Research Matters - to the Science Teacher
No. 8904 April 1, 1989
Using Inquiry Laboratory Strategies in College Science
by William H. Leonard, Professor of Science
Education and Professor of Biology, Clemson University, Clemson, SC
Systematic observations of college science laboratory classes in a
large midwestern university during the late 1970s revealed that
students were, for the most part, performing cookbook-like
laboratories and were not learning the process skills of science.
Instead, students spent a significant amount of laboratory time
listening to the instructor transmit information. These observations
are probably typical of most university laboratory courses in the
sciences and that the use of investigative laboratory teaching
strategies at the college level lagged behind those used in the
secondary and elementary schools (Kyle, Penick & Shymansky,
1979). There are reports in the literature that most standard
laboratory experiments in introductory college science courses
contain directions to be followed explicitly so the experiment will
generate usable data (Stewart, 1988). Stewart contends that if
students are permitted to design their own experiments, the
laboratory protocol becomes more important than the laboratory
report, and time spent planning and organizing the experiment becomes
more important then time spent ascertaining whether or not the
results are as expected. Fogle (1985) states that introductory
college students do not understand the nature of scientific
questioning, and that common misuse of the terms hypothesis, fact,
and theory is symptomatic of student misconceptions. He maintains
that students must be allowed to experience scientific thinking
During the past decade, some interesting experimental studies
developed and tested alternative approaches to the traditional
laboratory investigation. Most of the innovative approaches are
modifications of the inquiry model and employ discovery or inductive
approaches to learning. Utilization of science process skills, such
as hypothesis formation, identification and manipulation of
experimental variables, and inferring from data are characteristic of
these newer approaches.
In one such study, students in a physical science class for
elementary education majors employed concrete, manipulative
laboratory experiences to learn about measurement, pressure,
Archimedes' principle, machines and electricity. This class showed
greater achievement on some of the concepts, a greater comprehension
of all areas taught, and better attitudes toward science than a
similar class taught without the manipulative laboratory experience
(Splickler, 1984). Kern and Carpenter (1984) found a field-oriented,
on site, instructional approach to geology produced significantly
more interest and enjoyment than a traditional laboratory approach.
The laboratory approach associated with a learning center approach
for college geology was found to have a significantly greater effect
on short-term learning than did a more conventional laboratory
approach (Tofte, 1982).
A number of studies of inquiry laboratory approaches have been
done in introductory biology. Lawson and Smitgen (1982) found that a
series of laboratory investigations to teach formal reasoning was
found to improve significantly the ability of students to use formal
operational thought. Similarly, cognitive development of college,
non-major, biology students was found to be promoted by a laboratory
program that emphasized investigation and accounted for limitations
of student cognitive ability (Journet, Young, Stanley & Scheibe,
1987). Walosz and Yeany (1984) found that training in integrated
science process skill development improved the performance of college
biology students in the use of integrated science process skills. A
successful inquiry strategy developed originally by the Biological
Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) was adapted for use in a university
general biology laboratory program and tested experimentally for an
entire semester against a well-established commercial program which
was highly directive (Leonard, 1986). The BSCS orientation made
systematic use of science processes, development of concepts via
questioning and requirements of the student to make procedural
decisions. The commercial approach primarily required following
instructions exactly as stated and answering a few very specific
questions. Students using the BSCS orientation scored similarly to
those using the commercial approach on a pretest of selected biology
laboratory concepts, but scored significantly higher on a post-test
(Leonard, 1986). This study was later replicated with students at two
small, private colleges. Again, the group using the BSCS orientation
scored significantly higher on a test of biological laboratory
concepts at the end of the semester (Hall & McCurdy, 1988).
Finally, an extended discretion laboratory approach in which students
were required to determine their own investigatory procedures and
strategies was tested experimentally against a more directive
laboratory approach in university general biology. Even though the
former approach placed much greater demands on student creativity and
decision making, student scores between the two groups on learning
measures given at the end of the semester did not differ
significantly. One conclusion is that students can learn at least as
much when given fewer procedural directions on laboratory
investigations (Leonard, 1984).
Studies on the use of investigative or inquiry approaches in
college science laboratory courses suggest the following.
- Inquiry laboratory strategies are more student-involved and
more inductive than traditional approaches.
- Inquiry laboratory strategies contain less direction and give
the student more responsibility of determining procedural
- Inquiry laboratory strategies require students to make more
extensive use of science process skills.
