Engaging students in inquiry: Tales from an undergraduate geology laboratory-based course

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  • Engaging Students in Inquiry:Tales From an UndergraduateGeology Laboratory-BasedCourse

    XORNAM S. APEDOELearning Research & Development Center, University of Pittsburgh, 3939 OHara St.,Pittsburgh, PA 15260, USA

    Received 30 May 2007; revised 11 October 2007, 17 October 2007;accepted 21 October 2007

    DOI 10.1002/sce.20254Published online 27 December 2007 in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com).

    ABSTRACT: This paper reports the synthesis of three case studies of students engagementin inquiry-based learning activities in an upper-level undergraduate geology course. Detailsof how students engaged in scientific questions, gave priority to evidence, formulatedexplanations, evaluated explanations, and communicated and justified their findings arepresented. Data for this study included classroom observations and fieldnotes of classroompractices, questionnaires, archival data (e.g., student work samples), and audiotapes andtranscripts of interviews conducted with the student participants throughout the course. Thefindings suggest that although these students were able to successfully appropriate inquirypractices (e.g., giving priority to evidence), it was not without its challenges (e.g., perceivedlack of guidance). A detailed discussion of the ways in which students were successful,and where they had challenges engaging in inquiry is presented, with the goal of helpingdirect practitioners and researchers to strategies whereby students inquiry experiences canbe improved. C 2007 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Sci Ed 92:631 663, 2008

    Correspondence to: Xornam S. Apedoe; e-mail: xapedoe@pitt.eduContract grant sponsor: National Science Foundation.Contract grant number: 0304895.Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the

    author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

    C 2007 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

  • 632 APEDOE

    . . . We were being prepared for applications of our knowledge as opposed to just spillingit out, like, as if we were taking a test on the lecture. . . . Thats more of what, from what Iunderstand, geologists are expected to be able to do in their jobs, as opposed to just beingable to regurgitate loads of information on the paper.

    (Jake, interview, December 2004)

    INTRODUCTIONFor far too many years, the emphasis and goal of science education has primarily been

    to help students acquire factual knowledge. Science instruction, in a variety of disciplinesand at all educational levels, typically has focused on covering content from the textbook,exposing students to a plethora of facts but rarely, if ever, engaging students in the processof science (National Research Council [NRC], 1996b). This trend is especially evident atthe undergraduate level (Brown, Abell, Demir, & Schmidt, 2006).

    In the quote above, Jake, a student, reflects on his experience in an undergraduate geologycourse that departed from the traditional didactic method of teaching science. As in otherdisciplines, in recent years there has been a revolution in geosciences education promotinga reconceptualization of teaching and learning in both its goals and methods. Blueprint forChange: A Report From The National Conference on the Revolution in Earth and SpaceScience Education (Barstow & Geary, 2002) details this bold new vision for geoscienceseducation. Blueprint for Change recommends that geosciences educational experiencesshould use inquiry-based learning and visualization technologies to help students developthinking skills such as inquiry, visual literacy, and the ability to apply knowledge andproblem solving to a range of substantive, real-world issues (Barstow & Geary, 2002).This paper reports the findings of an investigation of student engagement in inquiry-basedlearning in an undergraduate geology course that utilized teaching strategies supportive ofthe recommendations found in Blueprint for Change.

    INQUIRY-BASED LEARNINGThere has been a renewed interest in the use of inquiry-based learning in science class-

    rooms at all grade levels since the National Research Council released the National ScienceEducation Standards (NSES) slightly more than a decade ago (NRC, 1996a). Inquiry asa teaching methodology and learning experience emphasizes providing students with op-portunities to engage in activities very similar to those required for real-world scientificresearch. When learners are engaged in inquiry-based learning environments they should(NRC, 2000) (a) be engaged in scientifically oriented questions; (b) give priority to evidence,allowing them to develop and evaluate explanations that address scientifically oriented ques-tions; (c) formulate explanations from evidence to address scientifically oriented questions;(d) evaluate their explanations in light of alternative explanations, particularly those reflect-ing scientific understanding; and (e) communicate and justify their proposed explanations.These five elements are essential characteristics of an inquiry-based learning environmentand also describe the inquiry practices that students should strive to appropriate.

