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America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science (2006)

Chapter: 3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning

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Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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3
Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning

Key Points

  • The science learning goals of laboratory experiences include enhancing mastery of science subject matter, developing scientific reasoning abilities, increasing understanding of the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work, developing practical skills, increasing understanding of the nature of science, cultivating interest in science and science learning, and improving teamwork abilities.

  • The research suggests that laboratory experiences will be more likely to achieve these goals if they (1) are designed with clear learning outcomes in mind, (2) are thoughtfully sequenced into the flow of classroom science instruction, (3) integrate learning of science content and process, and (4) incorporate ongoing student reflection and discussion.

  • Computer-based representations and simulations of natural phenomena and large scientific databases are more likely to be effective if they are integrated into a thoughtful sequence of classroom science instruction that also includes laboratory experiences.

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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In this chapter, the committee first identifies and clarifies the learning goals of laboratory experiences and then discusses research evidence on attainment of those goals. The review of research evidence draws on three major strands of research: (1) cognitive research illuminating how students learn; (2) studies that examine laboratory experiences that stand alone, separate from the flow of classroom science instruction; and (3) research projects that sequence laboratory experiences with other forms of science instruction.1 We propose the phrase “integrated instructional units” to describe these research and design projects that integrate laboratory experiences within a sequence of science instruction. In the following section of this chapter, we present design principles for laboratory experiences derived from our analysis of these multiple strands of research and suggest that laboratory experiences designed according to these principles are most likely to accomplish their learning goals. Next we consider the role of technology in supporting student learning from laboratory experiences. The chapter concludes with a summary.

GOALS FOR LABORATORY EXPERIENCES

Laboratories have been purported to promote a number of goals for students, most of which are also the goals of science education in general (Lunetta, 1998; Hofstein and Lunetta, 1982). The committee commissioned a paper to examine the definition and goals of laboratory experiences (Millar, 2004) and also considered research reviews on laboratory education that have identified and discussed learning goals (Anderson, 1976; Hofstein and Lunetta, 1982; Lazarowitz and Tamir, 1994; Shulman and Tamir, 1973). While these inventories of goals vary somewhat, a core set remains fairly consistent. Building on these commonly stated goals, the committee developed a comprehensive list of goals for or desired outcomes of laboratory experiences:

  • Enhancing mastery of subject matter. Laboratory experiences may enhance student understanding of specific scientific facts and concepts and of the way in which these facts and concepts are organized in the scientific disciplines.

  • Developing scientific reasoning. Laboratory experiences may promote a student’s ability to identify questions and concepts that guide scientific

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There is a larger body of research on how students learn science that is not considered in depth here because the committee’s focus is science learning through laboratory experiences. The larger body of research is discussed in the National Research Council (2005) report, How Students Learn: Science in the Classroom; it is also considered in an ongoing National Research Council study of science learning in grades K-8.

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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investigations; to design and conduct scientific investigations; to develop and revise scientific explanations and models; to recognize and analyze alternative explanations and models; and to make and defend a scientific argument. Making a scientific argument includes such abilities as writing, reviewing information, using scientific language appropriately, constructing a reasoned argument, and responding to critical comments.

  • Understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work. Interacting with the unconstrained environment of the material world in laboratory experiences may help students concretely understand the inherent complexity and ambiguity of natural phenomena. Laboratory experiences may help students learn to address the challenges inherent in directly observing and manipulating the material world, including troubleshooting equipment used to make observations, understanding measurement error, and interpreting and aggregating the resulting data.

  • Developing practical skills. In laboratory experiences, students may learn to use the tools and conventions of science. For example, they may develop skills in using scientific equipment correctly and safely, making observations, taking measurements, and carrying out well-defined scientific procedures.

  • Understanding of the nature of science. Laboratory experiences may help students to understand the values and assumptions inherent in the development and interpretation of scientific knowledge, such as the idea that science is a human endeavor that seeks to understand the material world and that scientific theories, models, and explanations change over time on the basis of new evidence.

  • Cultivating interest in science and interest in learning science. As a result of laboratory experiences that make science “come alive,” students may become interested in learning more about science and see it as relevant to everyday life.

  • Developing teamwork abilities. Laboratory experiences may also promote a student’s ability to collaborate effectively with others in carrying out complex tasks, to share the work of the task, to assume different roles at different times, and to contribute and respond to ideas.

Although most of these goals were derived from previous research on laboratory experiences and student learning, the committee identified the new goal of “understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work” to reflect the unique nature of laboratory experiences. Students’ direct encounters with natural phenomena in laboratory science courses are inherently more ambiguous and messy than the representations of these phenomena in science lectures, textbooks, and mathematical formulas (Millar, 2004). The committee thinks that developing students’ ability to recognize this complexity and develop strategies for sorting through it is an essential

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

goal of laboratory experiences. Unlike the other goals, which coincide with the goals of science education more broadly and may be advanced through lectures, reading, or other forms of science instruction, laboratory experiences may be the only way to advance the goal of helping students understand the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work.

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS IN RESEARCH AND DESIGN OF LABORATORY EXPERIENCES

In reviewing evidence on the extent to which students may attain the goals of laboratory experiences listed above, the committee identified a recent shift in the research. Historically, laboratory experiences have been separate from the flow of classroom science instruction and often lacked clear learning goals. Because this approach remains common today, we refer to these isolated interactions with natural phenomena as “typical” laboratory experiences.2 Reflecting this separation, researchers often engaged students in one or two experiments or other science activities and then conducted assessments to determine whether their understanding of the science concept underlying the activity had increased. Some studies directly compared measures of student learning following laboratory experiences with measures of student learning following lectures, discussions, videotapes, or other methods of science instruction in an effort to determine which modes of instruction were most effective.

Over the past 10 years, some researchers have shifted their focus. Assuming that the study of the natural world requires opportunities to directly encounter that world, investigators are integrating laboratory experiences and other forms of instruction into instructional sequences in order to help students progress toward science learning goals. These studies draw on principles of learning derived from the rapid growth in knowledge from cognitive research to address the question of how to design science instruction, including laboratory experiences, in order to support student learning.

Given the complexity of these teaching and learning sequences, the committee struggled with how best to describe them. Initially, the committee used the term “science curriculum units.” However, that term failed to convey the importance of integration in this approach to sequencing laboratory experiences with other forms of teaching and learning. The research reviewed by the committee indicated that these curricula not only integrate laboratory experiences in the flow of science instruction, but also integrate

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In Chapter 4, we argue that most U.S. high school students currently engage in these typical laboratory experiences.

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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student learning about both the concepts and processes of science. To reflect these aspects of the new approach, the committee settled on the term “integrated instructional units” in this report.

The following sections briefly describe principles of learning derived from recent research in the cognitive sciences and their application in design of integrated instructional units.

Principles of Learning Informing Integrated Instructional Units

Recent research and development of integrated instructional units that incorporate laboratory experiences are based on a large and growing body of cognitive research. This research has led to development of a coherent and multifaceted theory of learning that recognizes that prior knowledge, context, language, and social processes play critical roles in cognitive development and learning (National Research Council, 1999). Taking each of these factors into account, the National Research Council (NRC) report How People Learn identifies four critical principles that support effective learning environments (Glaser, 1994; National Research Council, 1999), and a more recent NRC report, How Students Learn, considers these principles as they relate specifically to science (National Research Council, 2005). These four principles are summarized below.

Learner-Centered Environments

The emerging integrated instructional units are designed to be learner-centered. This principle is based on research showing that effective instruction begins with what learners bring to the setting, including cultural practices and beliefs, as well as knowledge of academic content. Taking students’ preconceptions into account is particularly critical in science instruction. Students come to the classroom with conceptions of natural phenomena that are based on their everyday experiences in the world. Although these conceptions are often reasonable and can provide satisfactory everyday explanations to students, they do not always match scientific explanations and break down in ways that students often fail to notice. Teachers face the challenge of engaging with these intuitive ideas, some of which are more firmly rooted than others, in order to help students move toward a more scientific understanding. In this way, understanding scientific knowledge often requires a change in—not just an addition to—what students notice and understand about the world (National Research Council, 2005).

