To Inquiry or not to Inquiry . . .

Here is something to ponder as you think about your lab experiences this year:  I have been using an excellent inquiry lab for the past few years.  I think it does a fabulous job guiding the students through the amazing (yet often dull to students) world of specific heat equations and learning about calorimetry.  However, this semester, I returned to the old, traditional calorimetry lab.  I wanted to see if the inquiry lab really did make a difference.  I think it does!  I attempted to guide my students through the traditional lab using some guiding questions, but it was difficult and there was a high level of frustration.  I was tempted to give my students the answers, or to explain everything to them instead of guiding them and allowing them to discover it for themselves. 

Do you have any thoughts to share?  Have you ever returned to your old ways?  What happened?  I look forward to hearing from you as you enjoy these summer days!

Join the conversation.

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Comments 6

Stacey Haas | Thu, 06/05/2014 - 14:43


I am very interested in trying to switch many of my "cookbook" labs over to being more "inquiry based".  Would you be willing to share you specific heat inquiry lab?  It would be greatly appreciated!



Sarah Kong's picture
Sarah Kong | Tue, 06/10/2014 - 08:08

You bet, Stacey  Head to  You will be asked to sign up and after a few days you will receive a password giving you access to the lab I like (How much eneegy does it take to melt an ice cube) and dozens of other fabulous labs.  They have all been written by teachers, for teachers, and even tested by teachers.  There are student guides and teacher guides for each activity as well.  I have found them to be effective in my high school and community college classrooms.  Please let me know what you think!

~ Sarah

joanne gervais | Wed, 06/11/2014 - 19:01

The catch 22 with inquiry labs is to determine what prerequisite knowledge students need in order to make the experience worthwhile. Cookbook labs have plenty to offer if they are accompanied by the generation of a reasoned hypothesis (again prerequisite knowledge required), quantitative data collected by careful measurement, and a good set of analysis questions that require critical thinking. Both approaches are worthwhile, and one shouldn't be used to the exclusion of the other.


Dave Gervais

Deanna Cullen's picture
Deanna Cullen | Sun, 06/15/2014 - 15:02

One of the things that I like about the Target Inquiry labs that Sarah referenced is that they do provide some background information. The teacher can easily add their own if necessary. i use the labs early in the introduction to the specific topic to be taught and it is through the discussion of the results that the vocabulary and concepts are brought to light. The teacher must engage and coach throughout the lab procedure and the discussion piece is crucial. I do use some cookbook type labs that I used early in my career, but after discussing the results, we decide as a class how we can extend that lab to answer some questions that we might still have. That is a good way to take baby steps with inquiry. The students will be able to write their own procedure based upon what they did in the first lab with just a few twists. 


Erica Posthuma's picture
Erica Posthuma | Tue, 06/17/2014 - 10:07


I love the Target Inquiry activities!  TI offers some labs for uppper level concepts my current curriculum doesn't provide.  Teachers looking for more examples of guided inquiry labs can check out the sample units on Modeling Instruction.  

I recently ran accross this article from 2004 about the problem with "cookbook" labs.  

Monteyne, K., Cracolice, M.S. What's Wrong with Cookbooks? A Reply to Ault. J. Chem. Educ. 2004, 81(11), 1559-1556.

Sarah Kong's picture
Sarah Kong | Wed, 06/25/2014 - 08:58

Excellent discussion, y'all!  It is a blessing to teach in an age where we have access to so much material.  Glad to hear so many of you like Target Inquiry (TI) material.  Other aspects of TI I appreciate are the research into student misconceptions.  Knowing what directions students tend to go which leads them to faulty conclusions is helpful to me as I teach.  I can then use my guided questions in such a way that I carefully direct them and address those misconceptions head on.  Rather than students thinking these thoughts and not voicing them, we can walk right into them and discuss them together.  I also am thankful for the assessment questions.  One of my personal challenges has been writing good questions for a test that will truly reflect what a student does or does not know.  These assessment questions have been helpful for me to use directly, but also to get me thinking about how to write other good questions.  Does anyone have any other suggests about writing good assessment questions?