Engaging students and improving learning outcomes with inquiry based biology practical classes


  • Karen Burke da Silva
  • Zonnetje Auburn
  • Narelle Hunter
  • Jeanne Young


By providing tertiary students with practical laboratory experiences that are academically stimulating, students are more likely to engage meaningfully with the task and subsequently achieve a higher assessment grade. The importance of basing practical experiences on realistic inquiry is recognised throughout the literature and is more consistent with constructivist approaches to learning than traditional content driven practical activities (Cunningham, McNear, Pearlman and Kearn 2006; Myers and Burgess 2003; Zion and Sadeh 2007); tertiary educators were initially slow to change their methodologies (Sundberg, Armstrong, Dini and Wischusen 2000) but an increasing number are incorporating inquiry based approaches (Sundberg, Armstrong and Wischusen 2005) with good results and support from national science and education organizations (FitsPatrick 2004; Myers and Burgess 2003). We incorporated an engaging inquiry driven laboratory exercise for first year biology students and compared the average grades achieved from the resulting report with the grades achieved by the same students in less engaging ‘recipe book’ exercises. Student grades for combined practical assignments in which outcomes were predetermined, and the visualisation component focussed on static subjects, had a combined mean final grade of 74.01% (±15.48SD). In contrast, the average grade for the inquiry based exercise was 82.0% (±12.9SD). Surveys indicated that students not only enjoyed the new exercise format more than other practical exercises offered, but could see the value of it to their learning. We believe these results were achieved because students could not complete the new exercise if they did not engage with the task both academically and visually. These kinds of practical opportunities encourage a constructivist learning environment, which enable students to learn and gain insight into difficult concepts, in ways not possible from traditional lectures experienced in a tertiary setting. Many students expressed their interest and enthusiasm in this practical exercise, with 20% of students surveyed volunteering that it was ‘the best practical of the whole semester’.