What do you get when you follow a recipe? We suppose it depends on how carefully you follow the instructions, but assuming you stay true to the steps and have the requisite skills, you get something that approximates the taste described on the food blog (it never looks as good). While following a recipe can get you an expected result in the kitchen, it does not make you a chef—you probably will not learn to create new dishes, improve tired ones, or reverse-engineer your favorite take-out order. What do you do if you run out of vanilla!? We think the same is true in a science laboratory: You don’t develop the skills of a scientist by just following instructions. Sure, scientists follow instructions, but they also need to choose, create, and improve instructions. How do scientists become nimble with their craft? They experiment, make mistakes, troubleshoot, and iterate (or “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy” for those who grew up with Miss Frizzle). If we asked you where undergraduate students learn to become scientists, we expect “laboratories” would be the most common answer, but unless laboratory activities are intentionally designed to develop the curiosity, creativity, and skills to pose and answer questions, they won’t produce adept scientists. In contrast to traditional laboratory activities, inquiry-based laboratory activities allow learners to develop important scientific skills.
Two years ago, we began a project aimed at improving student learning by replacing recipes with authentic science in exercise physiology laboratories. With one year remaining in our project, this blog post will explore our rationale, progress, and future plans.
Section 1: Put the scientist cookie-cutter back in the drawer
In undergraduate exercise physiology courses, laboratory-based learning is common, but it focuses more on students learning techniques than experimenting (9). In our experience, a typical undergraduate laboratory activity requires students to follow step-by-step procedures to measure one or more variables in a limited number of participants, most commonly their lab mates. Students administer exercise protocols on bikes, treadmills, and dynamometers to collect a variety of data, including oxygen uptake, heart rate, and muscle strength. These labs are largely descriptive. For example, a quintessential undergraduate exercise physiology laboratory involves performing a graded exercise test to measure the maximal rate of oxygen uptake (V̇O2max). Students assume the role of physiologist, repeatedly increasing the speed of a treadmill (or power output of a cycle ergometer) while sampling expired gases until the participant is unable to continue due to exhaustion. Students are discouraged (actually, prohibited) from altering the protocol and rarely given the chance to fix mistakes in a future laboratory (don’t forget the nose clips!). While the specific results may not be known in advance—they depend on characteristics of the participant—this activity is not an experiment. This traditional approach to laboratory teaching is standard (8, 11, 13). In contrast, an inquiry-based approach allows students to act like scientists and experiment.
There is a terrific description of levels of student inquiry in science for interested readers outlined in Bell et al. (4) and summarized in Table 1 below. The authors describe four levels of inquiry, and in our early stages of reforming labs, we found these levels very helpful for grappling with and revising laboratory learning activities and assessments. In our experience, only level 1 inquiry-based activities are regularly included in undergraduate laboratories: For example, our students compare post-exercise blood lactate concentration responses to passive and active recovery. Even though the results are known in advance and students are following the instructor’s procedures for level 1 inquiry, learners are frequently assessed on their ability to create laboratory reports where they find themselves toiling over uninspired post hoc hypotheses and rewriting a common set of methods in their own words. This process is disingenuous. Furthermore, knowing that they are attempting to verify a known result may lead some students to engage in questionable research practices to obtain that result (14).
Table 1. The four levels of inquiry, as described by Bell et al. (4).
|Level||Type||Description of student activities|
|1||Confirmation||Students verify or confirm known results|
|2||Structured inquiry||Students investigate instructor-determined question using instructor-determined procedures (results not known in advance)|
|3||Guided inquiry||Students investigate instructor-determined question using student-determined procedures|
|4||Open inquiry||Students develop questions and procedures for rigorously answering them|
We think traditional laboratory teaching goes against the spirit of what science actually is: The application of rigorous methods in the pursuit of answers to questions. Although students may develop technical skills by completing descriptive activities and low-level inquiry activities (e.g., data acquisition, data analysis, technical writing), there is a missed opportunity to develop the habits of mind and skills of a scientist in traditional laboratories. More than that, there is a misrepresentation, or at least obfuscation, of science. If we pretend these laboratories represent the scientific process, how do we expect students to become curious about, inspired by, and ultimately capable of doing science on their own? Students need to progress to higher levels of inquiry-based learning, but implementing these types of laboratories can be challenging in exercise physiology.
