Research Matters - to the Science Teacher
No. 9001 March 1, 1990
The Role of the Laboratory in Science Teaching
by Patricia E. Blosser, Professor of Science
Education, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Science educators have believed that the laboratory is an
important means of instruction in science since late in the 19th
century. Laboratory activities were used in high school chemistry in
the 1880s (Fay, 1931). In 1886, Harvard University published a list
of physics experiments that were to be included in high school
physics classes for students who wished to enroll at Harvard (Moyer,
1976). Laboratory instruction was considered essential because it
provided training in observation, supplied detailed information, and
aroused pupils' interest. These same reasons are still accepted
almost 100 years later.
Shulman and Tamir, in the Second Handbook of Research on
Teaching (Travers, ed., 1973), listed five groups of objectives
that may be achieved through the use of the laboratory in science
- skills - manipulative, inquiry, investigative, organizational,
- concepts - for example, hypothesis, theoretical model,
- cognitive abilities - critical thinking, problem solving,
application, analysis, synthesis
- understanding the nature of science - scientific enterprise,
scientists and how they work, existence of a multiplicity of
scientific methods, interrelationships between science and
technology and among the various disciplines of science
- attitudes - for example, curiosity, interest, risk taking,
objectivity, precision,confidence, perseverance, satisfaction,
responsibility, consensus, collaboration, and liking science
Writing about laboratory teaching at the college level, McKeachie
Laboratory teaching assumes that first-hand experience in
observation and manipulation of the materials of science is
superior to other methods of developing understanding and
appreciation. Laboratory training is also frequently used to
develop skills necessary for more advanced study or research.
From the standpoint of theory, the activity of the student, the
sensorimotor nature of the experience, and the individualization
of laboratory instruction should contribute positively to
learning. Information cannot usually be obtained, however, by
direct experience as rapidly as it can from abstractions presented
orally or in print... Thus, one would not expect laboratory
teaching to have an advantage over other teaching methods in the
amount of information retention, in ability to apply learning, or
in actual skill in observation or manipulation of materials... (in
Gage, 1962, p.1144-1145).
Another writer, Pickering (1980), identified two misconceptions
about the use of the laboratory in college science. One is that
laboratories somehow "illustrate" lecture courses - a function that
(in Pickering's opinion) is not possible in a simple, one-afternoon
exercise. Pickering contended that most scientific theories are based
on a large number of very sophisticated experiments. He suggested
that, if lecture topics are to be illustrated, this should be done
through the use of audio-visual aids or demonstrations. The second
misconception is that laboratories exist to teach manipulative
skills. Pickering argued that the majority of students in science
laboratory classes do not have a career goal of becoming a
professional scientist. Further, many of the skills students learn in
laboratories are obsolete in science careers. If these skills are
worth teaching, it is as tools to be mastered for basic scientific
inquiry and not as ends in themselves (1980, p. 80).
Science educators frequently turn to the research literature for
support of their requests for funds for supplies and equipment for
laboratory activities. Science education researcher have examined the
role of the laboratory on many variables, including achievement,
attitudes, critical thinking, cognitive style, understanding science,
the development of science process skills, manipulative skills,
interests, retention in science courses, and the ability to do
Many of these studies contain the finding of "no significant
differences" between groups. In 1978 the National Science Teachers
Association produced the first volume of its series What Research
Says to the Science Teacher. One of the chapters in this volume
was on the role of the laboratory in secondary school science
programs. Gary C. Bates reviewed 82 studies and concluded that
"...the answer has not yet been conclusively found..." to the
question: What does the laboratory accomplish that could not be
accomplished as well by less expensive and less time consuming
alternatives? (in Rowe, ed., 1978, p. 75).
