Comparing First Year Students’ Attitudes to Inquiry-based Versus Traditional Laboratory Experiments

Curtin University, Australia

Curtin University, Australia


Science education research literature shows that traditional "recipe-based" laboratory experiences are generally non-engaging and non-motivating and thus do not promote conceptual understanding, whereas inquiry-based laboratories are interactive, engaging and inspiring. In an attempt to provide more stimulating and engaging learning experiences, we introduced inquiry-based activities to first year non-physics major students. This approach is consistent with the Threshold Learning Outcomes (TLOs) for science published by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council 2011. Students were given the opportunity to select one investigating laboratory activity from a choice of four activities readily available on the university's LMS "Blackboard". Students working in pair researched background material from various sources including internet to design and carry out the experiment. At the completion of the experiment, students were required to write a report for assessment. A survey instrument was also developed to gather students' attitudinal feedback.

Data collected over three semesters from 2012 - 2013 (n=250) indicate that students in general like inquiry-based laboratory activities because these are interesting, challenging and motivate self-learning. However, students preferred that experimental procedure be provided to them as available in conventional recipe-based laboratory manuals. This attitude is also reflected in the quality of students' laboratory reports. The investigation reported here indicates that designing and writing a formal scientific procedure to an open-ended activity requires a higher order thinking which, in retrospect, may not be expected from first year non-major physics students. This result suggests a future research project for investigating whether first year students majoring in physics will be better able to implement inquiry based laboratory work.

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