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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Knowledge-Centered Environments

The developing integrated instructional units are based on the principle that learning is enhanced when the environment is knowledge-centered. That is, the laboratory experiences and other instruction included in integrated instructional units are designed to help students learn with understanding, rather than simply acquiring sets of disconnected facts and skills (National Research Council, 1999).

In science, the body of knowledge with which students must engage includes accepted scientific ideas about natural phenomena as well as an understanding of what it means to “do science.” These two aspects of science are reflected in the goals of laboratory experiences, which include mastery of subject matter (accepted scientific ideas about phenomena) and several goals related to the processes of science (understanding the complexity of empirical work, development of scientific reasoning). Research on student thinking about science shows a progression of ideas about scientific knowledge and how it is justified. At the first stage, students perceive scientific knowledge as right or wrong. Later, students characterize discrepant ideas and evidence as “mere opinion.” Eventually, students recognize scientific knowledge as being justified by evidence derived through rigorous research. Several studies have shown that a large proportion of high school students are at the first stage in their views of scientific knowledge (National Research Council, 2005).

Knowledge-centered environments encourage students to reflect on their own learning progress (metacognition). Learning is facilitated when individuals identify, monitor, and regulate their own thinking and learning. To be effective problem solvers and learners, students need to determine what they already know and what else they need to know in any given situation, including when things are not going as expected. For example, students with better developed metacognitive strategies will abandon an unproductive problem-solving strategy very quickly and substitute a more productive one, whereas students with less effective metacognitive skills will continue to use the same strategy long after it has failed to produce results (Gobert and Clement, 1999). The basic metacognitive strategies include: (1) connecting new information to former knowledge, (2) selecting thinking strategies deliberately, and (3) monitoring one’s progress during problem solving.

A final aspect of knowledge-centered learning, which may be particularly relevant to integrated instructional units, is that the practices and activities in which people engage while learning shape what they learn. Transfer (the ability to apply learning in varying situations) is made possible to the extent that knowledge and learning are grounded in multiple contexts. Transfer is more difficult when a concept is taught in a limited set of contexts or through a limited set of activities. By encountering the same concept at work in multiple contexts (such as in laboratory experiences and in discussion),

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

students can develop a deeper understanding of the concept and how it can be used as well as the ability to transfer what has been learned in one context to others (Bransford and Schwartz, 2001).

Assessment to Support Learning

Another important principle of learning that has informed development of integrated instructional units is that assessment can be used to support learning. Cognitive research has shown that feedback is fundamental to learning, but feedback opportunities are scarce in most classrooms. This research indicates that formative assessments provide students with opportunities to revise and improve the quality of their thinking while also making their thinking apparent to teachers, who can then plan instruction accordingly. Assessments must reflect the learning goals of the learning environment. If the goal is to enhance understanding and the applicability of knowledge, it is not sufficient to provide assessments that focus primarily on memory for facts and formulas. The Thinkertools science instructional unit discussed in the following section incorporates this principle, including formative self-assessment tools that help students advance toward several of the goals of laboratory experiences.

Community-Centered Environments

Research has shown that learning is enhanced in a community setting, when students and teachers share norms that value knowledge and participation (see Cobb et al., 2001). Such norms increase people’s opportunities and motivation to interact, receive feedback, and learn. Learning is enhanced when students have multiple opportunities to articulate their ideas to peers and to hear and discuss others’ ideas. A community-centered classroom environment may not be organized in traditional ways. For example, in science classrooms, the teacher is often the sole authority and arbiter of scientific knowledge, placing students in a relatively passive role (Lemke, 1990). Such an organization may promote students’ view that scientific knowledge is a collection of facts about the world, authorized by expert scientists and irrelevant to students’ own experience. The instructional units discussed below have attempted to restructure the social organization of the classroom and encourage students and the teacher to interact and learn from each other.

Design of Integrated Instructional Units

The learning principles outlined above have begun to inform design of integrated instructional units that include laboratory experiences with other types of science learning activities. These integrated instructional units were

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

developed through research programs that tightly couple research, design, and implementation in an iterative process. The research programs are beginning to document the details of student learning, development, and interaction when students are given systematic support—or scaffolding—in carefully structured social and cognitive activities. Scaffolding helps to guide students’ thinking, so that they can gradually take on more autonomy in carrying out various parts of the activities. Emerging research on these integrated instructional units provides guidance about how to design effective learning environments for real-world educational settings (see Linn, Davis, and Bell, 2004a; Cobb et al., 2003; Design-Based Research Collective, 2003).

Integrated instructional units interweave laboratory experiences with other types of science learning activities, including lectures, reading, and discussion. Students are engaged in framing research questions, designing and executing experiments, gathering and analyzing data, and constructing arguments and conclusions as they carry out investigations. Diagnostic, formative assessments are embedded into the instructional sequences and can be used to gauge student’s developing understanding and to promote their self-reflection on their thinking.

With respect to laboratory experiences, these instructional units share two key features. The first is that specific laboratory experiences are carefully selected on the basis of research-based ideas of what students are likely to learn from them. For example, any particular laboratory activity is likely to contribute to learning only if it engages students’ current thinking about the target phenomena and is likely to make them critically evaluate their ideas in relation to what they see during the activity. The second is that laboratory experiences are explicitly linked to and integrated with other learning activities in the unit. The assumption behind this second feature is that just because students do a laboratory activity, they may not necessarily understand what they have done. Nascent research on integrated instructional units suggests that both framing a particular laboratory experience ahead of time and following it with activities that help students make sense of the experience are crucial in using a laboratory experience to support science learning. This “integration” approach draws on earlier research showing that intervention and negotiation with an authority, usually a teacher, was essential to help students make meaning out of their laboratory activities (Driver, 1995).

Examples of Integrated Instructional Units

Scaling Up Chemistry That Applies

Chemistry That Applies (CTA) is a 6-8 week integrated instructional unit designed to help students in grades 8-10 understand the law of conservation

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

of matter. Created by researchers at the Michigan Department of Education (Blakeslee et al., 1993), this instructional unit was one of only a few curricula that were highly rated by American Assocation for the Advancement of Science Project 2061 in its study of middle school science curricula (Kesidou and Roseman, 2002). Student groups explore four chemical reactions—burning, rusting, the decomposition of water, and the volcanic reaction of baking soda and vinegar. They cause these reactions to happen, obtain and record data in individual notebooks, analyze the data, and use evidence-based arguments to explain the data.

The instructional unit engages the students in a carefully structured sequence of hands-on laboratory investigations interwoven with other forms of instruction (Lynch, 2004). Student understanding is “pressed” through many experiences with the reactions and by group and individual pressures to make meaning of these reactions. For example, video transcripts indicate that students engaged in “science talk” during teacher demonstrations and during student experiments.

Researchers at George Washington University, in a partnership with Montgomery County public schools in Maryland, are currently conducting a five-year study of the feasibility of scaling up effective integrated instructional units, including CTA (Lynch, Kuipers, Pyke, and Szesze, in press). In 2001-2002, CTA was implemented in five highly diverse middle schools that were matched with five comparison schools using traditional curriculum materials in a quasi-experimental research design. All 8th graders in the five CTA schools, a total of about 1,500 students, participated in the CTA curriculum, while all 8th graders in the matched schools used the science curriculum materials normally available. Students were given pre- and posttests.

In 2002-2003, the study was replicated in the same five pairs of schools. In both years, students who participated in the CTA curriculum scored significantly higher than comparison students on a posttest. Average scores of students who participated in the CTA curriculum showed higher levels of fluency with the concept of conservation of matter (Lynch, 2004). However, because the concept is so difficult, most students in both the treatment and control group still have misconceptions, and few have a flexible, fully scientific understanding of the conservation of matter. All subgroups of students who were engaged in the CTA curriculum—including low-income students (eligible for free and reduced-price meals), black and Hispanic students, English language learners, and students eligible for special educational services—scored significantly higher than students in the control group on the posttest (Lynch and O’Donnell, 2005). The effect sizes were largest among three subgroups considered at risk for low science achievement, including Hispanic students, low-income students, and English language learners.

