Inquiry-based labs for an upper-level "plant diversity"

Ross Koning koning at ECSUC.CTSTATEU.EDU
Fri Nov 12 12:10:45 EST 1999

warning: kind of long and rambling...sorry...ross


I'm constantly struggling with similar problems.
In my plant physiology course I have gone from
"cookbook" to "open question" type labs. In my
botany course, also diversity/life history/evolution
based (with some anatomy/physiology), I too have
found that the students preferences don't coincide
with mine.

I have found that the inquiry approaches yield
understanding directly related to student motivation.
Some students dig deeply and learn much...those who
are taking it because it was "the only open course
left that didn't have Professor X" go to first base
and leave the lab...learning almost nothing.

The approach I am taking this coming spring will be
a hybrid one. I am using a "gauntlet" ("stations") lab
with specimens/slides laid out and several questions
at each station for my "lecture" time (now booked in
one block of time on one day each week). Then my
inquiry-based exercises will be in the traditional
"lab" timeslot.

You'll notice that I have eliminated lecture, I hope,
entirely. Frankly I found students came to lecture totally
"empty" in terms of preparation (and breakfast too). I
found that there was NO reading going on at all...they
expected to learn it all in lecture (but are rather short
in attention span to do that). On the other hand, I
found that they learned more in lab than anywhere else.
Moreover, they greatly preferred the "gauntlet" labs
to any other format I have tried. So now I'm pulling out
the lectures and hopefully they will be forced into some
preparation on their own before the gauntlet they like
so much.

The inquiry based approaches are "foreign" to our students...
which is sad commentary on our prerequisite courses.
Some...those who I think have good potential as future
scientists...take to inquiry like ducks to water and
LOVE it. Many others complain bitterly that the inquiry
exercises aren't interesting, seem "empty," and like the
instructor is "copping out" of his duty to actively
"teach." This in spite of my introductions about active
learning, etc. During the exercises I circulate and ask
questions designed to prod them into another experiment.
Again, some take the hint and RUN...others look at me
with a bewildered look or disconnected stare and do
nothing. So I have tried yet a different question with
the "tough" customers, hoping to trigger some investigation,
but that too falls short. The "ducks" overhear the question and
are off yet again on another project or two or three. It
seems that these labs are a "rich get richer and poor get poorer"
situation...hence my combination approach this spring.

I keep trying to reach all my students by providing
resources in a variety of modes and so on, but I'm still
not at an "optimum" place yet.


Ross Koning                 | koning at
Biology Department          |
Eastern CT State University | phone: 860-465-5327
Willimantic, CT 06226 USA   | fax: 860-465-4479

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