover something that you are conceptually unprepared for. 32). Other criticisms include placing too much emphasis on the scientific process and not enough on science content (40) and incorrectly equating scientific inquiry with unguided student discovery (41 ). and the conclusions reached. Its most obvious disadvantage (shared with the other nontraditional forms of instruction) is that it is more time consuming than expository learning. Discovery learning has received its fair share of criticism. Students had to create their own procedures to solve a problem and submit a written report describing the procedure. and heat capacity. discarded the laboratory manual (53). Discovery learning was also a basis of science education reform in the 1960s. who taught chemistry by a heuristic method in which students were required to generate their own questions for investigation (22. The student was placed into the role of discoverer. the students will follow a procedure provided by the instructor that tells them what to do and what data to record. Young.
“A Study of the Inquiry–Discovery Method of Laboratory Instruction”. results in greater student learning. To say. geology). the problem comes first and serves as a vehicle for investigation and learning (57 ). include that of Jackman et al. who evaluated the effects of participation in either a discovery-style laboratory or a traditional laboratory on grades in a subsequent course. Students given less direction performed significantly better on retention tests “provided
Journal of Chemical Education • Vol.wisc. A detailed study of the effects of laboratory instruction style on learning outcomes is that of Rubin. nontraditional instruction styles can lead to significant improvement in student cognitive learning. Citing a number of confounding variables that had to be considered. point out. All the selected studies were conducted between 1970 and 1994. In a problem-based learning curriculum. A study that does compare open-inquiry with traditional laboratory instruction was reported by Pavelich and Abraham. physics. problembased learning is time consuming and places a greater demand on both the instructor and the students than traditional instruction.” which are frequently “considered more important than the problem the heuristic is meant to help solve” (57 ). however. this requires them to think about what they are doing and why they are doing it.” A key emphasis in most college science courses is teaching students to be successful problem solvers. and this opportunity provides much greater insight into the course material. 59–62). not part of Rubin’s meta-analysis. The amount of credence one places on these findings is reserved for the reader. 4 April 1999 • JChemEd. if the challenges which can be given to him. Like inquiry instruction it fosters the development of higher-order cognitive skills through the implementation and evaluation of student-generated procedures. utilized valid statistical procedures in the data analysis. Wright emphasizes that the problems are designed to be conceptually simple (48). in which there was no laboratory manual (55). Cheronis was advocating a “philosophy of laboratory instruction” in which the students would carry out experiments of their own devising. or state how the assessment was made. differences should be apparent with respect to learning outcomes.
Students working in a problem-based environment must apply their understanding of a concept to devise a solution pathway. Problem-based instruction. The results of Rubin’s meta-analysis show that for the nonbiological sciences as a group (chemistry. Holcomb investigated the effects the amount of direction within a chemistry laboratory activity has on the retention of learning (68).edu
. when chemistry was examined independently. (63). they possess a clear goal. showed no statistically significant difference in growth rate between the two groups. applying learned facts and principles to novel situations (56 ). Students must have had exposure to the concept or principle of interest before performing the experiment. The problems are “open-entry” (58). Unfortunately. Like discovery and inquiry-based instruction. however. That is. or offer empirical evidence—other than student self-reports— to support their conclusion. however. discovery or expository. Richardson and Renner ( 66 ) conducted a study that compared the effectiveness of applying inquiry to chemistry experiments relative to traditional instruction.
A similar style of instruction was described by Battino.chem. which initiates his own investigation.
but there are enough details and enough unanticipated problems arise during the projects to provide students with many opportunities for creativity and practice in problem solving. the methods of solving the problem are secondary to the problem itself. they did not define the term inquiry. Two groups of students were given different amounts of direction for identifying unknowns in a qualitative analysis laboratory activity. They found that the inquiry group performed statistically better than the traditional group on the final laboratory exam. “[m]ost problem-solving programs present students with sterile heuristics. is to be properly satisfied. At about the same time. there are reports stating that students come away from the instruction with a better understanding of the material than they obtain from the traditional expository style (10. as Stepien et al.Research: Science and Education The student from the freshman year onward also needs opportunities to design his own procedures. However.
For each of the three nontraditional styles of instruction. Their results showed that the open-inquiry group made significant gains in abstract thinking ability compared with the traditional verification group over a single semester. and on the basis of the title of their paper. From this statement they redefine the problem in their own words and devise a procedure that will lead them to a solution. who performed a meta-analysis of comparisons between nontraditional approaches to introductory college-level laboratory instruction and the traditional approach ( 64 ). 76 No. The paucity of necessary research makes any conclusion tentative at best. there was no significant improvement in cognitive student learning. who compared a general chemistry laboratory taught using the learning cycle—a type of guidedinquiry—with the traditional verification style (65). Successfully completing a problem-based activity denotes an understanding of the concept. who measured gains in abstract thinking ability (67 ). What the Research Says The beginning of this paper asserts that because each style of laboratory instruction affects the learning environment in distinct ways. In no case did the authors perform a controlled study. the students struggle with course concepts in the contexts of a realistic problem. is a deductive approach. Other studies. the authors chose not to formulate any conclusions as to which style. In addition. included a control. Cheronis emphasized that it is a complete waste of time “to expect a beginner before orientation and understanding of principles to perform a so-called research or problem-solving project. and addressed cognitive and/or noncognitive learning outcomes as a function of instruction method. one is uncertain if open inquiry or guided inquiry was the style of instruction they examined. Test results covering two semesters. Students took part in a pre-laboratory discussion where they participated in the design of the experiment. However. students are presented with a problem statement often lacking in crucial information. In this style. As in the real world. The authors found no statistically significant difference between the two instructional styles in terms of student achievement on a posttest covering the learning material. A more controlled study to see if discovery learning has a positive effect on student learning relative to the traditional style was reported by Bodner et al. that any one of these styles of instruction is more effective than any other would be merely surmising. but there are many viable paths toward a solution..
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