Based on these encouraging results, CTA was scaled up to include about 6,000 8th graders in 20 schools in 2003-2004 and 12,000 8th graders in 37 schools in 2004-2005 (Lynch and O’Donnell, 2005).

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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ThinkerTools

The ThinkerTools instructional unit is a sequence of laboratory experiences and other learning activities that, in its initial version, yielded substantial gains in students’ understanding of Newton’s laws of motion (White, 1993). Building on these positive results, ThinkerTools was expanded to focus not only on mastery of these laws of motion but also on scientific reasoning and understanding of the nature of science (White and Frederiksen, 1998). In the 10-week unit, students were guided to reflect on their own thinking and learning while they carry out a series of investigations. The integrated instructional unit was designed to help them learn about science processes as well as about the subject of force and motion. The instructional unit supports students as they formulate hypotheses, conduct empirical investigations, work with conceptually analogous computer simulations, and refine a conceptual model for the phenomena. Across the series of investigations, the integrated instructional unit introduces increasingly complex concepts. Formative assessments are integrated throughout the instructional sequence in ways that allow students to self-assess and reflect on core aspects of inquiry and epistemological dimensions of learning.

Researchers investigated the impact of Thinker Tools in 12 7th, 8th, and 9th grade classrooms with 3 teachers and 343 students. The researchers evaluated students’ developing understanding of scientific investigations using a pre-post inquiry test. In this assessment, students were engaged in a thought experiment that asked them to conceptualize, design, and think through a hypothetical research study. Gains in scores for students in the reflective self-assessment classes and control classrooms were compared. Results were also broken out by students categorized as high and low achieving, based on performance on a standardized test conducted before the intervention. Students in the reflective self-assessment classes exhibited greater gains on a test of investigative skills. This was especially true for low-achieving students. The researchers further analyzed specific components of the associated scientific processes—formulation of hypotheses, designing an experiment, predicting results, drawing conclusions from made-up results, and relating those conclusions back to the original hypotheses. Students in the reflective-self-assessment classes did better on all of these components than those in control classrooms, especially on the more difficult components (drawing conclusions and relating them to the original hypotheses).

Computer as Learning Partner

Beginning in 1980, a large group of technologists, classroom teachers, and education researchers developed the Computer as Learning Partner (CLP)

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

integrated instructional unit. Over 10 years, the team developed and tested eight versions of a 12-week unit on thermodynamics. Each year, a cohort of about 300 8th grade students participated in a sequence of teaching and learning activities focused primarily on a specific learning goal—enhancing students’ understanding of the difference between heat and temperature (Linn, 1997). The project engaged students in a sequence of laboratory experiences supported by computers, discussions, and other forms of science instruction. For example, computer images and words prompted students to make predictions about heat and conductivity and perform experiments using temperature-sensitive probes to confirm or refute their predictions. Students were given tasks related to scientific phenomena affecting their daily lives—such as how to keep a drink cold for lunch or selecting appropriate clothing for hiking in the mountains—as a way to motivate their interest and curiosity. Teachers play an important role in carrying out the curriculum, asking students to critique their own and each others’ investigations and encouraging them to reflect on their own thinking.

Over 10 years of study and revision, the integrated instructional unit proved increasingly effective in achieving its stated learning goals. Before the sequenced instruction was introduced, only 3 percent of middle school students could adequately explain the difference between heat and temperature. Eight versions later, about half of the students participating in CLP could explain this difference, representing a 400 percent increase in achievement. In addition, nearly 100 percent of students who participated in the final version of the instructional unit demonstrated understanding of conductors (Linn and Songer, 1991). By comparison, only 25 percent of a group of undergraduate chemistry students at the University of California at Berkeley could adequately explain the difference between heat and temperature. A longitudinal study comparing high school seniors who participated in the thermodynamics unit in middle school with seniors who had received more traditional middle school science instruction found a 50 percent improvement in CLP students’ performance in distinguishing between heat and temperature (Linn and Hsi, 2000)

Participating in the CLP instructional unit also increased students’ interest in science. Longitudinal studies of CLP participants revealed that, among those who went on to take high school physics, over 90 percent thought science was relevant to their lives. And 60 percent could provide examples of scientific phenomena in their daily lives. By comparison, only 60 percent of high school physics students who had not participated in the unit during middle school thought science was relevant to their lives, and only 30 percent could give examples in their daily lives (Linn and Hsi, 2000).

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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EFFECTIVENESS OF LABORATORY EXPERIENCES

Description of the Literature Review

The committee’s review of the literature on the effectiveness of laboratory experiences considered studies of typical laboratory experiences and emerging research focusing on integrated instructional units. In reviewing both bodies of research, we aim to specify how laboratory experiences can further each of the science learning goals outlined at the beginning of this chapter.

Limitations of the Research

Our review was complicated by weaknesses in the earlier research on typical laboratory experiences, isolated from the stream of instruction (Hofstein and Lunetta, 1982). First, the investigators do not agree on a precise definition of the “laboratory” experiences under study. Second, many studies were weak in the selection and control of variables. Investigators failed to examine or report important variables relating to student abilities and attitudes. For example, they failed to note students’ prior laboratory experiences. They also did not give enough attention to extraneous factors that might affect student outcomes, such as instruction outside the laboratory. Third, the studies of typical laboratory experiences usually involved a small group of students with little diversity, making it difficult to generalize the results to the large, diverse population of U.S. high schools today. Fourth, investigators did not give enough attention to the adequacy of the instruments used to measure student outcomes. As an example, paper and pencil tests that focus on testing mastery of subject matter, the most frequently used assessment, do not capture student attainment of all of the goals we have identified. Such tests are not able to measure student progress toward goals that may be unique to laboratory experiences, such as developing scientific reasoning, understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work, and development of practical skills.

Finally, most of the available research on typical laboratory experiences does not fully describe these activities. Few studies have examined teacher behavior, the classroom learning environment, or variables identifying teacher-student interaction. In addition, few recent studies have focused on laboratory manuals—both what is in them and how they are used. Research on the intended design of laboratory experiences, their implementation, and whether the implementation resembles the initial design would provide the understanding needed to guide improvements in laboratory instruction. However, only a few studies of typical laboratory experiences have measured the effectiveness of particular laboratory experiences in terms of both the extent

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

to which their activities match those that the teacher intended and the extent to which the students’ learning matches the learning objectives of the activity (Tiberghien, Veillard, Le Marchal, Buty, and Millar, 2000).

We also found weaknesses in the evolving research on integrated instructional units. First, these new units tend to be hothouse projects; researchers work intensively with teachers to construct atypical learning environments. While some have been developed and studied over a number of years and iterations, they usually involve relatively small samples of students. Only now are some of these efforts expanding to a scale that will allow robust generalizations about their value and how best to implement them. Second, these integrated instructional units have not been designed specifically to contrast some version of laboratory or practical experience with a lack of such experience. Rather, they assume that educational interventions are complex, systemic “packages” (Salomon, 1996) involving many interactions that may influence specific outcomes, and that science learning requires some opportunities for direct engagement with natural phenomena. Researchers commonly aim to document the complex interactions between and among students, teachers, laboratory materials, and equipment in an effort to develop profiles of successful interventions (Cobb et al., 2003; Collins, Joseph, and Bielaczyc, 2004; Design-Based Research Collective, 2003). These newer studies focus on how to sequence laboratory experiences and other forms of science instruction to support students’ science learning.

Scope of the Literature Search

A final note on the review of research: the scope of our study did not allow for an in-depth review of all of the individual studies of laboratory education conducted over the past 30 years. Fortunately, three major reviews of the literature from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s are available (Lazarowitz and Tamir, 1994; Lunetta, 1998; Hofstein and Lunetta, 2004). The committee relied on these reviews in our analysis of studies published before 1994. To identify studies published between 1994 and 2004, the committee searched electronic databases.

