In sum, the evolving research on integrated instructional units provides evidence of increases in students’ understanding of subject matter, development of scientific reasoning, and interest in science, compared with students who received more traditional forms of science instruction. Studies conducted to date also suggest that the units are effective in helping diverse groups of students attain these three learning goals. In contrast, the earlier research on typical laboratory experiences indicates that such typical laboratory experiences are neither better nor worse than other forms of science instruction in supporting student mastery of subject matter. Typical laboratory experiences appear to aid in development of only some aspects of scientific reasoning, and they appear to play a role in enhancing students’ interest in science and in learning science.
Due to a lack of available studies, the committee was unable to draw conclusions about the extent to which either typical laboratory experiences or laboratory experiences incorporated into integrated instructional units might advance the other goals identified at the beginning of this chapter—enhancing understanding of the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work, acquiring practical skills, and developing teamwork skills.
The three bodies of research we have discussed—research on how people learn, research on typical laboratory experiences, and developing research on how students learn in integrated instructional units—yield information that promises to inform the design of more effective laboratory experiences.
The committee considers the emerging evidence sufficient to suggest four general principles that can help laboratory experiences achieve the goals outlined above. It must be stressed, however, that research to date has not described in much detail how these principles can be implemented nor how each principle might relate to each of the educational goals of laboratory experiences.
Effective laboratory experiences have clear learning goals that guide the design of the experience. Ideally these goals are clearly communicated to students. Without a clear understanding of the purposes of a laboratory activity, students seem not to get much from it. Conversely, when the purposes of a laboratory activity are clearly communicated by teachers to students, then students seem capable of understanding them and carrying them out. There seems to be no compelling evidence that particular purposes are more understandable to students than others.