Laboratory work in science education | Skolforskningsinstitutet

Laboratory work in science education

This integrative mixed-methods systematic review of research on laboratory work in secondary-school science education uses a demand-driven approach, where the users of evidence participate in setting the scope.

What is this review about?

The aim of the review is to identify important aspects of how to make use of laboratory work as a science-teaching strategy in secondary schools. Despite laboratory work being part of a long tradition in science education, teachers seem to find it challenging to navigate among the suggested goals and purposes of the laboratory activities that are employed in schools.

What studies are included?

Of a sample of 11,771 studies, 39 were selected for analysis. To be eligible, studies had to focus on laboratory work involving students manipulating and/or observing real objects and collecting empirical data within authentic science learning situations.

The included studies were conducted in Asia, Europe, North America, and Oceania, with 10 out of 39 conducted in the United States. The distribution was relatively even between grades 6–9 and 10–12, respectively, as well as between school subjects of biology, physics, and chemistry.

What are the main results in this review?

The result is structured around three frameworks to inform our understanding of what characterizes laboratory work, 1) with the aim of developing students’ learning of science, 2) with the aim of developing students’ learning to do science (science practices), and 3) regarding the level of inquiry that facilitates aims 1 and 2.

Within the third framework, we use three levels: confirmatory inquiry, guided inquiry, and open inquiry. At the first level, teachers provide students with the question to be investigated and the procedure to be applied, and the results are known on beforehand. At the second level, the teacher provides students with only the research question, and students are tasked with designing the work, as well as with constructing explanations. At the third level, all aspects of the scientific investigation are open to the students.

Learning science

The review shows that laboratory work can function as a lever for learning, although students may encounter the same concepts and experience similar challenges through more theoretical learning tasks. However, the way in which the exercises are designed is crucial for success, and it appears that guided inquiry should be the first choice. If time is limited, confirmatory inquiry nevertheless seems to be more appropriate than open inquiry. Adequate guidance means that teachers utilize guiding counter-questions in response to the students’ ideas in a way that encourages them to regularly reflect on relevance for the subject content during the inquiry process.

The use of instructional approaches or tools which draw attention to the different aspects of a scientific inquiry and integrate writing about content into the teaching activities, increase students’ academic achievement. If writing is integrated into the inquiry process, students directly practice how to express a scientific claim by combining their own data with established knowledge.

Learning to do science

To learn to do science concerns both skills and knowledge of methodology, i.e., knowledge of how to carry out investigations and why they should be conducted in certain ways. Our review findings are structured according to science practices as constituent elements of laboratory inquiry: 1) ask questions and plan; 2) investigate and collect data; 3) analyze, interpret, and explain; and 4) argument, document, and communicate.

When posing questions, students need to have an initial understanding of what type of questions are realistic and reasonable in relation to what is achievable. The review emphasizes the importance to focus explicitly on question formulation and introduce students to different categories of questions, which in turn can be answered with different types of investigations. Examples of such question categories are comparative, explanatory, descriptive, and predictive questions.

Regarding the second science practice, our findings show that students need to be prepared both theoretically and practically to be able to handle laboratory procedures and various instruments.Students need support in the process of knowledge transfer, and teachers need to carefully reflect upon which laboratory procedures to introduce to their students.

Concerning the third science practice, the review clearly shows that data must be processed and linked to theoretical explanatory models to be meaningful, even when an exercise is aimed at promoting inquiry skills rather than conceptual learning. Thus, the scientific phenomenon and its underlying theory need to be thoroughly introduced and be continuously present in the minds of the students.

Regarding the fourth science practice, our review findings emphasize that careful documentation is important both as a memory and organizational tool during the laboratory work and as a thinking tool to clarify and justify scientific arguments. By using an integrated writing-to-learn strategy, the linking of theory and practice can be better accommodated, not least by continually reminding the students of how scientific arguments are constructed in terms of both content and structure.

Teaching approaches related to levels of inquiry

The review shows that there is potential in letting students take greater responsibility for their laboratory work. However, if time and other resources are limited, it may be difficult to maintain student-centered approaches as planned throughout the inquiry process, making them less effective than expected. The choice of inquiry level is dependent upon the learning goal of an activity, and a clear strategy is needed to determine what aspects of the laboratory work students should take greater responsibility for. Moreover, students in higher grades may generally have better opportunities to engage in high-level scientific inquiry, although the level of difficulty in relation to the specific context is crucial for success, regardless of grade level. Finally, our findings support the idea of approaching science practices as a matrix rather than a sequence. Instead of gradually increasing student responsibility in a given sequence, it is feasible to design laboratory exercises in a more varied way as the students’ progress through science education.

What do the findings in this review mean?

Based on the needs of secondary-school science teachers, this systematic review provides new and important knowledge about laboratory work employed to promote students’ learning of science, as well as their learning to do science. Our review findings are presented in a way that directly translates and recontextualizes science education research into teachers’ practice.

Project group

The project is carried out by a project team consisting of external researchers (specialists in the field) and employees at the Swedish Institute for Educational Research.

External researchers

  • Niklas Gericke, Professor, Karlstad University
  • Per Högström, Senior lecturer, Halmstad University

From the institute

  • Johan Wallin, PhD, Researcher/Project manager
  • Eva Bergman, Information specialist
  • Catarina Melin, Project assistant (2020–2021)
  • Maria Bergman, Project assistant (2019–2020)

The systematic review is available as summary, information sheet and full report (in Swedish).

For further information, please contact

Johan Wallin
Researcher/Project Manager
tel: +46 8 523 29 810