To supplement the database search, the committee commissioned three experts to review the nascent body of research on integrated instructional units (Bell, 2005; Duschl, 2004; Millar, 2004). We also invited researchers who are currently developing, revising, and studying the effectiveness of integrated instructional units to present their findings at committee meetings (Linn, 2004; Lynch, 2004).

All of these activities yielded few studies that focused on the high school level and were conducted in the United States. For this reason, the committee expanded the range of the literature considered to include some studies targeted at middle school and some international studies. We included stud-

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

ies at the elementary through postsecondary levels as well as studies of teachers’ learning in our analysis. In drawing conclusions from studies that were not conducted at the high school level, the committee took into consideration the extent to which laboratory experiences in high school differ from those in elementary and postsecondary education. Developmental differences among students, the organizational structure of schools, and the preparation of teachers are a few of the many factors that vary by school level and that the committee considered in making inferences from the available research. Similarly, when deliberating on studies conducted outside the United States, we considered differences in the science curriculum, the organization of schools, and other factors that might influence the outcomes of laboratory education.

Mastery of Subject Matter

Evidence from Research on Typical Laboratory Experiences

Claims that typical laboratory experiences help students master science content rest largely on the argument that opportunities to directly interact with, observe, and manipulate materials will help students to better grasp difficult scientific concepts. It is believed that these experiences will force students to confront their misunderstandings about phenomena and shift toward more scientific understanding.

Despite these claims, there is almost no direct evidence that typical laboratory experiences that are isolated from the flow of science instruction are particularly valuable for learning specific scientific content (Hofstein and Lunetta, 1982, 2004; Lazarowitz and Tamir, 1994). White (1996) points out that many major reviews of science education from the 1960s and 1970s indicate that laboratory work does little to improve understanding of science content as measured by paper and pencil tests, and later studies from the 1980s and early 1990s do not challenge this view. Other studies indicate that typical laboratory experiences are no more effective in helping students master science subject matter than demonstrations in high school biology (Coulter, 1966), demonstration and discussion (Yager, Engen, and Snider, 1969), and viewing filmed experiments in chemistry (Ben-Zvi, Hofstein, Kempa, and Samuel, 1976). In contrast to most of the research, a single comparative study (Freedman, 2002) found that students who received regular laboratory instruction over the course of a school year performed better on a test of physical science knowledge than a control group of students who took a similar physical science course without laboratory activities.

Clearly, most of the evidence does not support the argument that typical laboratory experiences lead to improved learning of science content. More specifically, concrete experiences with phenomena alone do not appear to

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

force students to confront their misunderstandings and reevaluate their own assumptions. For example, VandenBerg, Katu, and Lunetta (1994) reported, on the basis of clinical studies with individual students, that hands-on activities with introductory electricity materials facilitated students’ understanding of the relationships among circuit elements and variables. The carefully selected practical activities created conceptual conflict in students’ minds—a first step toward changing their naïve ideas about electricity. However, the students remained unable to develop a fully scientific mental model of a circuit system. The authors suggested that greater engagement with conceptual organizers, such as analogies and concept maps, could have helped students develop more scientific understandings of basic electricity. Several researchers, including Dupin and Joshua (1987), have reported similar findings. Studies indicate that students often hold beliefs so intensely that even their observations in the laboratory are strongly influenced by those beliefs (Champagne, Gunstone, and Klopfer, 1985, cited in Lunetta, 1998; Linn, 1997). Students tend to adjust their observations to fit their current beliefs rather than change their beliefs in the face of conflicting observations.

Evidence from Research on Integrated Instructional Units

Current integrated instructional units build on earlier studies that found integration of laboratory experiences with other instructional activities enhanced mastery of subject matter (Dupin and Joshua, 1987; White and Gunstone, 1992, cited in Lunetta, 1998). A recent review of these and other studies concluded (Hofstein and Lunetta, 2004, p. 33):

When laboratory experiences are integrated with other metacognitive learning experiences such as “predict-observe-explain” demonstrations (White and Gunstone, 1992) and when they incorporate the manipulation of ideas instead of simply materials and procedures, they can promote the learning of science.

Integrated instructional units often focus on complex science topics that are difficult for students to understand. Their design is based on research on students’ intuitive conceptions of a science topic and how those conceptions differ from scientific conceptions. Students’ ideas often do not match the scientific understanding of a phenomenon and, as noted previously, these intuitive notions are resistant to change. For this reason, the sequenced units incorporate instructional activities specifically designed to confront intuitive conceptions and provide an environment in which students can construct normative conceptions. The role of laboratory experiences is to emphasize the discrepancies between students’ intuitive ideas about the topic and scientific ideas, as well as to support their construction of normative understanding. In order to help students link formal, scientific concepts to real

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

phenomena, these units include a sequence of experiences that will push them to question their intuitive and often inaccurate ideas.

Emerging studies indicate that exposure to these integrated instructional units leads to demonstrable gains in student mastery of a number of science topics in comparison to more traditional approaches. In physics, these subjects include Newtonian mechanics (Wells, Hestenes, and Swackhamer, 1995; White, 1993); thermodynamics (Songer and Linn, 1991); electricity (Shaffer and McDermott, 1992); optics (Bell and Linn, 2000; Reiner, Pea, and Shulman, 1995); and matter (Lehrer, Schauble, Strom, and Pligge, 2001; Smith, Maclin, Grosslight, and Davis, 1997; Snir, Smith, and Raz, 2003). Integrated instructional units in biology have enhanced student mastery of genetics (Hickey, Kindfield, Horwitz, and Christie, 2003) and natural selection (Reiser et al., 2001). A chemistry unit has led to gains in student understanding of stoichiometry (Lynch, 2004). Many, but not all, of these instructional units combine computer-based simulations of the phenomena under study with direct interactions with these phenomena. The role of technology in providing laboratory experiences is described later in this chapter.

Developing Scientific Reasoning

While philosophers of science now agree that there is no single scientific method, they do agree that a number of reasoning skills are critical to research across the natural sciences. These reasoning skills include identifying questions and concepts that guide scientific investigations, designing and conducting scientific investigations, developing and revising scientific explanations and models, recognizing and analyzing alternative explanations and models, and making and defending a scientific argument. It is not necessarily the case that these skills are sequenced in a particular way or used in every scientific investigation. Instead, they are representative of the abilities that both scientists and students need to investigate the material world and make meaning out of those investigations. Research on children’s and adults’ scientific reasoning (see the review by Zimmerman, 2000) suggests that effective experimentation is difficult for most people and not learned without instructional support.

Evidence from Research on Typical Laboratory Experiences

Early research on the development of investigative skills suggested that students could learn aspects of scientific reasoning through typical laboratory instruction in college-level physics (Reif and St. John, 1979, cited in Hofstein and Lunetta, 1982) and in high school and college biology (Raghubir, 1979; Wheatley, 1975, cited in Hofstein and Lunetta, 1982).

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

More recent research, however, suggests that high school and college science teachers often emphasize laboratory procedures, leaving little time for discussion of how to plan an investigation or interpret its results (Tobin, 1987; see Chapter 4). Taken as a whole, the evidence indicates that typical laboratory work promotes only a few aspects of the full process of scientific reasoning—making observations and organizing, communicating, and interpreting data gathered from these observations. Typical laboratory experiences appear to have little effect on more complex aspects of scientific reasoning, such as the capacity to formulate research questions, design experiments, draw conclusions from observational data, and make inferences (Klopfer, 1990, cited in White, 1996).

Evidence from Research on Integrated Instructional Units

Research developing from studies of integrated instructional units indicates that laboratory experiences can play an important role in developing all aspects of scientific reasoning, including the more complex aspects, if the laboratory experiences are integrated with small group discussion, lectures, and other forms of science instruction. With carefully designed instruction that incorporates opportunities to conduct investigations and reflect on the results, students as young as 4th and 5th grade can develop sophisticated scientific thinking (Lehrer and Schauble, 2004; Metz, 2004). Kuhn and colleagues have shown that 5th graders can learn to experiment effectively, albeit in carefully controlled domains and with extended supervised practice (Kuhn, Schauble, and Garcia-Mila, 1992). Explicit instruction on the purposes of experiments appears necessary to help 6th grade students design them well (Schauble, Giaser, Duschl, Schulze, and John, 1995).These studies suggest that laboratory experiences must be carefully designed to support the development of scientific reasoning.

