Under the Microscope: Examining the Research Base on Biological Lab Experiences, Grades 1-13

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

The study is intended to do an analysis and synthesis of the research literature on biological lab experiences grades 1-13, published 1987-2007. It will examine the literature for key themes covered, and emerging consensus findings, but also identify gaps in the literature in relation to subject matter covered, information relevant to progressions, special populations addressed, domain-specific learning, and several other variables.


Not applicable.

Research Design: 

This is a synthesis project, an analysis of the literature on biological laboratory experiences. Our study will examine and synthesize the research literature with respect to 7 major questions, to wit:

A. Analysis of the state of the literature

1. Synthesis on diversity of learners. Do studies address the role of laboratory experiences in supporting the learning of all students in life science?

To what extent does the literature reveal the role of laboratory experiences in addressing the needs of diverse students? Are there particular approaches that are serviceable to some populations more than others?

2. Synthesis on "innovation bias" and gap analysis of research corpus. Do published studies tend to examine laboratory experiences that are widely implemented in schools, or do they tend to report upon experimental or innovative interventions? Are there other important gaps in the research literature as to age range, content area, or other variables? Do the studies report on student outcomes or effects, and if so on the basis of what measures?

3. Synthesis on international comparison. Do research studies originating in different nations differ in relative emphases or approach taken with respect to the research questions above?

Extensive research is being published in the English-language research literatures of Europe, North America, and Australia.

B. Analysis of findings reported in the literature

1. Synthesis on concepts and content. What biological concepts are addressed in the studies of laboratory experiences? What aspects of bioscience practice are studied (including data collection methods, analytical methods, kinds of reasoning, use of conceptual, qualitative, or quantitative modeling)? To what extent do the laboratory experiences engage students with the distinctive characteristics of biological systems?

To what extent does the research literature show whether key biological ideas are embodied in laboratory experiences or not, whether in the context, the actual investigations, the methodology or the analysis/sense-making? Are there some key biological ideas that are often addressed (which might imply a recognition of need for students to learn particular concepts or the conceptual difficulty of particular concepts)? Are there some key biological ideas that never appear (which might imply either ease of understanding, or intransigent difficulty)?

Does the literature shed light on the diversity of systems that students encounter in laboratory experiences in biology, and whether there are benefits derived from investigations of, for example, cybernetic models, field systems, microcosms, or other kinds of systems. Does the literature shed light on how laboratory experiences scaffold students' growth in ability to understand populational thinking, reason about complex or uncertain phenomena, or develop or critique models (physical, qualitative, or quantitative) of complex, living systems, or aspects thereof? What about understanding practice?

2. Synthesis on pedagogical design or activity structure. What kinds of scientific investigations are reflected in the laboratory experiences studied in the literature? What activity structures are used, and do these differ with the grade-level of the student? What kinds of biological systems are used in the laboratory experiences studied?

In all sciences, since laboratory experiences are the setting in which science practice is encountered directly, they should over the course of a student's science education experience reflect to a significant degree the variety of practices in science, and, in doing so, require and allow a variety of student responsibility for sense-making. What is this variety? America's Lab Report (NRC 2006, pp. 35-36) proposes a classification which correlates key scientific activities with educational correlates. In their formulation, key science investigations; making observations, and gathering and analyzing data; building or revising scientific models; evaluating, testing, or verifying models. The corresponding educational or "laboratory experience" activity types include these, plus one other: using laboratory tools and procedures.

The diversity and complexity of living systems, and their existence in relation to several levels of organization present students with new kinds of problems, new groups of organisms, and new kinds of interactions at every grade level. Therefore, a simple ranking of investigative types, from "observation" to "fair testing" for example, makes little sense; nor would the "degree of inquiry" change decisively all in one direction from grades 1 to 13. At each level of sophistication, however, the purpose or emphasis on classification versus model-building might be expected to vary, as may the degree of inquiry, in ways that are influenced by the student's previous life-science education. What guidance does the literature give about the possibility and nature of grade-wise progressions in types of life science laboratory experiences?

We can denominate the pedagogical framework for a laboratory experience its "activity structure," and include such characteristics as the explicit purpose, its relationship to the overall curriculum, and the "degree of inquiry" as measured by such characteristics as the amount of scaffolding with respect to question-selection, and the relative importance of student and teacher responsibility in the adoption/critique of methods, data analysis, and sense-making and relation to explanatory theory.

In addition to the variety in types of science investigations represented in laboratory exercises, however, we must inquire into the pedagogical setting that mediates the way students engage in these activities: What kind of intellectual work are the students doing, or should they be doing (Drayton and Falk 2001, Monk and Osbourne 2000, Millar et al. 2000)? What kinds of argumentation and reasoning are expected of them (Driver et al 2000)?

3. Synthesis on progression. Does the literature provide evidence about the role of laboratory experiences in supporting a progressive growth of biological understanding from the elementary grades, to the middle school, to high school, to introductory college?

As students progress through their education experience, several important elements undergo change that potentially affects progressive growth in students’ understanding. First, the students themselves are increasing in their capacity to attend, to reason qualitatively and quantitatively, and in their knowledge of biology and other subjects. Second, the subject-specific science training expected of teachers at each of these levels becomes increasingly deep. Third, the disciplinary focus of science courses becomes increasingly differentiated. Because of the very diversity and complexity of living systems, and their existence in relation to several levels of organization, a student in the course of an ordinary progression from elementary grades to introductory college life-science should continually be encountering new kinds of problems, new groups of organisms, new kinds of interactions.

To what extent do the studied laboratory experiences reflect these developments? Do the studies provide insight into the cognitive and conceptual issues at play in the transition from elementary through introductory college-level life science, and especially the role of laboratory experiences in supporting this progression? Do the studies provide any insight about differences in biological sophistication, as reflected in labs, from middle school to college and are these related to an increase in the complexity of phenomena studied? Is there any evidence that encounters with biological phenomena in laboratory experiences contribute to the growth of understanding of biological science as it is practiced?

4. Synthesis on student outcomes. What impacts, or evidence of effectiveness, of laboratory experiences on students' understanding, attitudes, or other outcomes are reported? What kinds of student outcome measures are studied? What if any effects on student learning or achievement are reported in the literature, and how are causal inferences drawn and warranted?


To date this project has not generated any findings.

Other Products: 

[a] A review article to be submitted to Science Education synthesizing the findings from our survey of the included studies. This review will have the following goals:
[i] Identify areas already well studied
[ii] Indicate areas requiring further study
[iii] Elaborate a theoretical framework that provides
- a foundation for studies of issues related to learning and teaching that arise from the distinctive characteristics of living systems and their study, and
- the basis for a research study of progressions in laboratory experiences in the life sciences across the grades.

[b] Presentations to at least two professional meetings of educators and of biologists including the National Biology Teachers Association;

[c] Two articles for the Biology Teacher or Journal of Biological Education, periodicals that serve life science instructors from middle school to college level. The first article will be a presentation of the study's synthesis findings; the second will articulate the proposed framework for progressions in biology laboratory experiences.

[d] A proposal for a major research and development project on progressions in biology lab experiences from middle school to college, building on the results in [a], paving the way for future research and for development of learning materials for students and for teachers.