Connect with ideas and tools to maximise your IOL implementation

Perspectives on Inquiry

Inquiry in science can take on many forms and occur in many locations, but it is perhaps the laboratory or the field that most scientists think of first when they are asked to reflect on ‘inquiry-type experiences’ that they themselves have had.

The laboratory is a location in which the highs and low of sciences are experienced by many that pursue a career in science. Undergraduates also have a diversity of experiences in the science laboratory, which may be similarly fulfilling or frustrating. How do the lab experiences of students and scientists differ and what has been learned over the past 80 years or so increase the positive experience of students and bring them closer to those of the practising scientist?

We will explore this question, but begin with a couple of quotes offering clues to why discussions on the role of inquiry in the laboratory in undergraduate science are gaining momentum.

Cookbook instructions certainly do not stimulate the student’s capacity for reasoning or …ingenuity. If anything they are stifled under such a procedure. The instructions for carrying out a given experiment should be conspicuous by their absence…

– Bless AA (1933). Cook-Book Laboratory Work. Am. J. Phys. 1:88

…we must move away from ‘spoon feeding’ students during interminable, repetitive and boring practical classes that have highly predictable results…

Teaching Resources and Tools

Adaptable Resource Kit (ARK)

Prepared as part of this Fellowship, the Adaptable Resource Kit (ARK) assists academics as they move from the early stages of developing an inquiry-oriented experiment or activity to later stages where the experiment is ready to be rolled out to its intended audience.

Advancing Science by Enhancing Learning in the Laboratory (ASELL) [Retrieved 2nd February 2016],

ASELL is an Australian-based initiative. ASELL brings together academics from biology, chemistry and physics to review and evaluate undergraduate experiments including experiments that have an inquiry focus. The website allows access to peer-reviewed and tested experiments. ASELL is active in building a strong community of practice in Australia focussed on improving the quality of science learning.

Boud D, Dunn J and Hegarty-Hazel E (1989) Teaching in laboratories (Milton Keynes, Open University Press).

This is a well-regarded and thorough text offering guidance to optimising the laboratory experience to maximise student learning. The evidence for the effectiveness of inquiry-oriented approaches is expertly reviewed with an emphasis on the importance of providing prior learning of basic concepts in order that students can undertake and make the most of inquiry-oriented activities.

Hazel K and Baillie C (1998) Improving Teaching and Learning in Laboratories HERDSA guide

This compact and easy-to-read guide is extremely helpful to those intending to develop engaging laboratory-based IOL activities in science and engineering.  Levels of inquiry associated with various types of laboratory experience are described and clarified. No-nonsense advice is given on several topics including the assessment of laboratory work and dealing with student diversity in the laboratory.

Case Studies

Brew A (2010) Undergraduate Research In Australia [Retrieved 2nd February 2016],

Brew completed an ALTC funded National Teaching Fellowship in 2010 which focussed on sharing national and international good practice in engaging undergraduate students in research and inquiry. This extensive website includes useful resources, bibliographical information on undergraduate research and a list of useful Websites.

Buck L B, Lowery Bretz S , and Towns M H (2008) Characterizing the Level of Inquiry in the Undergraduate Laboratory [Retrieved 2nd February 2016],

Articles describing the level of scientific inquiry can be traced back four decades. Here is useful contemporary article describing the analysis of almost 400 experiments found in 22 laboratory manuals across a range of disciplines including geology and physics (though most are, in fact, chemistry experiments).

Healey, M. and Jenkins A (2009) Developing undergraduate research and inquiry. [Retrieved 2nd February 2016],

Healey and Jenkins are tireless advocates of the benefits of developing undergraduate curricula that focus on (undergraduate) research and inquiry. In this extensive document they draw together mini-case studies from a range of disciplines and from several countries focussing on engaging students in research and inquiry.

The Teaching Research Nexus (2008) A Guide for Academics and Policy makers in Higher Education. [Retrieved 2nd February 2016]

This extensive resource considers the ways that teaching and research may be linked in order to enhance student learning. The website includes sections devoted to policy makers (to assist them with the challenges of developing, implementing and sustaining strategies), and others which describe good practice case studies (from a range of years levels as well as range of disciplines).