Effects of a Research-Based Ecology Lab Course: A Study of Nonvolunteer Achievement, Self-Confidence, and Perception of Lab Course Purpose

By Kloser, Matthew J.; Brownell, Sara E. et al. | Journal of College Science Teaching, January-February 2013 | Go to article overview

Effects of a Research-Based Ecology Lab Course: A Study of Nonvolunteer Achievement, Self-Confidence, and Perception of Lab Course Purpose


Kloser, Matthew J., Brownell, Sara E., Shavelson, Richard J., Fukami, Tadashi, Journal of College Science Teaching


Undergraduate biology education has the challenging task of preparing students for a 21st-century context that has experienced rapid technological changes and movements toward interdisciplinary work. Several national reports, including Bio2010 (National Research Council, 2003), The New Biology Curriculum (National Research Council, 2009), and Vision and Change (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2011), have outlined principles necessary for biology education to meet this goal. One major tenet of these reports is to engage undergraduate students in authentic research in the form of research assistantships in individual faculty members' labs (Boyd & Wesemann, 2009; Taraban & Blanton, 2008) and research-based lab courses (Sundberg, Armstrong, & Wischusen, 2005; Weaver, Russell, & Wink, 2008; Wood, 2003).

Research assistantships have been shown to enhance attitudes of undergraduates toward biological research (Boyd & Wesemann, 2009; Lopatto, 2007; Taraban & Blanton, 2008), but most colleges and universities do not have the capacity to provide research opportunities for all undergraduate biology or premedical students. For students who do not have an opportunity to participate in faculty research, the required sequence of lab courses is often their only exposure to scientific practices. Unfortunately, most of these courses are taught in a "cookbook" manner, in which students follow a protocol, like a recipe, with a known answer (Buck, Bretz, & Towns, 2008; Sundberg et al., 2005). However, providing high-quality biology education to all students is important for training the next generation of both scientists and scientifically literate citizens.

In response to criticisms of cookbook labs, several institutions have designed courses that better reflect authentic research in which students "develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world" (National Research Council, 2000, p. 1). However, few research-based courses have been evaluated beyond traditional course evaluation methods (Henderson, Beach, & Finkelstein, 2011). For example, many lab courses that have been evaluated lack a pre/postcourse assessment structure to show learning or affect gains (Casem, 2006; Halme, Khodor, Mitchell, & Walker, 2006; Myka & Raubenheimer, 2005; Rutledge, Mathis, & Seipelt, 2004; Seifert, Fenster, Dilts, & Temple, 2009). Some pioneering studies have compared students taking research-based lab courses with those taking more traditional cookbook-style courses (Brownell, Kloser, Fukami, & Shavelson, 2012; Burrowes & Nazario, 2008; Rissing & Cogan, 2009; Russell & French, 2002; Shaffer et al., 2010), but these studies often use volunteer students for the two conditions. Comparisons between volunteers may overestimate the value of research-based courses because of unsystematic differences between the two groups at the outset of the study and the self-selection of a research-based course. A small number of studies have used a randomized design, but these studies, although valuable, often rely only on student self-reports to gauge the success of the course (Brickman, Gormally, Armstrong, & Hallar, 2009; Simmons, Wu, Knight, & Lopez, 2008). To improve research-based courses, evaluations are needed that measure the achievement of nonvolunteers that are assigned to this type of course.

In this paper, we describe the content, structure, and evaluation of a recently designed and executed research-based introductory biology lab course that was taken by students who were nonvolunteers. This study is a modified replication of a previous study published in the Journal of College Science Teaching (Brownell et al., 2012), with three important differences. First, instead of volunteers, this evaluation uses nonvolunteers who were randomly assigned to this course. Second, this study uses a slightly larger sample size.

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