Given the difficulty most students have with reasoning scientifically, a number of instructional units have focused on this goal. Evidence from several studies indicates that, with the appropriate scaffolding provided in these units, students can successfully reason scientifically. They can learn to design experiments (Schauble et al., 1995; White and Frederiksen, 1998), make predictions (Friedler, Nachmias, and Linn, 1990), and interpret and explain data (Bell and Linn, 2000; Coleman, 1998; Hatano and Inagaki, 1991; Meyer and Woodruff, 1997; Millar, 1998; Rosebery, Warren, and Conant, 1992; Sandoval and Millwood, 2005). Engagement with these instructional units has been shown to improve students’ abilities to recognize discrepancies between predicted and observed outcomes (Friedler et al., 1990) and to design good experiments (Dunbar, 1993; Kuhn et al., 1992; Schauble et al., 1995; Schauble, Klopfer, and Raghavan, 1991).

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

Integrated instructional units seem especially beneficial in developing scientific reasoning skills among lower ability students (White and Frederiksen, 1998).

Recently, research has focused on an important element of scientific reasoning—the ability to construct scientific arguments. Developing, revising, and communicating scientific arguments is now recognized as a core scientific practice (Driver, Newton, and Osborne, 2000; Duschl and Osborne, 2002). Laboratory experiences play a key role in instructional units designed to enhance students’ argumentation abilities, because they provide both the impetus and the data for constructing scientific arguments. Such efforts have taken many forms. For example, researchers working with young Haitian-speaking students in Boston used the students’ own interests to develop scientific investigations. Students designed an investigation to determine which school drinking fountain had the best-tasting water. The students designed data collection protocols, collected and analyzed their data, and then argued about their findings (Rosebery et al., 1992). The Knowledge Integration Environment project asked middle school students to examine a common set of evidence to debate competing hypotheses about light propagation. Overall, most students learned the scientific concept (that light goes on forever), although those who made better arguments learned more than their peers (Bell and Linn, 2000). These and other examples (e.g., Sandoval and Millwood, 2005) show that students in middle and high school can learn to argue scientifically, by learning to coordinate theoretical claims with evidence taken from their laboratory investigations.

Developing Practical Skills

Evidence from Research on Typical Laboratory Experiences

Science educators and researchers have long claimed that learning practical laboratory skills is one of the important goals for laboratory experiences and that such skills may be attainable only through such experiences (White, 1996; Woolnough, 1983). However, development of practical skills has been measured in research less frequently than mastery of subject matter or scientific reasoning. Such practical outcomes deserve more attention, especially for laboratory experiences that are a critical part of vocational or technical training in some high school programs. When a primary goal of a program or course is to train students for jobs in laboratory settings, they must have the opportunity to learn to use and read sophisticated instruments and carry out standardized experimental procedures. The critical questions about acquiring these skills through laboratory experiences may not be whether laboratory experiences help students learn them, but how the experiences can be constructed so as to be most effective in teaching such skills.

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

Some research indicates that typical laboratory experiences specifically focused on learning practical skills can help students progress toward other goals. For example, one study found that students were often deficient in the simple skills needed to successfully carry out typical laboratory activities, such as using instruments to make measurements and collect accurate data (Bryce and Robertson, 1985). Other studies indicate that helping students to develop relevant instrumentation skills in controlled “prelab” activities can reduce the probability that important measurements in a laboratory experience will be compromised due to students’ lack of expertise with the apparatus (Beasley, 1985; Singer, 1977). This research suggests that development of practical skills may increase the probability that students will achieve the intended results in laboratory experiences. Achieving the intended results of a laboratory activity is a necessary, though not sufficient, step toward effectiveness in helping students attain laboratory learning goals.

Some research on typical laboratory experiences indicates that girls handle laboratory equipment less frequently than boys, and that this tendency is associated with less interest in science and less self-confidence in science ability among girls (Jovanovic and King, 1998). It is possible that helping girls to develop instrumentation skills may help them to participate more actively and enhance their interest in learning science.

Evidence from Research on Integrated Instructional Units

Studies of integrated instructional units have not examined the extent to which engagement with these units may enhance practical skills in using laboratory materials and equipment. This reflects an instructional emphasis on helping students to learn scientific ideas with real understanding and on developing their skills at investigating scientific phenomena, rather than on particular laboratory techniques, such as taking accurate measurements or manipulating equipment. There is no evidence to suggest that students do not learn practical skills through integrated instructional units, but to date researchers have not assessed such practical skills.

Understanding the Nature of Science

Throughout the past 50 years, studies of students’ epistemological beliefs about science consistently show that most of them have naïve views about the nature of scientific knowledge and how such knowledge is constructed and evaluated by scientists over time (Driver, Leach, Millar, and Scott, 1996; Lederman, 1992). The general public understanding of science is similarly inaccurate. Firsthand experience with science is often seen as a key way to advance students’ understanding of and appreciation for the conventions of science. Laboratory experiences are considered the primary mecha-

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

nism for providing firsthand experience and are therefore assumed to improve students’ understanding of the nature of science.

Evidence from Research on Typical Laboratory Experiences

Research on student understanding of the nature of science provides little evidence of improvement with science instruction (Lederman, 1992; Driver et al., 1996). Although much of this research historically did not examine details of students’ laboratory experiences, it often included very large samples of science students and thus arguably captured typical laboratory experiences (research from the late 1950s through the 1980s is reviewed by Lederman, 1992). There appear to be developmental trends in students’ understanding of the relations between experimentation and theory-building. Younger students tend to believe that experiments yield direct answers to questions; during middle and high school, students shift to a vague notion of experiments being tests of ideas. Only a small number of students appear to leave high school with a notion of science as model-building and experimentation, in an ongoing process of testing and revision (Driver et al., 1996; Carey and Smith, 1993; Smith et al., 2000). The conclusion that most experts draw from these results is that the isolated nature and rote procedural focus of typical laboratory experiences inhibits students from developing robust conceptions of the nature of science. Consequently, some have argued that the nature of science must be an explicit target of instruction (Khishfe and Abd-El-Khalick, 2002; Lederman, Abd-El-Khalick, Bell, and Schwartz, 2002).

Evidence from Research on Integrated Instructional Units

As discussed above, there is reasonable evidence that integrated instructional units help students to learn processes of scientific inquiry. However, such instructional units do not appear, on their own, to help students develop robust conceptions of the nature of science. One large-scale study of a widely available inquiry-oriented curriculum, in which integrated instructional units were an explicit feature, showed no significant change in students’ ideas about the nature of science after a year’s instruction (Meichtry, 1993). Students engaged in the BGuILE science instructional unit showed no gains in understanding the nature of science from their participation, and they seemed not even to see their experience in the unit as necessarily related to professional science (Sandoval and Morrison, 2003). These findings and others have led to the suggestion that the nature of science must be an explicit target of instruction (Lederman et al., 2002).

There is evidence from the ThinkerTools science instructional unit that by engaging in reflective self-assessment on their own scientific investiga-

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

tions, students gained a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of science than matched control classes who used the curriculum without the ongoing monitoring and evaluation of their own and others’ research (White and Frederiksen, 1998). Students who engaged in the reflective assessment process “acquire knowledge of the forms that scientific laws, models, and theories can take, and of how the development of scientific theories is related to empirical evidence” (White and Frederiksen, 1998, p. 92). Students who participated in the laboratory experiences and other learning activities in this unit using the reflective assessment process were less likely to “view scientific theories as immutable and never subject to revision” (White and Frederiksen, 1998, p. 72). Instead, they saw science as meaningful and explicable. The ThinkerTools findings support the idea that attention to nature of science issues should be an explicit part of integrated instructional units, although even with such attention it remains difficult to change students’ ideas (Khishfe and Abd-el-Khalick, 2002).

