Roundtable Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia 2015

The analysis of inquiry in students' conversations in the biochemistry laboratory (#184)

Jatnika Hermawan 1 , J. Zoe Jordens 1
  1. Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand

The working world of science demands social skills and inquiry skills. However, a traditional undergraduate laboratory often fails to involve these skills. Even in inquiry-based learning, little research has been conducted on how students actually inquire.  This study aimed to investigate the nature of student inquiry in an undergraduate biochemistry laboratory class at a New Zealand university. The conversations within groups of third-year students investigating protein biochemistry during three laboratory sessions were recorded and transcribed for analysis. NVivo was used to help analyse the conversations for categories associated with inquiry, derived from the literature or emerging from the data.

The majority of conversations concerned ‘what’ questions, requiring definitive answers, with very few asking ‘why’. There was relatively little inquiry, despite the laboratory being structured for inquiry-based learning. Notwithstanding,  most of the topics discussed by the students were relevant to the laboratory class and included procedures, equipment, theoretical concepts, laboratory skills, calculations and management with little social chat. Theoretical concepts, expected to elicit higher order thinking (for example, analysing, synthesising or evaluating), were discussed infrequently by students.

Analysis of the conversations revealed how the initiation, response, extension and closure of the conversation occurs in a group. The teacher more often initiated with a question, suggestion or direction; a student more often offered a question, to fellow student or teacher, seeking guidance or confirmation.

Initial findings suggest the need for better pre-class (and pre-300 level) preparation by students. A focus from teaching staff on the key theoretical concepts, encouraged through more questioning that promotes higher-order thinking, is also suggested.

Questions for discussion:

What other sort of analysis may be helpful?

How can the findings be used to influence teachers’, students’, and Institutions’ practice?  

Addressing the theme/s of the Conference (up to 200 words recommended)

Undergraduate science education has important roles in preparing students for working in science and contributing an understanding of science to the wider world. Science is based on a process of inquiry that is clearly evident in most professional and research laboratories; these are complex environments where results are often uncertain and problem-solving skills are essential. However little is known about how students use inquiry in undergraduate laboratories, or how to encourage the development of these skills.

Inquiry based learning (IBL) is increasingly being advocated and used in undergraduate science education. University teaching staff often require additional skills to be able to implement IBL effectively as few have teaching qualifications; they too have to navigate uncertainty.

This study aims to investigate the nature of student inquiry and to provide a framework to help university teachers navigate an uncertain and complex teaching landscape that will contribute to improving science graduates’ ability to navigate the complex working world of science and life beyond university.

We would like to use this in a PhD Roundtable