Meaningful Learning from Laboratory Work: Evidence and assessment

Organizers: Jacob D. Schroeder, Department of Chemistry, 273 Hunter Hall, Clemson University, Clemson, SC, tel (864) 656-1666, Email:; Todd Gatlin, Department of Chemistry, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL, tel: (601) 580-3859, Email:; and Santiago Sandi-Urena, Department of Chemistry, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL, tel: (813) 974-2144, Email:

This symposium was meant to serve as a space to discuss evidence of meaningful learning in the laboratory and the development of reliable assessment instruments to measure this evidence. The learning laboratory has long enjoyed a place of prominence within chemistry education, even though a growing body of evidence suggests that little meaningful learning actually takes place in the laboratory. The traditional, or “cook-book” laboratory approach often bears the brunt of these criticisms, but continues to be one of the most commonly employed methods of teaching in the laboratory. The primary goals of the symposium were to address the following three questions: (1) what are our objectives in the teaching laboratory; (2) why are we doing something different than what was in place before, and perhaps most importantly, (3) how do we know that what we did was effective in achieving our goals?

Jacob Schroeder of Clemson University began the symposium by providing a brief historical account of the state of laboratory instruction in America in the early 1900’s. A key point of emphasis was how quickly chemical educators at the time abandoned their spirited defense of the laboratory as a teaching environment for the masses. Many began openly advocating for lecture-demonstrations to replace the laboratory. From 1918 – 1930, some 30 research articles were published covering this debate, of which, only three provided any evidence that students taking a physical teaching laboratory learned any more than students who watched faculty members demonstrate experiments to them. Since then, and perhaps even earlier, a constant and often chaotic debate has existed within the chemical education community regarding not only the laboratory’s effectiveness in meeting its stated goals, but also its justification for existing in the first place. Reliable and tangible evidence supporting new methods of laboratory instruction were scarce, and a lack of unanimity existed among chemical educators regarding the goals of the laboratory as a learning environment.

Daniel Domin of Dominican University addressed the first question by discussing the importance of faculty developing objectives for a proposed laboratory experiment before redesigning the experiment. Only when these objectives are developed and articulated can faculty truly assess whether meaningful learning took place. Traditional laboratory instruction design focuses on the contents and activities, often lacking consistency between objectives and learning outcomes and assessment. This lack of correspondence between assessment and design is not necessarily embedded in the laboratory itself. The model presented suggests the use of “integrated course design” and “backward design” to create laboratory experiences, a learning-goals driven approach and to structure the lab so that the assessment is embedded in the experience. Unlike the traditional approach, activities are not central to the experience but chosen to support the learning goals. Curriculum designed with the purpose of meaningful learning requires a bottom-up perspective: priority given to the instructor’s goals. Daniel proposes use of Fink’s dimensions of learning to establish learning goals and stresses the relevance of appropriately designing the assessment component of the curriculum. The proposed backwards design model (Goal-outcome-assessment-activity) applies regardless of the teaching or instructional approach (cookbook, demo, inquiry, etc.) as long as the skills desired are clearly stated beforehand, and a plan is in place to gather evidence that the goals are met or the skills are accomplished.

Joi Walker of Tallahassee Community College discussed the development of a laboratory course for General Chemistry that incorporated Argument-Driven Inquiry (ADI). This method allowed students to generate data, to carry out investigations, use data to answer research questions, write, and be more effective as they worked. The steps of this cooperative, inquiry model are assumed to offer a more genuine science laboratory experience, leading up to a final project where students present their work in the form of a peer-reviewed paper. Over the course of three semesters, student groups were compared based on the laboratory format they were enrolled in (ADI or traditional). Sources of data were a Chemistry Concept Inventory (CCI), the Balloon Race Performance Task, the Ice Block Performance Task and an Attitude Survey. No differences were observed between the two groups on the post-test CCI, but students in the ADI group wrote more detailed arguments based on the performance tasks. Collectively, the results indicated that ADI had a positive impact on student learning, course grades, and enrollment, and the increased efficiency and social dimension appeared to lead to improved attitudes and increased enrollment for female students.

Todd Gatlin of the University of South Florida discussed research involving graduate teaching assistants' (GTAs) experiences in two diverse general chemistry laboratory programs. Evidence was presented to support the finding that facilitating general chemistry laboratoriess may impact GTAs' scientific development through enhanced metacognition use and more sophisticated views of knowledge. Todd also discussed the mechanism by which facilitating general chemistry laboratory environments affects graduate teaching assistants and recommend that GTA training programs incorporate components that focus on GTAs' views of the nature of knowledge and the nature of the laboratory.

Mary Eminike of Iowa State University discussed the results of a qualitative study involving students in a first-year Analytical Chemistry course. The experiments for the laboratory were designed using three different structures: classical, discovery, and instrumental. Primary data collection involved interviewing six students on three occasions throughout the course of the semester. Analysis of the interviews led to a discussion of students’ descriptions of their cognitive, affective, and psychomotor learning.

Marina Koether of Kennesaw State University also presented findings in the Analytical Chemistry laboratory. The research centered on a skills-based approach where attention to proper techniques was emphasized. These skills were honed by trial and error, leading many students to perform multiple replications of the same experiment. Students were asked to complete an analysis of an unknown early in the semester, prior to their skills being fully developed. Later on in the semester, students performed another unknown analysis. In the latter experiment, evidence was presented that indicated an increased attentiveness to the laboratory notebook, resulting in a more complete reproduction of how students actually completed their experiment. Several student comments were highlighted that suggested the students’ desire to allow others to complete the experiment using their laboratory notebook as source material. Students also became more aware of laboratory safety and hazardous waste handling.

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