The Role of Laboratory in Science Teaching

The Role of Laboratory in Science Teaching


Science educators have believed that the laboratory is an important means of instruction in science since late in the 19th century. Laboratory activities were used in high school chemistry in the 1880s (Fay, 1931). In 1886, Harvard University published a list of physics experiments that were to be included in high school physics classes for students who wished to enroll at Harvard (Moyer, 1976). Laboratory instruction was considered essential because it provided training in observation, supplied detailed information, and aroused pupils' interest. These same reasons are still accepted almost 100 years later.

Shulman and Tamir, in the Second Handbook of Research on Teaching (Travers, ed., 1973), listed five groups of objectives that may be achieved through the use of the laboratory in science classes:

  1. skills - manipulative, inquiry, investigative, organizational, communicative
  2. concepts - for example, hypothesis, theoretical model, taxonomic category
  3. cognitive abilities - critical thinking, problem solving, application, analysis, synthesis
  4. understanding the nature of science - scientific enterprise, scientists and how they work, existence of a multiplicity of scientific methods, interrelationships between science and technology and among the various disciplines of science
  5. attitudes - for example, curiosity, interest, risk taking, objectivity, precision,confidence, perseverance, satisfaction, responsibility, consensus, collaboration, and liking science (1973, p.1119).

Writing about laboratory teaching at the college level, McKeachie said:

Laboratory teaching assumes that first-hand experience in observation and manipulation of the materials of science is superior to other methods of developing understanding and appreciation. Laboratory training is also frequently used to develop skills necessary for more advanced study or research.

From the standpoint of theory, the activity of the student, the sensorimotor nature of the experience, and the individualization of laboratory instruction should contribute positively to learning. Information cannot usually be obtained, however, by direct experience as rapidly as it can from abstractions presented orally or in print... Thus, one would not expect laboratory teaching to have an advantage over other teaching methods in the amount of information retention, in ability to apply learning, or in actual skill in observation or manipulation of materials... (in Gage, 1962, p.1144-1145).

Another writer, Pickering (1980), identified two misconceptions about the use of the laboratory in college science. One is that laboratories somehow "illustrate" lecture courses - a function that (in Pickering's opinion) is not possible in a simple, one-afternoon exercise. Pickering contended that most scientific theories are based on a large number of very sophisticated experiments. He suggested that, if lecture topics are to be illustrated, this should be done through the use of audio-visual aids or demonstrations. The second misconception is that laboratories exist to teach manipulative skills. Pickering argued that the majority of students in science laboratory classes do not have a career goal of becoming a professional scientist. Further, many of the skills students learn in laboratories are obsolete in science careers. If these skills are worth teaching, it is as tools to be mastered for basic scientific inquiry and not as ends in themselves (1980, p. 80).

Research Findings

Science educators frequently turn to the research literature for support of their requests for funds for supplies and equipment for laboratory activities. Science education researcher have examined the role of the laboratory on many variables, including achievement, attitudes, critical thinking, cognitive style, understanding science, the development of science process skills, manipulative skills, interests, retention in science courses, and the ability to do independent work.

Many of these studies contain the finding of "no significant differences" between groups. In 1978 the National Science Teachers Association produced the first volume of its series What Research Says to the Science Teacher. One of the chapters in this volume was on the role of the laboratory in secondary school science programs. Gary C. Bates reviewed 82 studies and concluded that "...the answer has not yet been conclusively found..." to the question: What does the laboratory accomplish that could not be accomplished as well by less expensive and less time consuming alternatives? (in Rowe, ed., 1978, p. 75).

A number of possible explanations exist for this discouraging conclusion. Much of the research comes from doctoral studies which are usually first attempts at research. Very few studies include a follow-up of the subjects involved to see if there were ant changes other than those tested for at the end of the study. Many of the investigations are of the comparative variety`(approach X vs. a "lab" approach). Often these instructional approaches are not described in sufficient detail for the reader to be able to judge the value of the study.

As McKeachie pointed out, laboratory teaching may not be the best method to choose if one's objective is to have students retain information. However, the need for "educational accountability" has been translated into the need to increase test scores. Some of the outcomes of a "lab approach" are difficult to test in a multiple-choice test.

