Dordt College News

New learning labs teach problem solving

January 25, 2013

Professors are often surprised to see what students come up with when they’re given the opportunity to explore.

“Most students are capable of doing more than we expect or ask of them,” says Dr. Darren Stoub, a chemistry professor.

“We’re in the business of showing them what they are capable of.”

To do this, Stoub and his colleagues in the sciences are moving to discovery-based labs.

“In discovery-based labs, you give students a basic idea of what they are trying to solve, but you don’t tell them how to do it,” says Stoub. This method forces students to be more engaged in their work.

College labs have long used “cookie-cutter” experiments: tried and true assignments conducted with a set of specific instructions for each student to follow. While this approach helps students learn to follow instructions and to use lab instruments and techniques, it doesn’t give them the freedom to do creative problem solving. Dordt’s science faculty think students learn better and find their studies more interesting if they’re allowed to explore.

Many Dordt labs have already changed. Last semester, lab instructor Traci Hoogland (’11) helped develop labs she says she would have enjoyed as a student. In these labs, students are presented with a problem and asked to design their own experiments and find their own solutions. Traditional labs laid out the problem and gave each student instructions that would lead them to a predetermined solution.

Hoogland tried to create labs that challenged advanced students without leaving behind those who are struggling.

“The labs are harder and messier, they’re not always organized, and they can feel discombobulated—but that’s what real life is,” says Stoub. He is noticing that students seem more interested in the results of their experiments.

“Sometimes step-by-step instructions can make students stop thinking about what they are doing and just blindly follow the directions,” says Hoogland. “They don’t necessarily care about the results, and if something goes wrong or they miss a step in the process, they get frustrated and want to throw up their hands and say, ‘It didn’t work. Are we done now?’”

Stoub has observed that students are beginning to ask more insightful questions. Instead of asking whether or not they did the experiment correctly, they ask thoughtful questions about how to use a specific technique or how to explain the data they’ve gathered.

Hanna Wagenaar, a sophomore nursing student, finds the new discovery-based human anatomy and physiology (HAP) labs exciting.

“In other labs, everyone is doing the same thing,” she says. “In the HAP lab, you have to come up with something that will benefit your learning. It is definitely more personalized.”

What’s more, Wagenaar can tailor the lab to her field of interest. She, along with her lab partners, was told to conduct an experiment related to the muscular system. As a nursing student, she was interested in whether she could truly measure muscle atrophy using a tape measure, a common health care practice.

“I could see how this project was important to my future as a nurse and how it could help my patients,” said Wagenaar.

Instead of evaluating the results of the experiments, professors now focus more on the work that has gone into the experiment.

Discovery-based learning also helps prepare students for graduate school.

“Sometimes people think we need to teach more content to better prepare students for graduate school, but there is so much content in the sciences that we can never address everything,” said Stoub. “Instead, we need to teach our students how to deal with it.”

Stoub and his colleagues realize it will take time to get full buy-in from students.

“They’ve been taught structured experimentation their whole lives, and we’re forcing them out of that mold. But everything we are doing in our labs is based on scientific data and literature that supports this way of doing research,” he says.

Wagenaar sees the value of the new method. “If you are willing to put time into your lab, you can come up with something cool. The labs are not as easy as a step-by-step lab, but you learn so much more because you do so much more problem solving. You’re finding things out for yourself.”


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