A number of possible explanations exist for this discouraging
conclusion. Much of the research comes from doctoral studies which
are usually first attempts at research. Very few studies include a
follow-up of the subjects involved to see if there were ant changes
other than those tested for at the end of the study. Many of the
investigations are of the comparative variety`(approach X vs. a "lab"
approach). Often these instructional approaches are not described in
sufficient detail for the reader to be able to judge the value of the
As McKeachie pointed out, laboratory teaching may not be the best
method to choose if one's objective is to have students retain
information. However, the need for "educational accountability" has
been translated into the need to increase test scores. Some of the
outcomes of a "lab approach" are difficult to test in a
Positive research findings on the role of the laboratory in
science teaching do exist. Laboratory activities appear to be helpful
for students rated as medium to low in achievement on pretest
measures (Boghai, 1979; Grozier, 1969). Godomsky (1971) reported that
laboratory instruction increased students' problem-solving ability in
physical chemistry and that the laboratory could be a valuable
instructional technique in chemistry if experiments were genuine
problems without explicit directions. Working with older,
disadvantaged students in a laboratory setting, researchers
(McKinnon, 1976; McDermott et al., 1980) used activities designed to
create disequilibrium in order to encourage cognitive
Some Final Comments
No space has been allocated in this discussion of the role of the
laboratory to the approach involved: inquiry vs. verification. It has
been assumed that proponents of laboratory activities are interested
in having students inquire and in having them work with concrete
objects. Comber and Keeves (1973) found, when studying science
education in 19 countries, that in six countries where 10-year-old
students made observations and did experiments in their schools, the
level of achievement in science was higher than in schools where
students did not perform these activities.
A modern research technique is meta-analysis - in which a group of
studies is analyzed for similarities and differences in findings
related to their common thrust. A meta-analysis on the effects of
various instructional techniques (Wise and Okey, 1983) was focused on
12 teaching strategies. Two of these 12 were related to the
laboratory approach: inquiry-discovery and manipulative. Although
these two strategies did not exhibit as large an effect as did the
strategies of focusing and questioning, there was some positive
support for inquiry teaching. An effective science classroom was
characterized as one in which students had opportunities to
physically interact with instructional materials and engage in varied
kinds of activities (1983, p. 434). Lott (1983) reported on a
meta-analysis of the effect of inquiry (inductive) teaching and
advance organizers in science education. Lott wrote that the
inductive approach appeared to be more useful (than the deductive) in
those situations where high levels of thought, learning experiences,
and outcomes demands were placed upon subjects (1983, p. 445).
Science educators at all levels need to continue to study the role
of the laboratory in science teaching. However, perhaps the question
we should be asking is not "What is the laboratory better than?" but
"For what purposes should the laboratory be used, under what
conditions, and with what students?"
Blosser, Patricia E. (1980). A Critical Review of the Role of
the Laboratory in Science Teaching. Columbus, OH: ERIC
Clearinghouse for Science, Mathematics, and Environmental
Boghai, Davar M. (April 1979). A Comparison of the Effects of
Laboratory and Discussion Sequences on Learning College Chemistry.
Dissertation Abstracts, 39(10), 6045A.
Comber, L. C. & J. P. Keeves. (1978). Science Education in
Nineteen Countries, International Studies in Evaluation I. New
York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Fay, Paul J. (August 1931). The History of Chemistry Teaching in
American High Schools. Journal of Chemical Education,
Gage, N. L., et al. (1963). Handbook of Research on Teaching.
Chicago: Rand McNally & Co.
Godomsky, Stephen F., Jr. (1971). Programmed Instruction,
Computer-Assisted Performance Problems, Open Ended Experiments and
Student Attitude and Problem Solving Ability in Physical Chemistry
Laboratory. Dissertation Abstracts, 31(11), 5873A.
Grozier, Joseph E. Jr. (1969). The Role of the Laboratory in
Developing Positive Attitudes Toward Science in a College General
Education Science Course for Nonscientists. Dissertation
Abstracts, 31(11), 2394A.
Lott, Gerald W. (1983). The Effect of Inquiry Teaching and Advance
Organizers Upon Student Outcomes in Science Education. Journal of
Research in Science Teaching, 20(5), 437-451.
McDermott, Lillian et al. March (1980). Helping Minority Students
Succeed in Science, II. Implementation of a Curriculum in Physics and
Biology. Journal of College Science Teaching, 9, 201-205.
McKinnon, Joe W. (April 1976). Encouraging Logical Thinking in
Pre-Engineering Students. Engineering Education, 66(7),
Moyer, Albert E. (February 1976). Edwin Hall and the Emergence of the
Laboratory in Teaching Physics. The Physics Teacher, 14(2),
Pickering, Miles. (February 19, 1980). Are Lab Courses a Waste of
Time? The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. 80.
Rowe, Mary B., Ed. (1978). What Research Says to the Science
Teacher, I, Washington, DC: National Science Teachers
Travers, Robert M. Ed. (1973). Second Handbook of Research on
Teaching. Chicago: Rand McNally & Co.
Wise, Kevin C. & Okey, Kames R. (1983). A Meta-Analysis of the
Effects of Various Science Teaching Strategies on Achievement.
Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 20(5), 419-435.
Research Matters - to the Science Teacher
is a publication of the National Association
for Research in Science Teaching