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Laboratory Classes

One common method for getting students actively involved in the learning process is through laboratory classes. Though most often associated with the sciences and engineering, laboratory classes can be used by any instructor who wishes to create an environment where students are physically engaged with concepts in the field through active experimentation or exploration. Many learning objectives can be taught through laboratory classes. For example, through the laboratory experience students can do the following:

  • Develop deeper understanding of concepts.
  • Experience phenomena directly.
  • Connect book knowledge to real-world applications.
  • Apply concepts to new situations and solve authentic problems.
  • Develop thinking skills (critical, quantitative, qualitative).
  • Develop data analysis skills.
  • Develop experimental skills (e.g., design, observation, and use of equipment).
  • Develop communication skills, including those involved in working in groups.
  • Develop an appreciation for research in the field.

Laboratory classes are designed for many purposes, and details of what students do in the lab will vary between disciplines. However, three general styles of laboratory instruction can be described- Expository, Inquiry, and Discovery.

Expository instruction

Also called traditional or verification instruction, the student follows directions from the instructor or a manual to investigate a given topic or conduct an experiment. In these experiments, students verify results, which are typically compared with an expected outcome. The detailed instructions given to students have earned these experiments the nickname “cookbook labs.” These labs are designed for large-scale implementation with little variation across instructors or students. Expository labs engage students at the lower levels of cognitive processes (remembering, understanding, and applying).

Inquiry instruction

Also called open-inquiry, this is the opposite of expository instruction. Students are given a general topic, decide what problem to examine, and design the procedures to follow. While this style has been shown to promote improved attitudes toward science instruction, it can be overwhelming for students who have limited experience in the field. Students are expected to think like an expert. It can also be difficult to implement in typical university settings.

Discovery instruction

Also called guided-inquiry, this style combines the control of expository with the inductive search in inquiry instruction. Following instructions, the students generate results from which they can inductively develop the general principle. While easier for novices to perform, these labs still take longer than expository labs and allow for the possibility that students will not be able to discover the general principle.

A note on demonstrations

While demonstrations are not lab classes in and of themselves, demonstrations can be viewed as bringing the lab into the lecture. Demonstrations in which the students predict the results of the demonstration and discuss the observations can increase students' learning of a concept. On the other hand, simply observing a demonstration has little impact on learning.


  • Committee on Undergraduate Science Research. (1997). Science teaching reconsidered: A handbook. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  • Lechtanski, V. L. (2000). Inquiry-based experiments for chemistry. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • McDermott, L. C. (1996). Physics by inquiry: An introduction to physics and the physical sciences. New York: Wiley.
  • Wankat, P. C., & Oreovicz, F. S. (1993). Teaching Engineering. New York: McGraw-Hill.