A survey of several integrated instructional units found that they seem to bridge the “language gap” between science in school and scientific practice (Duschl, 2004). The units give students “extended opportunities to explore the relationship between evidence and explanation,” helping them not only to develop new knowledge (mastery of subject matter), but also to evaluate claims of scientific knowledge, reflecting a deeper understanding of the nature of science (Duschl, 2004). The available research leaves open the question of whether or not these experiences help students to develop an explicit, reflective conceptual framework about the nature of science.

Cultivating Interest in Science and Interest in Learning Science

Evidence from Research on Typical Laboratory Experiences

Studies of the effect of typical laboratory experiences on student interest are much rarer than those focusing on student achievement or other cognitive outcomes (Hofstein and Lunetta, 2004; White, 1996). The number of studies that address interest, attitudes, and other affective outcomes has decreased over the past decade, as researchers have focused almost exclusively on cognitive outcomes (Hofstein and Lunetta, 2004). Among the few studies available, the evidence is mixed. Some studies indicate that laboratory experiences lead to more positive attitudes (Renner, Abraham, and Birnie, 1985; Denny and Chennell, 1986). Other studies show no relation between laboratory experiences and affect (Ato and Wilkinson, 1986; Freedman, 2002), and still others report laboratory experiences turned students away from science (Holden, 1990; Shepardson and Pizzini, 1993).

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

There are, however, two apparent weaknesses in studies of interest and attitude (Hofstein and Lunetta, 1982). One is that researchers often do not carefully define interest and how it should be measured. Consequently, it is unclear if students simply reported liking laboratory activities more than other classroom activities, or if laboratory activities engendered more interest in science as a field, or in taking science courses, or something else. Similarly, studies may report increased positive attitudes toward science from students’ participation in laboratory experiences, without clear description of what attitudes were measured, how large the changes were, or whether changes persisted over time.

Student Perceptions of Typical Laboratory Experiences

Students’ perceptions of laboratory experiences may affect their interest and engagement in science, and some studies have examined those perceptions. Researchers have found that students often do not have clear ideas about the general or specific purposes of their work in typical science laboratory activities (Chang and Lederman, 1994) and that their understanding of the goals of lessons frequently do not match their teachers’ goals for the same lessons (Hodson, 1993; Osborne and Freyberg, 1985; Wilkenson and Ward, 1997). When students do not understand the goals of experiments or laboratory investigations, negative consequences for learning occur (Schauble et al., 1995). In fact, students often do not make important connections between the purpose of a typical laboratory investigation and the design of the experiments. They do not connect the experiment with what they have done earlier, and they do not note the discrepancies among their own concepts, the concepts of their peers, and those of the science community (Champagne et al., 1985; Eylon and Linn, 1988; Tasker, 1981). As White (1998) notes, “to many students, a ‘lab’ means manipulating equipment but not manipulating ideas.” Thus, in considering how laboratory experiences may contribute to students’ interest in science and to other learning goals, their perceptions of those experiences must be considered.

A series of studies using the Science Laboratory Environment Inventory (SLEI) has demonstrated links between students’ perceptions of laboratory experiences and student outcomes (Fraser, McRobbie, and Giddings, 1993; Fraser, Giddings, and McRobbie, 1995; Henderson, Fisher, and Fraser, 2000; Wong and Fraser, 1995). The SLEI, which has been validated cross-nationally, measures five dimensions of the laboratory environment: student cohesiveness, open-endedness, integration, rule clarity, and material environment (see Table 3-1 for a description of each scale). Using the SLEI, researchers have studied students’ perceptions of chemistry and biology laboratories in several countries, including the United States. All five dimensions appear to be positively related with student attitudes, although the

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

TABLE 3-1 Descriptive Information for the Science Laboratory Environment Inventory

Scale Name

Description

Student cohesiveness

Extent to which students know, help, and are supportive of one another

Open-endedness

Extent to which the laboratory activities emphasize an open-ended, divergent approach to experimentation

Integration

Extent to which laboratory activities are integrated with nonlaboratory and theory classes

Rule clarity

Extent to which behavior in the laboratory is guided by formal rules

Material environment

Extent to which the laboratory equipment and materials are adequate

SOURCE: Henderson, Fisher, and Fraser (2000). Reprinted with permission of Wiley-Liss, Inc., a subsidiary of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

relation of open-endedness with attitudes seems to vary with student population. In some populations, there is a negative relation to attitudes (Fraser et al., 1995) and to some cognitive outcomes (Henderson et al., 2000).

Research using the SLEI indicates that positive student attitudes are particularly strongly associated with cohesiveness (the extent to which students know, help, and are supportive of one another) and integration (the extent to which laboratory activities are integrated with nonlaboratory and theory classes) (Fraser et al.,1995; Wong and Fraser, 1995). Integration also shows a positive relation to students’ cognitive outcomes (Henderson et al., 2000; McRobbie and Fraser, 1993).

Evidence from Research on Integrated Instructional Units

Students’ interest and attitudes have been measured less often than other goals of laboratory experiences in studies of integrated instructional units. When evidence is available, it suggests that students who participate in these units show greater interest in and more positive attitudes toward science. For example, in a study of ThinkerTools, completion of projects was used as a measure of student interest. The rate of submitting completed projects was higher for students in the ThinkerTools curriculum than for those in traditional instruction. This was true for all grades and ability levels (White and

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

Frederiksen, 1998). This study also found that students’ ongoing evaluation of their own and other students’ thinking increased motivation and self-confidence in their individual ability: students who participated in this ongoing evaluation not only turned in their final project reports more frequently, but they were also less likely to turn in reports that were identical to their research partner’s.

Participation in the ThinkerTools instructional unit appears to change students’ attitudes toward learning science. After completing the integrated instructional unit, fewer students indicated that “being good at science” was a result of inherited traits, and fewer agreed with the statement, “In general, boys tend to be naturally better at science than girls.” In addition, more students indicated that they preferred taking an active role in learning science, rather than simply being told the correct answer by the teacher (White and Frederiksen, 1998).

Researchers measured students’ engagement and motivation to master the complex topic of conservation of matter as part of the study of CTA. Students who participated in the CTA curriculum had higher levels of basic engagement (active participation in activities) and were more likely to focus on learning from the activities than students in the control group (Lynch et al., in press). This positive effect on engagement was especially strong among low-income students. The researchers speculate, “perhaps as a result of these changes in engagement and motivation, they learned more than if they had received the standard curriculum” (Lynch et al., in press).

Students who participated in CLP during middle school, when surveyed years later as high school seniors, were more likely to report that science is relevant to their lives than students who did not participate (Linn and Hsi, 2000). Further research is needed to illuminate which aspects of this instructional unit contribute to increased interest.

Developing Teamwork Abilities

Evidence from Research on Typical Laboratory Experiences

Teamwork and collaboration appear in research on typical laboratory experiences in two ways. First, working in groups is seen as a way to enhance student learning, usually with reference to literature on cooperative learning or to the importance of providing opportunities for students to discuss their ideas. Second and more recently, attention has focused on the ability to work in groups as an outcome itself, with laboratory experiences seen as an ideal opportunity to develop these skills. The focus on teamwork as an outcome is usually linked to arguments that this is an essential skill for workers in the 21st century (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2003).

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×
Evidence from Research on Integrated Instructional Units

There is considerable evidence that collaborative work can help students learn, especially if students with high ability work with students with low ability (Webb and Palincsar, 1996). Collaboration seems especially helpful to lower ability students, but only when they work with more knowledgeable peers (Webb, Nemer, Chizhik, and Sugrue, 1998). Building on this research, integrated instructional units engage students in small-group collaboration as a way to encourage them to connect what they know (either from their own experiences or from prior instruction) to their laboratory experiences. Often, individual students disagree about prospective answers to the questions under investigation or the best way to approach them, and collaboration encourages students to articulate and explain their reasoning. A number of studies suggest that such collaborative investigation is effective in helping students to learn targeted scientific concepts (Coleman, 1998; Roschelle, 1992).

Extant research lacks specific assessment of the kinds of collaborative skills that might be learned by individual students through laboratory work. The assumption appears to be that if students collaborate and such collaborations are effective in supporting their conceptual learning, then they are probably learning collaborative skills, too.

