Cooperative Learning in the Laboratory

Students in two laboratory sections of a chemistry course for nonscience majors worked in groups of three on two experiments about acids, bases, and buffers. The experiments were devised using a modified "jigsaw" technique, in which each student in a group is assigned a particular part of a lesson or unit and is responsible for helping the other members of the group learn that material. The week prior to the laboratory, students were given lists of objectives and preparatory work that were divided into three parts. Students decided how to divide the responsibility for the preparatory and laboratory tasks, but were informed that the scores from their post-laboratory exams would be averaged, and that all members of a group would receive the same grade. Two control sections of the same laboratory were conducted in a traditional manner, with students working independently.

All four groups of students were part of the same lecture class, and there were no significant differences in age, gender balance, or previous number of chemistry classes. Although the control sections had an overall GPA higher than the cooperative learning sections (2.77 versus 2.30), the students in the cooperative sections had higher overall scores on the post-lab tests. The authors conclude that use of cooperative learning in the laboratory has a positive effect on student achievement.

Smith et al., 1991.

class meetings in favor of supervised collaborative learning in laboratory settings. Such workshop methods have been devised for teaching physics (Laws, 1991), chemistry (Lisensky et al., 1994), and mathematics (Baxter-Hastings, 1995). Although this is not feasible at many institutions, some of the ideas developed in these courses translate reasonably well to courses in which a lab is associated with a large-enrollment course (Thornton, in press).

Laboratories can be enriched by computers that make data acquisition and analysis easier and much faster, thus allowing students to think about their results and do an improved experiment. Computers can also be used as an element of the experiment to simulate a response, or vary a stimulus. Computers offer convenience, flexibility and safety in the laboratory, but they should not completely replace the student's interaction with the natural world.

Laboratory teaching methods vary widely, but there is certainly no substitute for an instructor circulating among the students, answering and asking questions, pointing out subtle details or possible applications, and generally guiding students' learning. Although students work informally in pairs or groups in many labs, some faculty have formally introduced cooperative learning into their labs (see sidebar). Some instructors rely on a lab handout, not to give cookbook instructions, but to pose a carefully constructed sequence of questions to help students design experiments which illustrate important concepts (Hake, 1992). One advantage of the well-designed handout is that the designer more closely controls what students do in the lab (Moog and Farrell, 1996). The challenge is to design it so that students must think and be creative. In more unstructured labs the challenge is to prevent students from getting stranded and discouraged. Easy access to a faculty member or teaching assistant is essential in this type of lab.

Once you have decided on the goals for your laboratory, and are familiar with some of the innovative ideas in your field, you are ready to ask yourself the following questions:

  • How have others operated their programs? Seek out colleagues in other departments or institutions who may have implemented a laboratory program similar to the one you are considering, and learn from their experiences.



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