Conclusion 2: Four principles of instructional design can help laboratory experiences achieve their intended learning goals if: (1) they are designed with clear learning outcomes in mind, (2) they are thoughtfully sequenced into the flow of classroom science instruction, (3) they are designed to integrate learning of science content with learning about the processes of science, and (4) they incorporate ongoing student reflection and discussion.
Most science students in U.S. high schools today participate in laboratory experiences that are isolated from the flow of classroom science instruction (referred to here as “typical” laboratory experiences). Instead of focusing on clear learning goals, teachers and laboratory manuals often emphasize the procedures to be followed, leaving students uncertain about what they are supposed to learn. Lacking a focus on learning goals related to the subject matter being addressed in the science class, these typical laboratory experiences often fail to integrate student learning about the processes of science with learning about science content. Typical laboratory experiences rarely incorporate ongoing reflection and discussion among the teacher and the students, although there is evidence that reflecting on one’s own thinking is essential for students to make meaning out of their laboratory activities. In general, most high school laboratory experiences do not follow the instructional design principles for effectiveness identified by the committee. In addition, most high school students participate in a limited range of laboratory activities that do not help them to fully understand science process.
Several factors contribute to the prevalence of typical laboratory experiences. These include a lack of preparation of—and support for—teachers, disparities in the availability and quality of laboratory facilities and equipment, interpretations of state science standards, and the lack of agreement on definitions and goals of laboratory experiences. Students in schools with higher concentrations of non-Asian minorities spend less time in laboratory instruction than students in other schools, and students in lower level science classes spend less time in laboratory instruction than those enrolled in more advanced science classes. And some students have no access to any type of laboratory experience. Taken together, all of these factors weaken the effectiveness of current laboratory experiences.
Conclusion 3: The quality of current laboratory experiences is poor for most students.