Using Inquiry Laboratory Strategies in College Science Courses

Using Inquiry Laboratory Strategies in College Science Courses


Systematic observations of college science laboratory classes in a large midwestern university during the late 1970s revealed that students were, for the most part, performing cookbook-like laboratories and were not learning the process skills of science. Instead, students spent a significant amount of laboratory time listening to the instructor transmit information. These observations are probably typical of most university laboratory courses in the sciences and that the use of investigative laboratory teaching strategies at the college level lagged behind those used in the secondary and elementary schools (Kyle, Penick & Shymansky, 1979). There are reports in the literature that most standard laboratory experiments in introductory college science courses contain directions to be followed explicitly so the experiment will generate usable data (Stewart, 1988). Stewart contends that if students are permitted to design their own experiments, the laboratory protocol becomes more important than the laboratory report, and time spent planning and organizing the experiment becomes more important then time spent ascertaining whether or not the results are as expected. Fogle (1985) states that introductory college students do not understand the nature of scientific questioning, and that common misuse of the terms hypothesis, fact, and theory is symptomatic of student misconceptions. He maintains that students must be allowed to experience scientific thinking firsthand.

During the past decade, some interesting experimental studies developed and tested alternative approaches to the traditional laboratory investigation. Most of the innovative approaches are modifications of the inquiry model and employ discovery or inductive approaches to learning. Utilization of science process skills, such as hypothesis formation, identification and manipulation of experimental variables, and inferring from data are characteristic of these newer approaches.

In one such study, students in a physical science class for elementary education majors employed concrete, manipulative laboratory experiences to learn about measurement, pressure, Archimedes' principle, machines and electricity. This class showed greater achievement on some of the concepts, a greater comprehension of all areas taught, and better attitudes toward science than a similar class taught without the manipulative laboratory experience (Splickler, 1984). Kern and Carpenter (1984) found a field-oriented, on site, instructional approach to geology produced significantly more interest and enjoyment than a traditional laboratory approach. The laboratory approach associated with a learning center approach for college geology was found to have a significantly greater effect on short-term learning than did a more conventional laboratory approach (Tofte, 1982).

A number of studies of inquiry laboratory approaches have been done in introductory biology. Lawson and Smitgen (1982) found that a series of laboratory investigations to teach formal reasoning was found to improve significantly the ability of students to use formal operational thought. Similarly, cognitive development of college, non-major, biology students was found to be promoted by a laboratory program that emphasized investigation and accounted for limitations of student cognitive ability (Journet, Young, Stanley & Scheibe, 1987). Walosz and Yeany (1984) found that training in integrated science process skill development improved the performance of college biology students in the use of integrated science process skills. A successful inquiry strategy developed originally by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) was adapted for use in a university general biology laboratory program and tested experimentally for an entire semester against a well-established commercial program which was highly directive (Leonard, 1986). The BSCS orientation made systematic use of science processes, development of concepts via questioning and requirements of the student to make procedural decisions. The commercial approach primarily required following instructions exactly as stated and answering a few very specific questions. Students using the BSCS orientation scored similarly to those using the commercial approach on a pretest of selected biology laboratory concepts, but scored significantly higher on a post-test (Leonard, 1986). This study was later replicated with students at two small, private colleges. Again, the group using the BSCS orientation scored significantly higher on a test of biological laboratory concepts at the end of the semester (Hall & McCurdy, 1988). Finally, an extended discretion laboratory approach in which students were required to determine their own investigatory procedures and strategies was tested experimentally against a more directive laboratory approach in university general biology. Even though the former approach placed much greater demands on student creativity and decision making, student scores between the two groups on learning measures given at the end of the semester did not differ significantly. One conclusion is that students can learn at least as much when given fewer procedural directions on laboratory investigations (Leonard, 1984).

Studies on the use of investigative or inquiry approaches in college science laboratory courses suggest the following.

  • Inquiry laboratory strategies are more student-involved and more inductive than traditional approaches.
  • Inquiry laboratory strategies contain less direction and give the student more responsibility of determining procedural operations.
  • Inquiry laboratory strategies require students to make more extensive use of science process skills.
  • Inquiry laboratory strategies produce significantly greater educational gains than traditional approaches.
  • Inquiry laboratory strategies appear to work equally well for college students of all ability levels, not just the very academically talented.

