Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Do Inquiry-Based Labs Enhance Application Skills?

When labs were inquiry-based, students more effectively applied fundamental concepts on exams.

Civil and Environmental Engineering Materials Lab

In the materials lab, students evaluate the properties of a variety of construction materials to better understand how such information can inform real-world engineering decisions.

Traditionally, students follow cookbook-like instructions to measure and interpret the properties of construction materials. Seeking to enhance student learning, Christian proposed a new format for one of the labs (masonry). This inquiry-based lab tasked students with generating the right questions to ask and then determining how to go about answering them, rather than merely following a recipe of step-by-step instructions.

By the end of the course, students completed labs for three different materials: wood and concrete (both traditional labs), and masonry (inquiry-based lab). Final exam scores, combining recall and application questions, showed that students performed significantly better on content that was related to masonry, compared to the other labs.

These results suggest that creating and implementing an inquiry-based lab environment may be beneficial for student learning. In the future, Christian plans on re-working the rest of her labs to be inquiry-based, and she hypothesizes that student learning for those materials will similarly improve.

chart indicating proportion correct on exam

Scores on exam questions were higher when students learned via the inquiry-based lab (M = 80.71, SD = 13.56) versus traditional labs (M = 69.82, SD = 9.75).  Error bars are the 95% confidence intervals for the means.

The mean difference of 10.89 was significant, 95% CI [15.02, 6.76], t (27) = 5.41, p < .001, d = .9.

Dependent Variable: learning
Pedagogical Strategy: active learning
Study Design: category 3