Inquiry-based labs improve student performance and engagement
New Cornell University research shows that traditional physics labs, which strive to reinforce the concepts students learn in lecture courses, can actually have a negative impact on students. At the same time, nontraditional, inquiry-based labs that encourage experimentation can improve student performance and engagement without lowering exam scores.
The researchers created a controlled study in which students were divided into five lab sections for the same introductory, calculus-based physics course, focusing on mechanics and special relativity. Students in all five lab sections went to the same lectures and had identical problem sets, homework, and exams. However, three lab sections followed the traditional model; the remaining two sessions were inquiry-based labs, with students making their own decisions about gathering and analyzing data.
The exam scores were the same for students in the traditional and inquiry-based labs. However, the traditional lab model negatively impacted student attitudes toward experimentation and failed to engage students with high-level scientific thinking, the researchers found.
Another telling distinction: Students in traditional labs completed their tasks as quickly as possible, often breezing through the instructions and finishing the two-hour session in 30 minutes, then leaving. Students in the inquiry-based labs tended to work for the full two hours.