It is understandable that exercise physiology laboratories tend to exclude inquiry-based learning, as all tests are performed on human participants. First, there are legitimate safety concerns in exercise physiology laboratories, as participants are asked to exert themselves, often maximally; manipulations have physiological consequences; and some techniques are invasive. It would be irresponsible to let students change data collection protocols on the fly and jeopardize the health and safety of their peers. Second, as multiple testing sessions may be required to collect experimental data, manipulating independent variables may also be impractical for an undergraduate course aiming to cover a broad curriculum. For example, with sessions spread over multiple weeks, standardizing for diet is difficult. Third, the types of interventions that would have large enough effect sizes to be observable with small sample sizes (with a reasonable amount of “noise”) may be impractical or inappropriate in an undergraduate laboratory. For example, learners may not want to exercise for prolonged durations in the heat or deplete their muscle glycogen in advance of an exercise test. And finally, laboratory instructors may be uncomfortable or inexperienced with facilitating inquiry-based laboratories that go beyond level 1 (to say nothing of the confidence and ability of the learners themselves).
In addition to the practical concerns of adding more inquiry to undergraduate labs, we know students must learn the technical skills associated with fitness assessment, as exercise physiology is a health profession. If students pursue exercise physiology as a career path, they will apply advanced technical skills to accurately measure variables that impact exercise prescription, health assessments, and disease prognosis. Technical rigor is paramount in this profession, and imparting these skills is a major reason to offer exercise physiology laboratories. Unless specializing in research, exercise physiologists may not perform scientific experiments in their occupation. It is also challenging to collect most physiological data, and certainly learners cannot become scientists without acquiring data collection skills. Students need to practice and develop confidence using laboratory equipment before they can answer their own questions.
We understand that performing true experiments (especially student-led experiments) is difficult in undergraduate exercise physiology laboratories and we also appreciate why technical skills are essential. Yet, we do not believe that an exclusive focus on technical skills is the best strategy for students to learn scientific reasoning, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Regardless of a students’ career path, these are transferrable skills, and a laboratory is the ideal venue to nurture scientific thinking.
Section 2: Can we move beyond cookbook style laboratories?
What makes a good scientist? This answer probably varies across disciplines: Some scientists may be skilled in animal surgery, some may interrogate enormous data sets, and others may focus on theoretical concepts and proofs. There is probably no single skill set that is common among all scientists. But, if we put the specific technical skills aside, students need to ask questions, create hypotheses, solve problems, and think critically in order to conduct experiments. The mechanism for developing any skill is practice: Learners need opportunities to develop and refine their skills, whether they are technical or cognitive. Some students may be able to walk into a first-year laboratory and create an experiment, but many more will need additional support to reach this level of competency. In short, students need to practice being scientists. To be effective, this practice must be authentic: As scientists do not just follow instructions, a recipe-based approach to laboratory learning will not develop a good scientist. The higher levels of inquiry, (see Table 1), are where students get to practice being scientists.
Including higher level inquiry-based learning in exercise physiology isn’t entirely novel. For example, Kolkhorst et al. (11) described the implementation of an inquiry-based learning model in an undergraduate exercise physiology course. The structure of this course was (i) an introductory laboratory session; (ii) five laboratory sessions focused on key concepts in exercise physiology; and (iii) nine laboratory sessions to complete two separate research projects (4-5 sessions each). In the latter portion of the course–an example of level 4 inquiry (Table 1)–students proposed research questions and hypotheses and worked with instructors to devise an experiment, collected and analyzed data, and presented their results to the class. After addressing one research question, students repeated this process with a new research question focused on a different physiological system. Following the initial iteration—from which Kolkhorst et al. (11) noted students were not sufficiently prepared for undertaking the research projects—the authors devised a more structured transition, providing students with more opportunities to practice answering research questions and developing technical skills (i.e., level 2-3 inquiry). The results of this shift in laboratory learning were largely positive: The authors reported that students were more enthusiastic about the inquiry-based labs and better able to describe and discuss physiological principles. A separate study (8) indicated that students reported preferring high-level as opposed to low-level inquiry in exercise physiology laboratories, crediting the independence, responsibility, freedom, and personal relevance as key influences on their satisfaction. These qualitative results are further supported by quantitative data from Nybo and May (13), which demonstrated greater test scores for students who completed an inquiry-based laboratory session related to cardiopulmonary exercise physiology compared to a traditional laboratory on the same topic. Collectively, these studies demonstrate that enabling students to experiment in undergraduate exercise physiology is possible and beneficial.