    The five essential characteristics of inquiry-based learning environments can be appliedacross various scientific disciplines. However, it is important to note that inquiry is not acontext-free activity. Every academic discipline has its own language, theories, and meth-ods for conducting inquiry; therefore, learners must learn the unique language, theories,and methodologies for doing inquiry in their particular discipline (Lim, 2004). Thus, thequestions that students investigate, the data that count as evidence, the type and structureof explanations formulated, and so on will be influenced by the specific discipline thatstudents are working within.

    Science Education


    Geology is an example of a discipline that is unique in its theories and methods ofconducting inquiry. Although inquiry in the geosciences shares some characteristics withmore experimental sciences such as physics or chemistry, the geosciences are fundamentallyhistorical and interpretive (Ault, 1998). The goal of geological reasoning is not primarily toidentify general laws, as is the case with physics (Froedman, 1995), but rather interpretationof geologic phenomena based on observations, warranted inferences, and integration orreconciliation of independent lines of inquiry (Ault, 1998). These interpretations resultin the description of historical sequences of events, sometimes accompanied by a causalmodel, for the occurrences of the phenomena (Ault, 1998). Although the questions, types ofevidence, and explanations one finds in a geology classroom will be the result of engagingin inquiry that is distinctly historical or interpretive, the five essential characteristics ofinquiry-based learning as described in the NSES are still applicable, as they provide ageneral framework for structuring inquiry activities in the classroom.

    Although the NSES were aimed specifically at K-12 students and teachers, the recom-mendations contained in the reforms can and should be generalized to college scienceteaching (Ingram, Lehman, Love, & Polacek, 2004; McIntosh, 2000). As more students areexposed to inquiry-based learning approaches in their K-12 science education, the necessityfor postsecondary science instructors to adapt their teaching approaches increases. Studentswill soon be entering college and university science courses with strong inquiry skills andraised expectations for being engaged in science, and their instructors must be ready tomeet the challenge. In addition, engaging students in inquiry activities throughout theirundergraduate careers is of utmost importance if students are to graduate with the 21st-century outcomes that are expected, such as robust scientific-mental models, the capacityfor solving ill-structured problems, sustained intellectual curiosity, and a commitment tolifelong learning (Hersh & Merrow, 2005).

    RESEARCH ON INQUIRY: PAST AND PRESENTStudies of the inquiry-based curricula and programs from the 1960s and beyond have been

    very supportive of inquiry approaches for supporting student learning (e.g., Shymansky,Hedges, & Woodworth, 1990). To date, research on inquiry-based learning has focused ondemonstrating the benefits of inquiry for the development of students cognitive abilitiessuch as critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and understanding of scientific concepts.Research on inquiry in the geosciences has reported similar findings (e.g., Orion & Kali,2005). However, with the current emphasis on learning not only scientific knowledge butalso the processes and procedures that produced such knowledge (inquiry), educationalresearchers have become increasingly interested in students understanding and ability toappropriate scientific inquiry practices (Kanari & Millar, 2004). It is important that weknow what is being done, and how it is being done, when students are engaged in inquiryactivities (Wheeler, 2000), so that we can develop guidelines for successfully incorporatinginquiry activities into classrooms at all educational levels.

    Although there is currently little research examining how students are engaging in in-quiry and appropriating specific inquiry practices, research studies like those conducted byKrajcik et al. (1998), Hofstein, Shore, and Kipnis (2004), and Kanari and Millar (2004) areexamples of what is needed. While these three noteworthy studies provide much needed in-sight into how students are engaged in inquiry, and what students are doing while engaged ininquiry activities, they focus on students in late elementary, middle, or high school. Researchis still needed to illuminate the experiences of students pursuing inquiry in higher education.

