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A Learning Theory Based Approach To The Undergraduate Lab.

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1998 Annual Conference


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 28, 1998

Start Date

June 28, 1998

End Date

July 1, 1998



Page Count


Page Numbers

3.17.1 - 3.17.4



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Steven W. Peretti

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Richard M. Felder

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 2413


Richard M. Felder Steven W. Peretti North Carolina State University

A basic tenet of learning theory is that people learn by doing, not by watching and listening. Engineering laboratory courses are consequently crucial to the learning and retention of engineering principles. The traditional laboratory course has several shortcomings, however, that violate other learning theory principles. Virtually all cognitive and educational psychologists agree that students learn by discovery, by confronting new problems and challenges, working out how to deal with them, and reflecting on implications of their solutions. In many laboratory courses, students often perform rigidly prescribed experiments mechanically, without having to analyze what they are doing, why they are doing it, or what the results have to do with the theory they may have studied in other courses. A massive body of research on cooperative learning indicates that team projects are most effective if they are structure to assure both positive interdependence and individual accountability. In most laboratory courses, there is little to prevent one or two team members from actually doing most of the work, all team members receiving credit for it, and no one being held individually accountable for any of the material covered. The chemical engineering laboratory course sequence at North Carolina State University is currently being restructured to conform more closely to principles of effective pedagogy. The following features of the new sequence constitute the principal departures from the traditional instructional model:

1. The students design and run a small number of experiments to accomplish broadly stated objectives, rather than following prescriptive instructions for a large number of predesigned experiments. At the beginning of the semester, the students are told that for each experiment they will be given an apparatus description, safety precautions, some preliminary theory, and minimal information about the types of behavior they are to observe and analyze. The groups are required to seek out relevant references, develop a rationale for their experimental design, and work out appropriate data analysis. The teaching assistants are instructed to be circumspect when faced with questioning regarding experimental design, but vigilant regarding potentially unsafe practices. 2. Hands-on experimentation is augmented with process simulation. In some experiments computer simulations are used to model the experimental systems and then to explore “what-if” scenarios far more extensively than time would permit in a conventional laboratory. 3. Structured cooperative learning (Johnson et al., 1991, Felder and Brent, 1994) is used to increase understanding of experimental and analytical procedures and to facilitate

Peretti, S. W., & Felder, R. M. (1998, June), A Learning Theory Based Approach To The Undergraduate Lab. Paper presented at 1998 Annual Conference, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/1-2--7262

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