Although writing specifically about physics education, Drs. Emily Smith and Natasha Holmes (14) advise us to eliminate confirmation (level 1) work and attempts at learning theory in laboratories. Based on extensive research, they suggest increasing the amount of laboratory time students spend (i) making predictions about what they think might happen; (ii) doing activities that involve trial-and-error; (iii) practicing decision making; and (iv) processing how things went. By allowing students to devise questions, design experiments, and collect data (with the opportunity to fix mistakes), students are practicing being scientists. By design, inquiry-based laboratory activities facilitate the first three suggestions; however, whether Smith and Holmes’ fourth recommendation occurs in inquiry-based laboratory activities is hard to determine, but this recommendation is important. This processing phase of laboratory learning improves students’ capacities to make good decisions over time. Including this reflective step in laboratories is something we have taken to heart and into all of our reformed labs.
Section 3: Adding inquiry and mixing reflection into exercise physiology laboratories
In our project, we are focused on two specific exercise physiology courses, an introductory undergraduate course (n = 80-200 students, depending on the semester) and an advanced graduate course (n = 10), both of which have a weekly 3-hour laboratory session. Prior to intervening, we surveyed the nature of laboratory teaching in each course, finding that students indeed followed step-by-step instructions without the opportunity to make decisions or investigate new questions. The only form of inquiry-based learning was level 1 (Table 1). We planned to make two broad types of changes: (i) provide students with more autonomy in the laboratory, and (ii) encourage students to reflect on the activities they were completing. As the graduate course was much smaller, this was deemed the easier place to start, and because of its size, this course was also allowed to remain in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic. Accordingly, most of our progress to date has been in revising this graduate exercise physiology course.
Initially, our changes to the graduate course’s laboratory focused on asking students to make and validate predictions while using a standard set of protocols (i.e., level 1 inquiry). In our first iteration, we modified four laboratory sessions to focus on the “unexpected” breakdown in the linear relationship between oxygen uptake and cycling power output that occurs during exercise with constant-load efforts and the difficulty in identifying the boundary between the heavy and severe exercise intensity domains (10). We (and students in the course) felt these activities were successful, so we modified the laboratory again the following year to allow students to focus on answering novel questions rather than verifying results. Using a gradual implementation approach similar to Kolkhorst et al. (11), students were first asked to create and test unique hypotheses for a set of data they collected over four laboratory sessions, combining aspects of level 2 and 4 inquiry (i.e., instructor-led procedures and student-led questions). Next, based on an article read earlier in the course (1), students worked as a group to determine whether fatiguing one limb influenced measures of exercise performance and fatigue in the contralateral limb when contractions were isometric (level 2). Finally, with a focus on inquiry-based learning and professional development, students were challenged to develop their own laboratory activity for a hypothetical course, which required devising an experiment to teach an important concept in exercise physiology and collecting pilot data to demonstrate feasibility (nearing level 4). To fully understand the impacts of these changes, we have collected survey and semi-structured interview data from students in reformed laboratories, which we hope to formally report at the end of the project.
Despite teaching our undergraduate exercise physiology course online this year, we attempted to create a virtual exercise physiology laboratory that focused on developing the skills needed to answer research questions. Learning activities focused on hypothesis creation, research design, data analysis, and statistical analysis. For one activity, we asked students to design a hypothetical study comparing mechanical aspects of sprinting for two groups of athletes (e.g., bobsleigh vs. fencing). Although new to research design, students were given the freedom to choose the sample size, the variable of interest, and the two types of athletes (selected from normative data published by Haugen et al. (7)). Martin used the students’ choices to simulate datasets, and students performed statistical analysis to test their hypotheses. While students couldn’t collect their own data, this activity allowed them to pose and answer a question, while learning about sprinting and research design. When this lab returns to in-person learning, plans are being formulated to include inquiry-based learning, similar to the structure that Kolkhorst et al. (11) and Henige (8) reported.