Some-Positive Findings

Positive research findings on the role of the laboratory in science teaching do exist. Laboratory activities appear to be helpful for students rated as medium to low in achievement on pretest measures (Boghai, 1979; Grozier, 1969). Godomsky (1971) reported that laboratory instruction increased students' problem-solving ability in physical chemistry and that the laboratory could be a valuable instructional technique in chemistry if experiments were genuine problems without explicit directions. Working with older, disadvantaged students in a laboratory setting, researchers (McKinnon, 1976; McDermott et al., 1980) used activities designed to create disequilibrium in order to encourage cognitive development.

Some Final Comments

No space has been allocated in this discussion of the role of the laboratory to the approach involved: inquiry vs. verification. It has been assumed that proponents of laboratory activities are interested in having students inquire and in having them work with concrete objects. Comber and Keeves (1973) found, when studying science education in 19 countries, that in six countries where 10-year-old students made observations and did experiments in their schools, the level of achievement in science was higher than in schools where students did not perform these activities.

A modern research technique is meta-analysis - in which a group of studies is analyzed for similarities and differences in findings related to their common thrust. A meta-analysis on the effects of various instructional techniques (Wise and Okey, 1983) was focused on 12 teaching strategies. Two of these 12 were related to the laboratory approach: inquiry-discovery and manipulative. Although these two strategies did not exhibit as large an effect as did the strategies of focusing and questioning, there was some positive support for inquiry teaching. An effective science classroom was characterized as one in which students had opportunities to physically interact with instructional materials and engage in varied kinds of activities (1983, p. 434). Lott (1983) reported on a meta-analysis of the effect of inquiry (inductive) teaching and advance organizers in science education. Lott wrote that the inductive approach appeared to be more useful (than the deductive) in those situations where high levels of thought, learning experiences, and outcomes demands were placed upon subjects (1983, p. 445).

Science educators at all levels need to continue to study the role of the laboratory in science teaching. However, perhaps the question we should be asking is not "What is the laboratory better than?" but "For what purposes should the laboratory be used, under what conditions, and with what students?"

by Patricia E. Blosser, Professor of Science Education, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH


Blosser, Patricia E. (1980). A Critical Review of the Role of the Laboratory in Science Teaching. Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse for Science, Mathematics, and Environmental Education.

Boghai, Davar M. (April 1979). A Comparison of the Effects of Laboratory and Discussion Sequences on Learning College Chemistry. Dissertation Abstracts, 39(10), 6045A.

Comber, L. C. & J. P. Keeves. (1978). Science Education in Nineteen Countries, International Studies in Evaluation I. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Fay, Paul J. (August 1931). The History of Chemistry Teaching in American High Schools. Journal of Chemical Education, 8(8),1533-1562.

Gage, N. L., et al. (1963). Handbook of Research on Teaching. Chicago: Rand McNally & Co.

Godomsky, Stephen F., Jr. (1971). Programmed Instruction, Computer-Assisted Performance Problems, Open Ended Experiments and Student Attitude and Problem Solving Ability in Physical Chemistry Laboratory. Dissertation Abstracts, 31(11), 5873A.

Grozier, Joseph E. Jr. (1969). The Role of the Laboratory in Developing Positive Attitudes Toward Science in a College General Education Science Course for Nonscientists. Dissertation Abstracts, 31(11), 2394A.

Lott, Gerald W. (1983). The Effect of Inquiry Teaching and Advance Organizers Upon Student Outcomes in Science Education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 20(5), 437-451.

McDermott, Lillian et al. March (1980). Helping Minority Students Succeed in Science, II. Implementation of a Curriculum in Physics and Biology. Journal of College Science Teaching, 9, 201-205.

McKinnon, Joe W. (April 1976). Encouraging Logical Thinking in Pre-Engineering Students. Engineering Education, 66(7), 740-744.

Moyer, Albert E. (February 1976). Edwin Hall and the Emergence of the Laboratory in Teaching Physics. The Physics Teacher, 14(2), 96-103.

Pickering, Miles. (February 19, 1980). Are Lab Courses a Waste of Time? The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. 80.

Rowe, Mary B., Ed. (1978). What Research Says to the Science Teacher, I, Washington, DC: National Science Teachers Association.

Travers, Robert M. Ed. (1973). Second Handbook of Research on Teaching. Chicago: Rand McNally & Co.

Wise, Kevin C. & Okey, Kames R. (1983). A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Various Science Teaching Strategies on Achievement. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 20(5), 419-435.