Overall Effectiveness of Laboratory Experiences

The two bodies of research—the earlier research on typical laboratory experiences and the emerging research on integrated instructional units—yield different findings about the effectiveness of laboratory experiences in advancing the goals identified by the committee. In general, the nascent body of research on integrated instructional units offers the promise that laboratory experiences embedded in a larger stream of science instruction can be more effective in advancing these goals than are typical laboratory experiences (see Table 3-2).

Research on the effectiveness of typical laboratory experiences is methodologically weak and fragmented. The limited evidence available suggests that typical laboratory experiences, by themselves, are neither better nor worse than other methods of science instruction for helping students master science subject matter. However, more recent research indicates that integrated instructional units enhance students’ mastery of subject matter. Studies have demonstrated increases in student mastery of complex topics in physics, chemistry, and biology.

Typical laboratory experiences appear, based on the limited research available, to support some aspects of scientific reasoning; however, typical laboratory experiences alone are not sufficient for promoting more sophisticated scientific reasoning abilities, such as asking appropriate questions,

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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TABLE 3-2 Attainment of Educational Goals in Typical Laboratory Experiences and Integrated Instructional Units

Goal

Typical Laboratory Experiences

Integrated Instructional Units

Mastery of subject matter

No better or worse than other modes of instruction

Increased mastery compared with other modes of instruction

Scientific reasoning

Aids development of some aspects

Aids development of more sophisticated aspects

Understanding of the nature of science

Little improvement

Some improvement when explicitly targeted at this goal

Interest in science

Some evidence of increased interest

Greater evidence of increased interest

Understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work

Inadequate evidence

Inadequate evidence

Development of practical skills

Inadequate evidence

Inadequate evidence

Development of teamwork skills

Inadequate evidence

Inadequate evidence

designing experiments, and drawing inferences. Research on integrated instructional units provides evidence that the laboratory experiences and other forms of instruction they include promote development of several aspects of scientific reasoning, including the ability to ask appropriate questions, design experiments, and draw inferences.

The evidence indicates that typical laboratory experiences do little to increase students’ understanding of the nature of science. In contrast, some studies find that participating in integrated instructional units that are designed specifically with this goal in mind enhances understanding of the nature of science.

The available research suggests that typical laboratory experiences can play a role in enhancing students’ interest in science and in learning science. There is evidence that engagement with the laboratory experiences and other learning activities included in integrated instructional units enhances students’ interest in science and motivation to learn science.

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

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.

PRINCIPLES FOR DESIGN OF EFFECTIVE LABORATORY EXPERIENCES

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.

Clearly Communicated Purposes

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.

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

Sequenced into the Flow of Instruction

Effective laboratory experiences are thoughtfully sequenced into the flow of classroom science instruction. That is, they are explicitly linked to what has come before and what will come after. A common theme in reviews of laboratory practice in the United States is that laboratory experiences are presented to students as isolated events, unconnected with other aspects of classroom work. In contrast, integrated instructional units embed laboratory experiences with other activities that build on the laboratory experiences and push students to reflect on and better understand these experiences. The way a particular laboratory experience is integrated into a flow of activities should be guided by the goals of the overall sequence of instruction and of the particular laboratory experience.

Integrated Learning of Science Concepts and Processes

Research in the learning sciences (National Research Council, 1999, 2001) strongly implies that conceptual understanding, scientific reasoning, and practical skills are three capabilities that are not mutually exclusive. An educational program that partitions the teaching and learning of content from the teaching and learning of process is likely to be ineffective in helping students develop scientific reasoning skills and an understanding of science as a way of knowing. The research on integrated instructional units, all of which intertwine exploration of content with process through laboratory experiences, suggests that integration of content and process promotes attainment of several goals identified by the committee.

Ongoing Discussion and Reflection

Laboratory experiences are more likely to be effective when they focus students more on discussing the activities they have done during their laboratory experiences and reflecting on the meaning they can make from them, than on the laboratory activities themselves. Crucially, the focus of laboratory experiences and the surrounding instructional activities should not simply be on confirming presented ideas, but on developing explanations to make sense of patterns of data. Teaching strategies that encourage students to articulate their hypotheses about phenomena prior to experimentation and to then reflect on their ideas after experimentation are demonstrably more successful at supporting student attainment of the goals of mastery of subject matter, developing scientific reasoning, and increasing interest in science and science learning. At the same time, opportunities for ongoing discussion and reflection could potentially support students in developing teamwork skills.

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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COMPUTER TECHNOLOGIES AND LABORATORY EXPERIENCES

From scales to microscopes, technology in many forms plays an integral role in most high school laboratory experiences. Over the past two decades, personal computers have enabled the development of software specifically designed to help students learn science, and the Internet is an increasingly used tool for science learning and for science itself. This section examines the role that computer technologies now and may someday play in science learning in relation to laboratory experiences. Certain uses of computer technology can be seen as laboratory experiences themselves, according to the committee’s definition, to the extent that they allow students to interact with data drawn directly from the world. Other uses, less clearly laboratory experiences in themselves, provide certain features that aid science learning.

Computer Technologies Designed to Support Learning

Researchers and science educators have developed a number of software programs to support science learning in various ways. In this section, we summarize what we see as the main ways in which computer software can support science learning through providing or augmenting laboratory experiences.

Scaffolded Representations of Natural Phenomena

Perhaps the most common form of science education software are programs that enable students to interact with carefully crafted models of natural phenomena that are difficult to see and understand in the real world and have proven historically difficult for students to understand. Such programs are able to show conceptual interrelationships and connections between theoretical constructs and natural phenomena through the use of multiple, linked representations. For example, velocity can be linked to acceleration and position in ways that make the interrelationships understandable to students (Roschelle, Kaput, and Stroup, 2000). Chromosome genetics can be linked to changes in pedigrees and populations (Horowitz, 1996). Molecular chemical representations can be linked to chemical equations (Kozma, 2003).

In the ThinkerTools integrated instructional unit, abstracted representations of force and motion are provided for students to help them “see” such ideas as force, acceleration, and velocity in two dimensions (White, 1993; White and Frederiksen, 1998). Objects in the ThinkerTools microworld are represented as simple, uniformly sized “dots” to avoid students becoming confused about the idea of center of mass. Students use the microworld to solve various problems of motion in one or two dimensions, using the com-

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

puter keyboard to apply forces to dots to move them along specified paths. Part of the key to the software’s guidance is that it provides representations of forces and accelerations in which students can see change in response to their actions. A “dot trace,” for example, shows students how applying more force affects an object’s acceleration in a predictable way. A “vector cross” represents the individual components of forces applied in two dimensions in a way that helps students to link those forces to an object’s motion.

ThinkerTools is but one example of this type of interactive, representational software. Others have been developed to help students reason about motion (Roschelle, 1992), electricity (Gutwill, Fredericksen, and White, 1999), heat and temperature (Linn, Bell, and Hsi, 1998), genetics (Horwitz and Christie, 2000), and chemical reactions (Kozma, 2003), among others. These programs differ substantially from one another in how they represent their target phenomena, as there are substantial differences in the topics themselves and in the problems that students are known to have in understanding them. They share, however, a common approach to solving a similar set of problems—how to represent natural phenomena that are otherwise invisible in ways that help students make their own thinking explicit and guide them to normative scientific understanding.

When used as a supplement to hands-on laboratory experiences within integrated instructional units, these representations can support students’ conceptual change (e.g., Linn et al., 1998; White and Frederiksen, 1998). For example, students working through the ThinkerTools curriculum always experiment with objects in the real world before they work with the computer tools. The goals of the laboratory experiences are to provide some experience with the phenomena under study and some initial ideas that can then be explored on the computer.

