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Guided Inquiry-based Lab Activities Improve Students’ Recall and Application of Material Properties Compared with Structured Inquiry

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

October 19, 2019

Conference Session

Experimentation and Laboratory-Oriented Studies Division Technical Session 2

Tagged Division

Experimentation and Laboratory-Oriented Studies

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Paper Authors


Sarah J. Christian Carnegie Mellon University

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Sarah Christian is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. Sarah earned her BS in Civil Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in 2003, MCE at Johns Hopkins University in 2004 and PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering with a focus on Structural Engineering and Materials at Stanford University in 2009. Sarah has practiced as a structural engineer and building envelope engineer in Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh. She previously served as a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Sarah teaches courses in Structural Engineering, Materials, Soil Mechanics, and Design. Her current research focuses on course design to improve student engagement and agency as well as to prepare students to be innovative problem solvers and leaders in their field of engineering.

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Chad Hershock Carnegie Mellon University

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Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation, Carnegie Mellon University

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Michael Cameron Melville Carnegie Mellon University

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Michael Melville works as a Data Science Research Associate at Carnegie Mellon University's Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation, where he consults with faculty, graduate students, and post-docs to design, implement, and assess research projects that relate to teaching and learning in their classrooms. He also contributes to a variety of program-level assessment projects on the CMU campus. Mike's training includes an M.A. and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of New Hampshire, as well as an M.Ed. in sport and performance psychology from Springfield College. His interests include the science of learning, research methodology, and data analysis. Prior to joining the Eberly Center in 2017, Mike worked as the Teaching and Learning Research Coordinator at the Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching and Learning at the University of New Hampshire.

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Guided inquiry-based lab activities improve students’ recall and application of material properties compared to structured inquiry

Prior research suggests that lab courses taught by following traditional, recipe-based instructions may lead to suboptimal learning outcomes when compared to inquiry-based procedures where the students must think for themselves. However, the relative impacts of different forms of inquiry-based learning are unclear. In an attempt to extend the current research, we measured student learning in a materials lab course that taught labs in two different ways. Our main objective was to test whether implementing structured or guided inquiry-based learning methods, would lead to better learning outcomes.

Two inquiry-based learning methods were implemented in a junior-level, civil engineering materials lab course that featured three independent labs based on the materials of concrete, wood, and masonry. The concrete and wood labs were taught using a structured inquiry-based approach known as predict-observe-explain or POE. Students predicted the outcome of a lab exercise before following a standard, recipe-based lab protocol provided by the instructor. Afterwards, students evaluated their predictions by explaining observed data and underlying concepts of material properties. In contrast, the masonry lab was taught using a guided inquiry-based approach. Students were given an authentic engineering question: is the design of a masonry building for which they were given drawings feasible? To answer the question, they needed to decide which material properties were important and identify the experimental methods necessary to determine those properties. Because the activities related to guided inquiry were new to the students, the activities were broken into scaffolded tasks and questions. Students were assessed on all labs via a final exam at the end of the semester, allowing for a within-subjects comparison of student learning using both instructional approaches.

Analysis of the data showed a significant difference in student learning for the content related to the guided inquiry-based lab compared to the content from the two structured inquiry-based labs. Relative to content from the two structured inquiry-based labs, students exhibited an 11% gain, over a full letter grade, in learning on content related to the inquiry-based lab (Cohen’s d = .86). This gain was consistent across recall- and application-based exam items.

Design for implementation of inquiry-based methods can take significant time and preparation. Student development of experimental methods appears to be an effective inquiry-based method in this case, but requires a significant amount of guidance and oversight to effectively implement. In addition to improved exam performance, application of results to solve real-world problems gives the students an understanding of how their experimental work relates to their other courses and the world in general, which provides context and may increase motivation. Given the workload, a best practice may be implementing these methods incrementally rather than implementing a wholesale change in a course.

The guided inquiry-based methods applied in this materials lab course can be applied in all types of classes, but methods are most easily transferable to laboratory, design, and problem-based project courses. For future iterations of this course, we are redesigning the two structured inquiry-based labs using guided inquiry approaches and will be continuing to collect data to assess their effectiveness.

Christian, S. J., & Hershock, C., & Melville, M. C. (2019, June), Guided Inquiry-based Lab Activities Improve Students’ Recall and Application of Material Properties Compared with Structured Inquiry Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--32881

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