University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Go to chemistry home page.


Guided inquiry transforms chemistry laboratories

Cookbook-style labs with students following step-by-step instructions for experiments are out for general chemistry courses at the University of Minnesota.

In their place are guided-inquiry laboratories where students design and conduct their own experiments, discover what works and what doesn't, make adjustments based on those discoveries, and try again. It is hoped that these guided-inquiry laboratories will help students think critically about what they are doing and why.

Professor Michelle Driessen, Department of Chemistry general chemistry director, is leading the initiative to transform general chemistry laboratory experiences for students. She has long been concerned about what students are learning, or not learning, in what are called verification labs. In those traditional laboratories, students follow a specific set of instructions to conduct their experiments and confirm scientific concepts. Students are required to do A, then do B, and so on, and to document every step, Driessen said. They then are graded on how close they come to getting the "correct" results.

"Sometimes they didn't come close to getting the expected results for any number of reasons such as a probe not calibrating correctly, contaminated chemicals, or simply because things were just not working that day," she said.

Most troubling to Driessen, however, was the reality that too many students, after completing a three-hour lab and getting the correct results, still did not know what they had done or why.

"They were just following instructions, and not using any higher-order thinking skills," said Driessen.

Instead, Driessen wants students to understand chemistry concepts, to understand what they have done when finished with the experiments and why, and to have fun while doing it.

Using a guided-inquiry approach, students are given a problem, given the time and tools such as chemicals and equipment that they need, and then are pointed in the right direction to find out for themselves the solutions to the problem.

Research leads to transformation

The transformation of the Department of Chemistry's laboratories came after a lot of reflection, research, and first-hand observation. One of the first things Driessen did was to ask the department's professors what they wanted students to take away from a general chemistry laboratory experience. Three themes emerged from that query: students need to be familiar with basic lab equipment and chemistry concepts; be able to graph and analyze data; and be able to design experiments and problem solve on the fly if things don't go as planned.

She also conducted a literature survey, reviewing a number of guided-inquiry laboratory manuals. That led her to a manual developed by Melanie Cooper, professor of chemistry education at Clemson University. Cooper is renowned for her work on improving teaching and learning in large enrollment general chemistry courses, focusing on how students learn to construct and use experiments, problem solve, and understand concepts. Driessen is using Cooper's Cooperative Chemistry Laboratory Manual to guide the redesign of her labs. This past winter, Driessen also spent time at Clemson observing, first hand, what a guided-inquiry lab is like in reality with Barb Lewison, Clemson lab director.

Learning through summer lab experiences

A group of 112 students participated in the department's first guided-inquiry lab this summer. This transition first involved the training of four experienced teaching assistants-David Boyce, Amanda Maxwell, Kaustubh Mote, and Emily Pelton. Each had a group of 28 students that they worked with. After each lab, they debriefed, examining and reflecting on what needed to be changed with this new approach, what worked, and what didn't. Perhaps the most difficult part for the teaching assistants was not providing the students with answers. Instead, they served as coaches, empowering the students to think about possible solutions, design and conduct experiments to test those solutions, and be OK with adjusting those experiments if things didn't work as expected.

Teaching assistants' roles

Please note: A story from the perspective of the teaching assistants is also posted on this website.

Those first-hand experiences helped the four experienced teaching assistants conduct a hands-on orientation for and serve as mentors to this year's new teaching assistants. Driessen checks in with the teaching assistants frequently, asking what types of questions the students are posing, if they are seeing greater understanding by the students about what they are doing, and if the students are gaining more confidence in and feeling more comfortable with the creative process.

Driessen has noticed that the students are receptive to the nudges of the teaching assistants, and that there seems to be a lower anxiety level for these students who are not expected to get to the "correct" results within the set period of time. Like traditional labs, rigor is very much a component of the guided-inquiry labs with students expected to make valid attempts to solve the problems. The students are also in teams of four, which they stay in throughout the course. They must work cooperatively on the problems, exchange ideas with each other, and assume different leadership roles during each project.

A student's perspective

Patrick Murphy, a pre-med student, took the guided-inquiry lab this summer and now is enrolled in a Chem 1022 verification lab. "In verification labs, you summarize your observations, but don't critically think about what you are doing," he said.

He much prefers the guided-inquiry lab. Patrick said that formulating strategies on how to solve the problems reinforced what he learned in his lecture class and through the textbook. While the guided-inquiry labs were ahead of what was being discussed in lectures, they helped facilitate his understanding of the material. "We had to figure out how to do things, and we were really forced to know what we were doing. . . . I really enjoyed the challenges, and found the [guided-inquiry] labs so much more compelling and interesting than the lab I am taking now."

Importance of evaluation

Evaluation of the effectiveness of the guided-inquiry lab is important, said Driessen. She is participating in the Office of Information Technology Faculty Fellowship Program, working with others across disciplines at the university to explore possibilities and best practices in technology-rich learning environments. One part of Driessen's project is to use an evaluation instrument to measure and evaluate students' confidence in their problem-solving abilities.

She also is gathering anecdotal information from students and teaching assistants. Patrick's suggestions for improvements or modifications encompass logistics for the guided-inquiry labs such as providing students with opportunities to become familiar with the laboratory workspace, equipment, and other tools. Students also need good time management skills, he said. "As a team, you have to plan your experiments, develop procedures, and communicate with each other-and that takes time."

Future of guided inquiry

Currently, the guided-inquiry lab is being used in general chemistry 1021. It will expand to general chemistry 1022 this spring.

Driessen is not the only one interested in guided-inquiry laboratories. So is Professor Jane Wissinger, organic lab director. This past summer, she co-lead a workshop on Teaching Guided Inquiry Chemistry Labs, exploring the roles of teaching assistants in such labs, and the practicalities of transforming traditional laboratory experiments. She offers some hands-on, active learning experiments in the organic labs.

"We really want our students to understand scientific concepts when finished with our laboratories, and to learn that the scientific process is creative and fun at the same time," said Driessen.

This new approach is a plus for the Department of Chemistry and its students, said Chair William Tolman. "This new way of teaching better approximates what goes into research and gets students to better understand what they are doing in the laboratory," he said. "Moreover, by having students work in teams of four, resources are shared, thus saving money and enabling us to increase overall enrollments. For the department, it's a win-win-win: better learning at lower cost to larger numbers of students."

Phong Ly (left) and Pa Vang, students in the Department of Chemistry's general chemistry lab, conduct a guided-inquiry experiment, working as a team to find solutions to the problems.