Academic journal article High School Journal

Multiple Perspectives on Student Learning, Engagement, and Motivation in High School Biology Labs

Academic journal article High School Journal

Multiple Perspectives on Student Learning, Engagement, and Motivation in High School Biology Labs

Article excerpt

We present three studies pertaining to learning, engagement and motivation during laboratory lessons in three high school biology classrooms. In the first, quantitative methods are used to compare students' in-the-moment reports of learning, engagement, and motivation during laboratory with other classroom activities. Data were collected with the Experience Sampling Method (ESM). Students reported equivalent learning, less engagement, lower relevance and more enjoyment and interest during lab than during other activities. In the second study, video data from one laboratory lesson pertaining to pH in those classes was coded using event sampling and discourse analysis in an effort to understand the students' reports. A scientist with expertise in the lab topic also watched the videos while thinking aloud. Results showed that the lab was limited in terms of practices promoting learning, engagement and relevance. Finally, responses from an interview with each teacher and the scientist about the goals and relevance of the laboratory for students were analyzed to shed further light on the findings from the first two studies. Results are discussed in terms of how laboratory lessons might be improved to enhance student learning, engagement, and motivation.


Experts have long recommended implementing more laboratory activities during high school science classes in order to improve student motivation, engagement, and learning (Hofstein & Lunetta, 2004; NCES, 2002). Labs are suggested as one way to address the much discussed low knowledge levels and student interest in science (Bizzo, et al., 2002; NSB, 2004). Given the ubiquity and perceived value of laboratory activities, there has been surprisingly little recent research on laboratory lessons in high school science classes. Many existing studies were conducted before the recent reforms and standards in science education so those studies may be outdated.

In the three studies described here, we investigate lab activities from multiple perspectives including those of students, their teachers, a practicing scientist and our own theoretically grounded view as educational psychologists with expertise in teacher preparation. These different perspectives allow us to paint a more complete picture of the lab experience and to identify possible improvements. The first study examined students' subjective experiences in labs. Understanding the student perspective about educational activities is central to understanding learning, engagement, motivation, and promoting inquiry (Daniels & Shumow, 2003; Phelan, Davidson, & Yu, 1998). To help us to interpret and expand upon our findings from Study One regarding the student perspective, the second study used observational methods to investigate teachers' instructional practices during one lab, as instructional practices are one potential source of influence on students' classroom experiences. To better understand the instructional practices identified in Study Two, the third study garnered teachers' perceptions and beliefs about the lab we observed. In this third study a practicing scientist contributed a crucial perspective on science content, practice, and relevance.

Study One: Students' Subjective Experiences in High School Biology Class

This study focused on students' subjective experiences in biology classrooms to examine whether students experienced lab activities differently than other activities in terms of perceived learning, engagement and motivation. McLaughlin and Talbert (2001) argued convincingly that classroom practices "fundamentally shape students' classroom experiences" (p. 32). Several research studies, which were conducted between thirty and forty years ago, found that laboratory activities were associated with positive affect and improved motivation (see Hofstein & Luneta, 2004 for a review). More recently, researchers studying high school students in a variety of subjects found that active lessons are preferred to passive lessons and that individual or small group activities are preferable to whole group instruction (Shernoff, Csikszentmihalyi, Schneider, & Steele-Shernoff, 2003). …

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