Monthly Archives: January 2015

Inquiry labs: one of the best things that you can do for your students and yourself

thinker-28741_640When I reflect on my undergraduate years as a biology major (almost 40 years ago!), my most challenging class was a laboratory course in which, every 2 weeks, my lab group and I found ourselves in front of a new piece of equipment.  There was no protocol or lab book, only the equipment manual.  The goal was to develop a strategy to answer a specific question. Those first few weeks were really tough but I still remember learning how to use a fluorometer to measure tyrosine. I can recall everything that I did in that course (and I have a REALLY bad memory) because the professor expected us to identify a problem and create a solution. It was an inquiry- based lab although the term was not used at the time. The experience was transformative.

When I started my teaching career, I knew that my laboratory courses would include some kind of inquiry.  What did I expect in an “inquiry-based lab”?  My definition depended on the course and the student population, the constraints of the physical environment and the available resources. However I knew that whenever students were required to pose their own questions and find answers, rather than passively follow a prescribed protocol to achieve an expected result, they were engaged in inquiry. I knew from my own experience that the combination of a “hands-on” with the “heads-on” approach led to important long-term learning.  A recent paper by Luckie et al. (1) supports the learning advantage to this inquiry approach in the lab.

Let me share a few examples.  In our introductory biology labs (400 students, both biology majors and nonmajors), students learn a procedure and then apply it to a new situation.  For example, after completing a basic biochemistry lab, student groups are asked to determine which soda sample contains aspartame, an artificial sweetener with a structure similar to the amino acid aspartate. They engage in similar “Apply your Knowledge” activities every week. In our Anatomy and Physiology labs, students (200 nonmajors) conduct 2-week mini-projects three times throughout the semester in which they must identify a question to explore, develop an experimental approach, conduct the experiment, collect the data, and present their results to the class.  For example, a student group this semester investigated playing a hand held video game in a timed versus untimed format on psychophysiological parameters such as galvanic skin response, heart rate, and skin temperature.  In our majors courses, cell physiology (100 students) and animal physiology (20 students), these mini-projects culminate in a 3 week integrative final research project complete with poster or oral presentations.  This semester in the physiology course, a student group studied the effects of altered dietary intake of carbohydrates and protein on skeletal muscle fatigue, blood glucose, and urine pH.  These final projects are the best part of the course for me because I really enjoy watching students generate their own questions and develop strategies to solve the problem.  In addition, students tell me that these labs are fun! (2)

Think back on your own undergraduate or graduate laboratory experiences.  Didn’t the best ones include the expectation that you were going to figure out something on your own?  The higher-level critical thinking skills gained using inquiry labs far outweigh the “loss of content coverage”.  Our future scientists must be exposed early to these skills to encourage independent thinking and doing “real science”. (3, 4)

If you have not tried the inquiry – based approach in your labs yet, you don’t need to revise your entire course.  It can be intimidating to step outside of your comfort zone.  Start small.  Change one lab experience. Ask for help.  As scientists we use the inquiry approach every day – let’s make sure that our students (and future scientists) get a similar experience.


1) Luckie DB, Aubry JR, Marengo BJ, Rivkin AM, Foos LA, Maleszewski JJ. Less teaching, more learning: 10-yr study supports increasing student learning through less coverage and more inquiry. Adv Physiol Educ 36  325-335, 2012.

2) DiCarlo SE. Too much content, not enough thinking, and too little fun! Adv Physiol Educ 33: 257–64, 2009.

3) Lord T, Orkwiszewski T. Moving from didactic to inquiry-based instruction in a science laboratory. Am Biol Teacher 68: 342–345, 2006.

4) Myers MJ, Burgess AB. Inquiry-based laboratory course improves students’ ability to design experiments and interpret data. Adv Physiol Educ 27: 26–33, 2003.



