Inquiry-based laboratories improve student learning outcomes in a large first year topic

MN Smallhorn, J Young Kirby, N Hunter and K Burke Da Silva

School of Biological Sciences, Flinders University, South Australia, Australia

The laboratory is a critical part of an undergraduate science degree. In this space, students apply knowledge gained through the lecture series by participating in laboratory activities designed to test concepts. Traditionally the activities require the application of prescribed step-by-step protocols which often result in a predicted outcome. The nature of this traditional laboratory experience limits the opportunity for students to develop critical thinking and analysis skills both fundamental to research science. Inquiry-based laboratories have been shown to result in a deeper understanding of scientific content and improve students' attitudes towards science. To improve the engagement and learning outcomes of our large first year biology cohort, the laboratories were redeveloped into guided-inquiry. The guided-inquiry laboratories were run weekly in large classes of a 100 students to increase student contact and facilitate teaching efficiency. Teams of students were guided by an educator to design and carry out an experiment. The impact of the move to inquiry-based learning on student satisfaction and learning outcomes was evaluated by surveying students and comparing exam data before and after the redevelopment. An analysis of the survey data indicated high levels of student satisfaction. Students thought the laboratories improved the quality of their university experience, helped them to understand the major concepts of the topics, challenged them intellectually and helped to develop data analysis skills. Overall, there was a significant improvement in student answers to exam questions (paired t-test p=0.001). There was a further significant improvement in exam questions identified as content-related before the redevelopment and laboratory-related after the redevelopment (paired t-test p=0.0001). These findings suggest that inquiry-based learning can improve student experience and learning outcomes in a laboratory context.