After two years of tinkering with our graduate course and beginning to reform our undergraduate course (despite its online format), we have realized that we simply need to give students more time in the laboratory to work on their own questions. Note that Kolkhorst et al. (11) and Henige (8) each provided 4-5 sessions for their level 4 inquiry laboratory activities. This can be a tough sell for instructors (ourselves included): It means we need to cover fewer topics. But, sometimes the best addition to a recipe is a subtraction (e.g., prohibiting pineapple on pizza). The battle over which absolutely essential topic has to be removed has already begun!
While we think increasing autonomy and inquiry in the lab is an important part of enhancing student learning, we also think students need to be able to debrief learning activities and process their experiences to enrich their learning. For both courses described above, students were asked to engage in reflective activities each week. We know reflection can move learning from surface to deep and even transformative levels (12). Reflection is a form of cognitive housekeeping and processing that enables students to develop their understanding of complex or unstructured ideas (12). When students actively engage in a constructive sense-making process, they understand complex systems and concepts better (6). Metacognitive practices are shown to improve self-regulation and commitment to lifelong learning; however, instructional strategies often neglect or assume students are engaging in metacognition (2). Evidence suggests metacognition at the end of STEM learning activities enriches learning (17). Based on this evidence and our experiences with reflection as a catalyst for curiosity and connection-making, we integrated a small amount of reflection with learning activities and added a low-stakes assessment in both courses. Students were asked to thoughtfully reflect on and respond to a specific prompt in approximately 100 words at the end of each lab. Questions like those listed below acted as a call to metacognition:
What did you find most challenging (or surprising, or interesting) in this lab and why?
What did you learn in this lab? What would you still like to know?
What do you think is the major obstacle to performing high-intensity interval training?
How would you explain the importance of fat oxidation to a lay person interested in exercise?
By asking students to connect their experience, knowledge, ideas, and sometimes uncertainty to their lab learning activities, we hoped to support them in deepening, extending, and amplifying their learning.
As we reformed student learning activities and move away from recipe-only laboratories, our teaching practices needed to change too. Recognizing that the laboratory instructors had mostly been trained through traditional style laboratories, we identified a need for some targeted professional development for our group of educators. To meet this need, Cari developed an asynchronous learning module called “Teaching to Enable Learning in Exercise Physiology,” for the instructional team to complete prior to the start of term, and we debriefed this 6-8 hour module together at our first meeting. This meeting set the tone and expectation in many ways for the teaching practices we were expecting teaching assistants to try in labs. We took a community of practice (CoP) approach to supporting laboratory teaching and learning throughout the semester. A CoP is a group of practitioners who meet regularly, reflect and problem solve collaboratively to learn to do their practice (for us, teaching) better (16). CoPs have been used to facilitate teaching and learning change in many higher education projects (5, 15). Each week, we (Martin and Cari) invited the lab technician, the teaching assistants (i.e., laboratory instructors), and a graduate student researcher (Joy Camarao) to reflect on and share both positive and negative teaching experiences from the week that was.
Years after completing an undergraduate degree in biology, the laboratory activities that stuck with me (Martin) the most are those that let me experiment. My favorite laboratory activity involved transplanting barnacles from the exposed side of a breakwater to the inner harbor on the coast of Nova Scotia to examine phenotypic plasticity in leg morphology. My lab mates and I chose the topic and designed the experiment, basing our question on a relationship observed in a related species of barnacle (3). We drove to the coast to find and transplant the barnacles, and we returned weeks later to collect the barnacles for analysis, hypothesizing that they would increase their leg length to optimize feeding in the calmer waters. Unlike most of my other laboratory experiences, we were performing a real experiment with real hypothesis and a (somewhat) novel question. Our study had flaws, and our results weren’t perfect, but the laboratory report was authentic, and so was my excitement. This type of lab is a challenge in exercise physiology, but it’s possible and worthwhile. As we enter the final year of our project, we hope to give students more opportunities to experiment.
Image Credits: Image 1- Nicole Michalou, Image 2- Maarten VanDenHeuvel, Image 3 William Choquette, Image 4- Frans VanHeerden.
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