Maureen Knabb is a Professor of Biology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.  She teaches courses in General Biology, Anatomy and Physiology, Cell Physiology, Human Physiology and graduate courses in physiology such as the recently developed online graduate course “Case Studies in Physiology”.  She was a recent Fulbright fellow to Universidad Autonoma de San Luis Potosi in Mexico where she taught a scientific writing class as well as performed research in cardiovascular physiology.  She has written several case studies published on the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science and has prioritized the development and incorporation of inquiry based learning in laboratory courses. Maureen is a PECOP Thought Leader, a member of the American Physiological Society (APS), and an active member of the APS Teaching Section Steering Committee.


Effective Teaching Skills: Science and Improvisation

thoughtA year or two after I began teaching, someone whom I had just met asked me the question that I’ll bet many of you have also heard: “doesn’t teaching the same subject over and over get boring?” My response was that teaching biology wasn’t boring because biology is a dynamic field, and there are always new discoveries to share with students. What I also wanted to say, but I wasn’t able to articulate, was that teaching is also dynamic. Like biology, my teaching is constantly being updated and refined. In my opinion, the dynamic process of refining one’s teaching requires both science and improvisation.

The science of teaching includes having an understanding of the evidence for best practices in teaching. Evidence from cognitive research on how students learn, and the applications that educators may have developed and tested are foundational for effective teaching (Handelsman et al., 2007). It is an exciting time for evidence-based teaching in biology because of the availability of so much evidence for effective teaching. A growing number of journals focus on biology education, there are websites devoted to sharing activities and cases, and there are local and regional and national communities of practice as highlighted in the December PECOP blog.

The science of teaching also involves objectively assessing the effectiveness of teaching strategies in one’s own classroom and lab and making appropriate adjustments. We have made a significant amount of progress in this area as well. Course assessments and peer and/or chair assessments of teaching were available long before I began teaching, but, increasingly, faculty are aware of the need to develop a plan for assessing the impact of changes in teaching practices as part of implementing those changes. This work is also supported by the types of resources highlighted in the paragraph above.

So, the evidence guides the development of competencies, and the design of learning activities and assessments that support student success. It is important to walk into a course or lab with a plan that is based on understanding who the students are and what they already know how to do. But, is a good plan sufficient? I believe that improvisation is also essential. Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a student activity and realized that it wasn’t going as planned? I certainly have. An example of simple improvisation would be interrupting a group activity to review a concept that you find that students don’t understand. If the goal is student success, then adapting and improvising is also necessary to encourage students to participate in shaping learning activities through their own questions and experiences.

What is effective improvisation? Improvisation should support students in achieving the established competencies, and be responsive to how they are doing in the process. Learning is challenging, and so students will need to struggle a bit on their own, but not be allowed to struggle to the point where frustration overwhelms the learning process. Improvisation requires that we be actively engaged, and that we respond creatively to facilitate the process.

How do we learn to improvise effectively? Like other skills, improvisation improves with practice.  A couple of good strategies are observing faculty who improvise well, or having more experienced faculty observe us as we work with our students. Team teaching is also a great way to learn to improvise more effectively.

Teaching doesn’t get boring because of the continuous challenge to improve. Effective teaching involves both science and improvisation. Do you have suggestions on how to develop improvisational skills?


Lynelle Golden is Goldena broadly trained physiologist who currently serves as Professor and Dean of the School of Natural Health Arts and Sciences at Bastyr University near Seattle Washington. She has more than 20 years of experience teaching junior/senior level physiology for biology majors and anatomy and physiology for allied health, nutrition and exercise science students. Her experience at Bastyr also includes teaching integrated case studies and physiology courses for medical students. While at Bastyr, Lynelle has been actively involved in curriculum development and revision. She has been a member of the teaching section of the American Physiological Society since 1986, and she currently serves as Chair of the Programming Committee for the APS Teaching Section. Lynelle earned an M.S. and a PhD in Life Sciences/Physiology from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and she completed postdoctoral research in Cardiovascular Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.