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Improving science education in Europe - Case studies of the practice of labwork and analysis of effectiveness

The case study method was adopted as a multifaceted research methodology potentially capable of examining the influence of particular organisational and personal factors on labwork and of identifying, describing and documenting students’ actions and cognitive processes that take place during labwork. 23 case studies were carried out in six participating groups, allowing for an in-depth investigation in a variety of contexts of how students’ understandings of several aspects of scientific knowledge and inquiry may be facilitated by different types of labwork.

The case studies were diverse in focus. For example, some case studies focus on the evolution and acquisition of conceptual knowledge by students following labwork; some case studies investigate implicit objectives set out by instructors while other case studies have stated clearly their objectives; the relation between aspects of what the students do and what they learn from laboratory activities is investigated in some other case studies; the effectiveness of carrying out new teaching strategies is the foci of other case studies. A number of case studies were characterised by explicit discussion of the epistemologies and theories of learning that underpinned their methodology.

A characteristic of the case studies was that they did not focus only on learning outcomes following labwork, but a number of them addressed students’ intellectual or manipulative activities during labwork.

A classification of the case studies:
Despite their diversity it was possible to classify the case studies into the following groups according to the dominant type of experimental work, which in turn made it possible to draw common findings:
- Labwork based upon small group work and hands-on experiments;

- Labwork based upon the integrated use of new technologies;

- Open-ended labwork;

- Labwork addressing specific phases and based on various representations of labwork.

The effectiveness of labwork:
Two types of labwork effectiveness have been envisaged.
- ‘Effectiveness 1’ involves comparing students’ learning after labwork against expected learning objectives.

- ‘Effectiveness 2’ involves evaluating students’ actions and understandings during labwork against the actions that had been planned at the outset:

We suggest that the relationship between the use of conceptual, procedural and epistemological knowledge during labwork on the one hand, and learning outcomes after labwork on the other, is a complex one and we cannot envisage a simple causal relation between them. Besides, we suggest that a twofold effectiveness of the type described above is a very specific feature of the practical character of labwork among the various teaching activities in science education and, possibly, in other fields beyond science education.

Different types of labwork were analysed using these concepts:
- Typical labwork based on small group work and hands-on experiments:
This type of labwork was investigated in six case studies. A general finding is that the majority of students’ time is spent upon manipulating apparatus and collecting data. In each case study, the major challenges for students involved conceptualising the theoretical background of laboratory activities rather than carrying out the procedures required in the laboratory.

In terms of Effectiveness 1, students need to be focused to spend more time ‘on task’ during labwork: in effect, they need to spend more time reflecting on links between conceptual knowledge on the one hand and their activities on the other.

- Labwork based on integrated use of new technology:
Effects of new technology were analysed in nine case-studies. Case study research served to illustrate the numerous positive uses of new technologies in terms of the effectiveness of labwork, as well as suggesting how some of the possible pitfalls might be avoided.

Generally speaking, using the computer for model building during labwork, stimulates students to talk more about the conceptual background of a specific lab situation than most other contexts of labwork.

- Open-ended labwork:
Five case studies focused on open-ended labwork served to illustrate how open-ended labwork can be used to bring together both conceptual knowledge and knowledge of scientific procedures. The studiesalso illustrated that a lot of objectives not easily made explicit are implicitly pursued in open ended labwork.

- Case studies involving specific phases of labwork and based on various representation of labwork:
It is apparent from the three corresponding case studies that it is particularly important to have some sort of explicit model of the investigation in mind in designing instructional sequences, or in writing accounts of labwork in published media. In a study of the portrayal of labwork in textbooks, many examples were noted which presented a stereotypical account of activities, neglecting the role of the scientist in making creative decisions about actions.

A model of the learning objectives for labwork:
Based on the above analysis of the case studies, we propose three broad sets of learning objectives. The first two are the traditional objectives of promoting conceptual understanding and procedural competence. The third is rarely made explicit, and relates to more epistemological issues such as considering approaches to investigation, designing experiments, and processing data. Each of these potentially influences the other. In some cases, for example, laboratory procedures might be taught as a matter of routine whereas in other cases they might be taught with the aim of supporting concept learning. In the same way, measurement processing might be addressed as a routine algorithm, or alternatively with an epistemological emphasis upon links between knowledge claims and empirical evidence for those knowledge claims.

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Marie-Genevieve SERE
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