    While the literature contains descriptions of ongoing efforts to incorporate inquiry intoundergraduate science classrooms (e.g., Glasson & McKenzie, 1998; Harker, 1999; IngramScience Education

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    et al., 2004; Tolman, 1999), little empirical work can be found (Brown et al., 2006). Researchthat examines the experiences of students engaged in inquiry, and in this case inquiry atthe undergraduate level, can be used to help inform educators of appropriate instructionalpractices to promote effective learning through inquiry (Krajcik et al., 1998). By examiningstudents engagement in inquiry at all levels of education, educational researchers will beable to develop guidelines and recommendations for ways to effectively utilize supportfrom teachers, peers, or technology, to enhance student participation in inquiry.

    This paper reports the synthesis of three case studies of students engagement in inquiry-based learning activities in an undergraduate geology laboratory-based course. Detailsof how students engaged in scientific questions, gave priority to evidence, formulatedexplanations, evaluated explanations, and communicated and justified their findings arepresented.

    THE STUDYThe data for this paper were derived from a semester-long investigation of the use of

    inquiry-based learning activities in an undergraduate geology laboratory-based course. Ofprimary interest here was how students appropriated and engaged in scientific inquirypractices. The following research questions were addressed:

    1. How do students appropriate and engage in inquiry practices in an inquiry-basedundergraduate geology laboratory-based course?

    2. What challenges do students experience with engaging in inquiry practices in aninquiry-based undergraduate geology laboratory-based course?

    Context and SettingThis research was conducted in a geology course entitled Life and Ecologies of the Past,

    taught at a large research university located in the southeastern United States. The coursewas an upper-level undergraduate geology course consisting of 2 hours of lecture and 3hours of laboratory per week. The course was built around the laboratory, such that thelectures supported the material explored in the laboratory. Lectures were held twice a week,with the laboratory occurring directly after the second lecture meeting.

    The Design ProcessThe researcher worked collaboratively with the course instructor to redesign the activities

    used in the laboratory component of the course. The design process began with a discussionof the professors goals for the course. Each of the laboratory assignments that the professorhad used in previous years was reviewed and prioritized based on the topics the professorbelieved most important. After discussing the essential characteristics of inquiry-basedlearning activities, the professor either redesigned a laboratory activity that she had usedin the past, or created a new activity to address the learning goal she deemed important forstudents to learn. Thus, the professor was the primary designer of the laboratory activities,whereas the researcher served in a consulting role, providing feedback and suggestions forcreating activities consistent with inquiry-based learning goals. Every effort was made toensure that the various dimensions of the course (e.g., course objectives, content, assessmentmethods, and so on) were well aligned. (See Apedoe, Walker, and Reeves (2006) for a moredetailed description of the course, the course characteristics, and alignment of the coursedimensions.) A brief description of the course follows.

    Science Education


    Course DescriptionCourse Objectives. The learning goals as stated on the course syllabus were

    To understand the major events in biotic evolution from Precambrian to Phanerozoic timeand learn applied aspects of paleoenvironmental analysis and relative age dating using fossilorganisms. To achieve these goals, scientific critical thinking, presentation, and writingskills will be emphasized.

    To this end, it was expected that students would (a) develop the skills necessary toparticipate in scientific processes related to geological inquiry, and (b) develop a deepunderstanding of the relevant geology content (e.g., to help students learn the appliedaspect of paleoenvironmental analysis and relative age dating by using fossil organisms).These goals would be achieved through students active participation in both the lectureand laboratory components of the course.

    Content. The course focused on principles of paleobiology, including biostratigraphy,paleoecology, taphonomy, and macroevolutionary dynamics. Content for the course and lab-oratory was presented in a manner consistent with inquiry-based pedagogical approaches,that is, students were given the opportunity to interact with real data such as rock and fossilsamples, stratigraphic columns, and maps. In addition, the redesigned laboratory focusedless on taxonomy and more on concepts with an evolutionary/environmental focus. Tosupport the goal of having students engage in the processes of inquiry rather than focusingon the products of science, for example, students were not asked to label parts o...


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