Marion van Brederode: What thrives students to think critically during a chemistry lab?

What thrives students to think critically during a chemistry lab?
June 2020

Marion van Brederode

Laboratory learning and instructions
A laboratory is a complex learning environment in which students often have to deal with an overwhelming amount of written and verbal instructions about the functioning of instrumentation, safety, underlying theory, and input from the experiment itself (Agustian and Seery, 2017).
So it takes some streamlining to have students handle all this. At the same time, we also want them to think critically and to solve problems themselves.

Laboratory instructions affect how students approach their laboratory assignments. It has been noted often that step-by-step instructions, sometimes called cook-book or traditional instructions, that guide students through an experiment have limited learning effects (Kirschner, 1992). These kind of instructions can often lead to situations in which students only start to think about the meaning of the laboratory activity when they are writing their assignment reports.

Recently it emerged from a meta-analysis of studies on guided inquiry instructions that, among other things, more specific guidance during inquiry assignment results in higher quality students’reports than inquiry learning that is guided by moren open instructions (Lazonder and Harmsen, 2016). I think this is rather unsurprising as with more specific guidance the students are better informed on what is expected from them or what they are assessed on.
Therefore, in our study, we wanted to look at how instructions affect students’ critical thinking while they are conducting a practical assignment and not at the quality of the final reporting.

Recognize critical thinking by surprise
To recognize critical thinking in the students, we wanted the them to encounter something during the experiment they had not expected beforehand, but where it would be relatively easy for those who thought critically about the meaning of their data to notice this ‘hidden trap’ and propose a correct way of analysing the data. However, students who are not concerned about the meaning of their experimental data either fail to notice the apparent discrepancy between their experimental data and the models they had learned about or are not bothered by it. This can be interpreted as an indication of a lack of critical thinking during the inquiry assignment.

Investigation of preparation
The research goal of our study was to find out whether the preparatory phase of the practical assignment would influence the students' critical thinking. We made a direct comparison of two different, but equally comprehensive, designs of pre-laboratory activities that we implemented in parallel in four chemistry classes of senior-year secondary school students. These we named paved road- and critical thinking pre-laboratory activities. Both forms of activities are based on elements that are often recognizable in educational practice to prepare students for laboratory work. For the design of the critical thinking condition and defining the levels for critical thinking, we were further inspired by a large-scale study into the critical thinking among physics students during lab work (Holmes et al., 2015).

With the paved road pre-laboratory activity, students were making pre-laboratory questions that guide them through the design of the assignment. These questions focused the students on the research question and how the presented experimental method is well suited to answer the research question. With the critical thinking pre-laboratory activity, students investigate the same pre-specified research question but they were making their own design for the experiment according to given criteria for a good experimental set-up and provided information (hints). The amount information available for making the experimental plan in the critical thinking condition was identical to the provided information for answering the laboraboratory questions in the paved road condition. So the main difference between the two conditions comes down to the way in which the students process the information offered prior to the practical.

Two cohorts
We conducted the study two years in a row with Dutch senior year high school students. In the first cohort, we were mainly surprised by the haphazard comments made by students in paved road condition about their measurement data. As a result, more than half of the students in the paved road condition were classified in the lowest critical thinking level. In the critical thinking condition of the first cohort, a few pairs opted for a completely different experimental approach, in which they were highly determined to understand the meaning of their measurement data, but did not clearly encounter the hidden trap.

To avoid a similar situation the next year, the cohort 2 students in the paved road conditions were focused more on the research goal and in the critical thinking condition they were given more direction for the set-up of the experimental plan, relative to the students in cohort 1.

Direct comparion
As a result we observed that more students in the paved road condition interpreted their measurement data with more depth. This may be interpreted as that the level of research reached in inquiry learning is largely a function of the direction given in the guidance. However, the direct comparison of the paved road and critical thinking conditions on the contrary, showed that for both cohorts students in the critical thinking condition expressed more independent critical thinking when evaluating their measurement data. They more often noticed the unexpected observation and were more often trying to understand and clarify it, instead of waving it away.

Critical thinking is not easy to evaluate in a study: you can only measure it when it really comes down to critical thinking. The effect that instructions have on the critical thinking of students is probably always there (and we have experienced that with other laboratory assignments in other classes as well). When students experience automony they are more determined to solve problems or unravel surprises. It is therefore a good idea to take this into account in the future when designing instructions, even if there is no hidden surprise in the assignment.

The article is accepted for publication in Chemistry Education Reseach and Practice and can be read here.
Examining the effect of lab instructions on students' critical thinking during a chemical inquiry practical.
Marion E. van Brederode, Sebastiaan A. Zoon and Martijn Meeter

Below an impression of the laboratory assignment

Laboratory assignment Esther van Grondelle

Illustration Esther van Grondelle

AGUSTIAN, H. Y. & SEERY, M. K. 2017. Reasserting the role of pre-laboratory activities in chemistry education: a proposed framework for their design. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 18, 518-532.
HOLMES, N. G., WIEMAN, C. E. & BONN, D. A. 2015. Teaching critical thinking. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112, 11199-11204.
KIRSCHNER, P. A. 1992. Epistemology, Practical Work and Academic Skills in Science Education. Science & Education.
LAZONDER, A. W. & HARMSEN, R. 2016. Meta-Analysis of Inquiry-Based Learning: Effects of Guidance. Review of Educational Research, 86, 681-718.