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.


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