Students appear to prefer inquire-style instruction as well. A survey of 600 students in introductory, non-major science courses showed a clear preference for investigative laboratory activities to the standard, structured activities (Davis & Black, 1985). Inquiry laboratory programs have been found to be workable. For example, research supports recommendation for maintaining the spirit of inquiry in large-enrollment college laboratory classes, for designing process-oriented laboratory investigations, and for helping laboratory instructors become better teachers (Leonard, Journet & Ecklund, 1988).

Meaningful laboratory instruction in college science courses appears to be distinguished from traditional from traditional strategies in at least three ways.

Students are engaged in a number of the science inquiry processes, such as observing, classifying, measuring, communicating, collecting and organizing data, inferring from observations, hypothesizing, manipulating experimental variables, analyzing data, and drawing conclusions from data.

Students have the opportunity to manipulate experimental materials, thus providing a "hands-on" experience.

Students learn in an experimental manner specific scientific concepts, such as "plants have cell walls and animals do not" or "some chemical reactions need heat to take place and/or some give off heat." 

Recent research on investigative learning approaches in college science laboratory courses looks encouraging. Much more development of laboratory curricula using inquiry approaches and research which experimentally compares them to existing approaches is still needed. There is a definite trend toward wider use of inquiry laboratory strategies in college and university science courses. The use of such strategies is justified by recent research.

by William H. Leonard, Professor of Science Education and Professor of Biology, Clemson University, Clemson, SC 29634.


Davis, W. E., & Black, S. (1985). Student opinion of the investigative laboratory format. Journal of College Science Teaching, 15, 187-189.

Fogle, T. A. (1985). Student-directed biology lab investigations. Journal of College Science Teaching, XIV, 345-348.

Hall, D. A., & McCurdy, D. W. (April 11, 1988). A comparative study of a Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) style laboratory and a traditional laboratory approach on student achievement at two private liberal arts colleges. Paper presentation at the Annual Meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching at St. Louis.

Journet, A. R. P., Young, C. C., Stanley, C. M., & Scheibe, J. S. (April, 1987). Studies on cognitive development in a non-majors investigative general biology laboratory. Paper presented to the Annual Meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, Washington, D.C.

Kern, E. L., & Carpenter, J. R. (1984). Enhancement of student values, interests, and attitudes in earth science through a field-oriented approach. Journal of Geological Education, 32, (5), 675-683.

Kyle, W. C., Penick, J. E., & Shymansky, J. A. (1979). Assessing and analyzing the performance of students in college science laboratories. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 16, 545-551.

Lawson, A. E., & Smitgen, D. A. (1982). Teaching formal reasoning in college biology course for preservice teachers. Journal of Research in Science teaching, 19, 233-248.

Leonard, W. H. (1984). An experimental test of an extended discretion laboratory approach for university general biology. Paper presented to the Annual Meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching in New Orleans.

Leonard, W. H. (1986). An experimental study of a BSCS-style laboratory approach for university general biology. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 23, 807-814.

Leonard, W., Journet, A., & Ecklund, R. (1988). Overcoming obstacles in teaching large-enrollment laboratory courses. Journal of College Science Teaching, 50 (1), 23-28. April 11, 1988
Schnellenberg, J. P. (1980). A comparative study of two laboratory approaches in a general education college physical science course. Dissertation Abstracts International, 03-A.

Spinkler, T. R. (1984). An experiment on the efficacy of intuition development in improving higher levels of learning and reasoning in physical science. Dissertation Abstracts International, 44 (1) 143-A.

Stewart, B. Y. (1988). The surprise element of a student-designed laboratory experiment. Journal of College Science Teaching, XVII, 269-270.

Tofte, W. L. (1982). The comparative effectiveness of learning center and traditional approaches for a college introductory geology laboratory course. Dissertation Abstracts International, 43, 358-A.

Wolkosz, M., & Yeany, R. H. (1984). Effects of lab instruction emphasizing process skills on achievement of college students having different cognitive development levels. Paper presented to the Annual Meeting of the NAtional Association for Research in Science Teaching, New Orleans, April, 1984.