- Inquiry laboratory strategies produce significantly greater
educational gains than traditional approaches.
- Inquiry laboratory strategies appear to work equally well for
college students of all ability levels, not just the very
Students appear to prefer inquire-style instruction as well. A
survey of 600 students in introductory, non-major science courses
showed a clear preference for investigative laboratory activities to
the standard, structured activities (Davis & Black, 1985).
Inquiry laboratory programs have been found to be workable. For
example, research supports recommendation for maintaining the spirit
of inquiry in large-enrollment college laboratory classes, for
designing process-oriented laboratory investigations, and for helping
laboratory instructors become better teachers (Leonard, Journet &
Meaningful laboratory instruction in college science courses
appears to be distinguished from traditional from traditional
strategies in at least three ways.
Students are engaged in a number of the science inquiry
processes, such as observing, classifying, measuring, communicating,
collecting and organizing data, inferring from observations,
hypothesizing, manipulating experimental variables, analyzing data,
and drawing conclusions from data.
Students have the opportunity to manipulate experimental materials,
thus providing a "hands-on" experience.
Students learn in an experimental manner specific scientific
concepts, such as "plants have cell walls and animals do not" or
"some chemical reactions need heat to take place and/or some give off
Recent research on investigative learning approaches in college
science laboratory courses looks encouraging. Much more development
of laboratory curricula using inquiry approaches and research which
experimentally compares them to existing approaches is still needed.
There is a definite trend toward wider use of inquiry laboratory
strategies in college and university science courses. The use of such
strategies is justified by recent research.
Davis, W. E., & Black, S. (1985). Student opinion of the
investigative laboratory format. Journal of College Science
Teaching, 15, 187-189.
Fogle, T. A. (1985). Student-directed biology lab investigations.
Journal of College Science Teaching, XIV, 345-348.
Hall, D. A., & McCurdy, D. W. (April 11, 1988). A comparative
study of a Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) style
laboratory and a traditional laboratory approach on student
achievement at two private liberal arts colleges. Paper presentation
at the Annual Meeting of the National Association for Research in
Science Teaching at St. Louis.
Journet, A. R. P., Young, C. C., Stanley, C. M., & Scheibe, J. S.
(April, 1987). Studies on cognitive development in a non-majors
investigative general biology laboratory. Paper presented to the
Annual Meeting of the National Association for Research in Science
Teaching, Washington, D.C.
Kern, E. L., & Carpenter, J. R. (1984). Enhancement of student
values, interests, and attitudes in earth science through a
field-oriented approach. Journal of Geological Education, 32,
Kyle, W. C., Penick, J. E., & Shymansky, J. A. (1979). Assessing
and analyzing the performance of students in college science
laboratories. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 16,
Lawson, A. E., & Smitgen, D. A. (1982). Teaching formal reasoning
in college biology course for preservice teachers. Journal of
Research in Science teaching, 19, 233-248.
Leonard, W. H. (1984). An experimental test of an extended discretion
laboratory approach for university general biology. Paper presented
to the Annual Meeting of the National Association for Research in
Science Teaching in New Orleans.
Leonard, W. H. (1986). An experimental study of a BSCS-style
laboratory approach for university general biology. Journal of
Research in Science Teaching, 23, 807-814.
Leonard, W., Journet, A., & Ecklund, R. (1988). Overcoming
obstacles in teaching large-enrollment laboratory courses. Journal
of College Science Teaching, 50 (1), 23-28. April 11, 1988
Schnellenberg, J. P. (1980). A comparative study of two laboratory
approaches in a general education college physical science course.
Dissertation Abstracts International, 03-A.
Spinkler, T. R. (1984). An experiment on the efficacy of intuition
development in improving higher levels of learning and reasoning in
physical science. Dissertation Abstracts International, 44 (1)
Stewart, B. Y. (1988). The surprise element of a student-designed
laboratory experiment. Journal of College Science Teaching, XVII,
Tofte, W. L. (1982). The comparative effectiveness of learning center
and traditional approaches for a college introductory geology
laboratory course. Dissertation Abstracts International, 43,
Wolkosz, M., & Yeany, R. H. (1984). Effects of lab instruction
emphasizing process skills on achievement of college students having
different cognitive development levels. Paper presented to the Annual
Meeting of the NAtional Association for Research in Science Teaching,
New Orleans, April, 1984.
Research Matters - to the Science
is a publication of NARST