Structured Simulations of Inaccessible Phenomena

Various types of simulations of phenomena represent another form of technology for science learning. These simulations allow students to explore and observe phenomena that are too expensive, infeasible, or even dangerous to interact with directly. Strictly speaking, a computer simulation is a program that simulates a particular phenomenon by running a computational model whose behavior can sometimes be changed by modifying input parameters to the model. For example, the GenScope program provides a set of linked representations of genetics and genetics phenomena that would otherwise be unavailable for study to most students (Horowitz and Christie, 2000). The software represents alleles, chromosomes, family pedigrees, and the like and links representations across levels in ways that enable students to trace inherited traits to specific genetic differences. The software uses an underlying Mendelian model of genetic inheritance to gov-

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

ern its behavior. As with the representations described above, embedding the use of the software in a carefully thought out curriculum sequence is crucial to supporting student learning (Hickey et al., 2000).

Another example in biology is the BGuILE project (Reiser et al., 2001). The investigators created a series of structured simulations allowing students to investigate problems of evolution by natural selection. In the Galapagos finch environment, for example, students can examine a carefully selected set of data from the island of Daphne Major to explain a historical case of natural selection. The BGuILE software does not, strictly speaking, consist of simulations because it does not “run” a model; from a student’s perspective, it simulates either Daphne Major or laboratory experiments on tuberculosis bacteria. Studies show that students can learn from the BGuILE environments when these environments are embedded in a well-organized curriculum (Sandoval and Reiser, 2004). They also show that successful implementation of such technology-supported curricula relies heavily on teachers (Tabak, 2004).

Structured Interactions with Complex Phenomena and Ideas

The examples discussed here share a crucial feature. The representations built into the software and the interface tools provided for learners are intended to help them learn in very specific ways. There are a great number of such tools that have been developed over the last quarter of a century. Many of them have been shown to produce impressive learning gains for students at the secondary level. Besides the ones mentioned, other tools are designed to structure specific scientific reasoning skills, such as prediction (Friedler et al., 1990) and the coordination of claims with evidence (Bell and Linn, 2000; Sandoval, 2003). Most of these efforts integrate students’ work on the computer with more direct laboratory experiences. Rather than thinking of these representations and simulations as a way to replace laboratory experiences, the most successful instructional sequences integrate them with a series of empirical laboratory investigations. These sequences of science instruction focus students’ attention on developing a shared interpretation of both the representations and the real laboratory experiences in small groups (Bell, 2005).

Computer Technologies Designed to Support Science

Advances in computer technologies have had a tremendous impact on how science is done and on what scientists can study. These changes are vast, and summarizing them is well beyond the scope of the committee’s charge. We found, however, that some innovations in scientific practice, especially uses of the Internet, are beginning to be applied to secondary

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
×

science education. With respect to future laboratory experiences, perhaps the most significant advance in many scientific fields is the aggregation of large, varied data sets into Internet-accessible databases. These databases are most commonly built for specific scientific communities, but some researchers are creating and studying new, learner-centered interfaces to allow access by teachers and schools. These research projects build on instructional design principles illuminated by the integrated instructional units discussed above.

One example is the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing (CENS), a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center investigating the development and deployment of large-scale sensor networks embedded in physical environments. CENS is currently working on ecosystem monitoring, seismology, contaminant flow transport, and marine microbiology. As sensor networks come on line, making data available, science educators at the center are developing middle school curricula that include web-based tools to enable students to explore the same data sets that the professional scientists are exploring (Pea, Mills, and Takeuchi, 2004).

The interfaces professional scientists use to access such databases tend to be too inflexible and technical for students to use successfully (Bell, 2005). Bounding the space of possible data under consideration, supporting appropriate considerations of theory, and promoting understanding of the norms used in the visualization can help support students in developing a shared understanding of the data. With such support, students can develop both conceptual understanding and understanding of the data analysis process. Focusing students on causal explanation and argumentation based on the data analysis process can help them move from a descriptive, phenomenological view of science to one that considers theoretical issues of cause (Bell, 2005).

Further research and evaluation of the educational benefit of student interaction with large scientific databases are absolutely necessary. Still, the development of such efforts will certainly expand over time, and, as they change notions of what it means to conduct scientific experiments, they are also likely to change what it means to conduct a school laboratory.

SUMMARY

The committee identified a number of science learning goals that have been attributed to laboratory experiences. Our review of the evidence on attainment of these goals revealed a recent shift in research, reflecting some movement in laboratory instruction. Historically, laboratory experiences have been disconnected from the flow of classroom science lessons. We refer to these separate laboratory experiences as typical laboratory experiences. Reflecting this separation, researchers often engaged students in one or two

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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experiments or other science activities and then conducted assessments to determine whether their understanding of the science concept underlying the activity had increased. Some studies compared the outcomes of these separate laboratory experiences with the outcomes of other forms of science instruction, such as lectures or discussions.

Over the past 10 years, researchers studying laboratory education have shifted their focus. Drawing on principles of learning derived from the cognitive sciences, they have asked how to sequence science instruction, including laboratory experiences, in order to support students’ science learning. We refer to these instructional sequences as “integrated instructional units.” Integrated instructional units connect laboratory experiences with other types of science learning activities, including lectures, reading, and discussion. Students are engaged in framing research questions, making observations, designing and executing experiments, gathering and analyzing data, and constructing scientific arguments and explanations.

The two bodies of research on typical laboratory experiences and integrated instructional units, including laboratory experiences, yield different findings about the effectiveness of laboratory experiences in advancing the science learning goals identified by the committee. The earlier research on typical laboratory experiences is weak and fragmented, making it difficult to draw precise conclusions. The weight of the evidence from research focused on the goals of developing scientific reasoning and enhancing student interest in science showed slight improvements in both after students participated in typical laboratory experiences. Research focused on the goal of student mastery of subject matter indicates that typical laboratory experiences are no more or less effective than other forms of science instruction (such as reading, lectures, or discussion).

Studies conducted to date on integrated instructional units indicate that the laboratory experiences, together with the other forms of instruction included in these units, show greater effectiveness for these same three goals (compared with students who received more traditional forms of science instruction): improving students’ mastery of subject matter, increasing development of scientific reasoning, and enhancing interest in science. Integrated instructional units also appear to be effective in helping diverse groups of students progress toward these three learning goals. A major limitation of the research on integrated instructional units, however, is that most of the units have been used in small numbers of science classrooms. Only a few studies have addressed the challenge of implementing—and studying the effectiveness of—integrated instructional units on a wide scale.

Due to a lack of available studies, the committee was unable to draw conclusions about the extent to which either typical laboratory experiences or integrated instructional units might advance the other goals identified at the beginning of this chapter—enhancing understanding of the complexity

Suggested Citation:"3 Laboratory Experiences and Student Learning." National Research Council. 2006. America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11311.
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and ambiguity of empirical work, acquiring practical skills, and developing teamwork skills. Further research is needed to clarify how laboratory experiences might be designed to promote attainment of these goals.

The committee considers the evidence sufficient to identify four general principles that can help laboratory experiences achieve the learning goals we have outlined. Laboratory experiences are more likely to 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.

Computer software and the Internet have enabled development of several tools that can support students’ science learning, including representations of complex phenomena, simulations, and student interaction with large scientific databases. Representations and simulations are most successful in supporting student learning when they are integrated in an instructional sequence that also includes laboratory experiences. Researchers are currently developing tools to support student interaction with—and learning from—large scientific databases.

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Laboratory experiences as a part of most U.S. high school science curricula have been taken for granted for decades, but they have rarely been carefully examined. What do they contribute to science learning? What can they contribute to science learning? What is the current status of labs in our nation�s high schools as a context for learning science? This book looks at a range of questions about how laboratory experiences fit into U.S. high schools:

  • What is effective laboratory teaching?
  • What does research tell us about learning in high school science labs?
  • How should student learning in laboratory experiences be assessed?
  • Do all student have access to laboratory experiences?
  • What changes need to be made to improve laboratory experiences for high school students?
  • How can school organization contribute to effective laboratory teaching?

    With increased attention to the U.S. education system and student outcomes, no part of the high school curriculum should escape scrutiny. This timely book investigates factors that influence a high school laboratory experience, looking closely at what currently takes place and what the goals of those experiences are and should be. Science educators, school administrators, policy makers, and parents will all benefit from a better understanding of the need for laboratory experiences to be an integral part of the science curriculum�and how that can be accomplished.

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