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Ask Professor Pedagogy: Lab Sessions

Posted by on Friday, November 16, 2012 in Commentary.

Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.

Dear Professor P,

I need your help. My lab section is a mess! Some students breeze through the lab work, finishing in less than two hours. Others struggle to follow the basic directions in the manual and take three or more. Still others don’t seem to be taking these exercises seriously. Most just want to follow the procedures, get a barely acceptable outcome, write a few sentences in their lab notebooks and go home. I really want them to learn how to be a scientist in my discipline. Can you help?

A first-time TA


Dear Lost in the Lab,

I bet you were an outstanding undergraduate scientist, industrious, diligent and serious. You knew how to precipitate a chemical, titrate a medication and lance a boil. Even “cookbook” lab exercises excited you, and you look good in a smock and safety goggles. You remain a highly motivated evangelist for science. Bully for you! We need bright and motivated graduate students to model a love for science in the laboratory.

That said, many current methods of lab instruction fail to motivate students. Despite the widespread preference for students who are fully committed to their studies, awake, alert and full of excitement for science (or sociology, literature, history, physiology, and so on), experience with actual students suggest that both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators are required. And why shouldn’t they be? Students sometimes find labs boring. Students are not always challenged in lab. Lab manuals can contain errors, or unnecessary complications. Too often, labs teach skills but not scientific thinking and reasoning. Students find lab manuals that spell out exactly what to do and what to expect unfulfilling and anticlimactic. “Where is the joy of science?!” they whisper to their lab mates, disillusioned and disappointed. They have a point. As currently practiced, most lab classes expect students to replicate well-known experiments with pre-determined outcomes. Just because we traditionally use cookbook labs does not mean that they are effective in motivating students, or in helping them achieve the deep learning we expect. As Bauer-Dantion (2009) notes, this approach may help students develop lab techniques used for later careers in science, but it lacks the excitement and creativity that characterize “true scientific inquiry”.

You have come to the right place. Professor Pedagogy is well versed in laboratory teaching methods. One of my favorite strategies is “inquiry-based” learning. The idea is to avoid cookbook labs by requiring students to follow the scientific method in order to solve a problem or explain a phenomenon. More formally, “Inquiry-based labs… require students to develop hypotheses, design and conduct experiments to test their hypothesis, and analyze and interpret their data” (Bauer-Dantion 2009: 236). Inquiry based labs immerse students in the scientific process, providing them with the opportunity to experience the joy of discovering something for themselves. Inquiry-based labs answer the question “Why does this happen?” A very motivating question, especially when the event is dramatic (think Mentos in Diet Coke).

Most of the lab classes are built around the lab manual. Unfortunately, the exercises in these manuals focus on helping students develop science process skills—not creativity or problem-solving skills. Asking your students to develop their own hypotheses and test them is at least as effective for learning the science when compared to traditional cookbook labs. Doing this kind of work is more authentic to the actual practice of science than simply following a pre-determined set of instructions. Research also suggests that the majority of students prefer inquiry-based labs. They also feel more invested in the labs, have a higher level of energy when completing labs, and are more active in their learning (Bauer-Dantion 2009).

You probably feel the excitement of discovery and creativity in your own experimental designs. Sharing these affective benefits with students helps them develop both their knowledge and increases their perseverance in the field. Inquiry-based lab work leads to happier, more engaged students. A happier student stays with science and is more likely to become a professional scientist than students who are unhappy, unchallenged, or bored in the lab.

Not only do most students feel better about inquiry-based labs—they are more effective for student learning than cookbook labs. Research has shown that students show more gains in scientific reasoning when they are taught using inquiry-based labs, versus traditional cookbook labs. Students also show improved higher-order thinking skills, such as data analysis, and drawing sound conclusions from their findings.

What if you asked students a provocative question that required lab methods to solve? Problem-based learning gives students real-world scenarios, case studies, or “problems” to tackle. These labs take the form: “What should we do?” Students need to use lab methods to find a solution to the problem, or to make recommendations based on lab findings. For example, Deborah Allen at the University of Delaware has created an exercise examining global warming for her biology classroom. Could we reverse global warming by adding iron to the ocean? What is the likely outcome, and how much iron would be needed in order to effect change? You can find this exercise here.

You could even make teaching lab sessions a “science project” of your own, using the Center for Teaching’s SoTL Scholars Program and our resources on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. You can be a star in your discipline and a star trainer of future scientists. Both are worthy pursuits.

Both novice and advanced lab stars should stand on the shoulders of giants by utilizing existing resources in problem-based and inquiry-based learning. You can find Bauer-Dantion’s chapter on inquiry-based lab classes in Exploring Signature Pedagogies, co-edited by Assistant Director Nancy Chick. My favorites include John S. Peters on Scientific Inquiry at the College of Charleston, The University of Delaware’s project on Problem-Based Learning and the Science Cases Database at the University at Buffalo.


Prof. Pedagogy



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