CDTL    Publications     Mailing List     About Brief



This issue of CDTL Brief presents the second instalment of Research Projects done by a group of PDP-T (Professional Development Programme-Teaching) participants in April 2003.

November 2003, Vol. 6, No. 11 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Personal Observations of Student-centred Learning: The Laboratory Experience
Dr Adrian Michael Lee
Department of Chemistry

In 1923, the respected biochemist and philosopher of science Haldane stated, “It is the whole business of the university teacher to induce people to think1” The laboratory class is a marvellous medium to encourage this and to help students construct knowledge. The environment is intrinsically student-centred: the student performs the experiments and interprets the results. On occasion, students need to work in small groups, either because of the complexity of the experiment or the availability of the equipment. In so doing, laboratory classes promote peer learning, teamwork and interpersonal skills. In addition, many of the experiments are problem-based in design which should help students understand concepts and theories2. However, perhaps the strongest motivating factor in favour of the laboratory class as a learning environment is the fact that students get to create things; and quite frankly, creating things is fun.

It is perplexing, therefore, to witness the laboratory class failing to realise its potential. This issue is pretty much universal in higher education. In Britain, Byers recently commented, “All too often students see laboratory work as a form of assessment rather than as an opportunity to learn3.” I believe that the problem is indeed an issue of motivation. However, the issue of motivating students is not unique to the laboratory setting. Thus rather than focussing on the laboratory, I wish to use the example of the laboratory class as a device to discuss the wider issue of inducing students to think.

We need to first consider what we want students to learn. de Bono wrote, “It must be more important to be skilled in thinking than to be stuffed with facts4.” In the context of science education, Biggs stated, “Rote learning scientific formulae may be one of the things scientists do, but it is not the way scientists think5.” Some students believe that in science there are right answers to everything and that the mastery of a particular body of scientific knowledge allows one to become an expert in the field. It is partly this belief that leads to public misconceptions about what science can and cannot do. My own philosophy of the goal of science education is certainly not original; but in my mind, rather than purely adding to a student’s existing store of knowledge, we should be promoting science education as a way of thinking6.

Consequently if we are to help students learn, we need to understand how students learn. We need to predicate our teaching on enabling learning to happen. The literature on how people learn is vast, but perhaps the most influential and accessible theories of learning, and one that certainly strikes a chord with me, is that of constructivism7. Constructivism can be summarised in the phrase: “Knowledge is constructed in the mind of the learner8.” When we teach, we need to remember that the new facts that we propound do not become directly incorporated into the mind of the student without processing; they have to be fitted into the existing structures and schemata already in the mind of the student. For the learner faced with new information, the only thing that matters is whether the knowledge constructed from this information functions satisfactorily in the context in which it arises.

Thus, individuals may construct different images of reality from the same information, since each is incorporating the new information into a unique set of mental images. This of course explains why students frequently seem to misunderstand completely or fail to remember new concepts that we introduce to them. If we are to enable students to learn, we must accept that we cannot brilliantly transfer into the minds of our students, what we have in our own minds. As a guide to help teachers teach, Ausubel stated that:

If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to one principle, I would say this: the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly9.

In applying these ideas to science teaching, it is worthwhile considering that our minds do not contain reality itself, but models of reality that we have constructed. It is important to impress upon students, who can appear to be unaware of the fact, that their concepts of, for instance, atoms and molecules, are only models. Simple models of reality provide a strong framework for a student to incorporate new ideas and so construct a more complex model. It maybe that the final model that we wish our students to understand will require us to help students construct several intermediate models.

Of course the ability of a student to construct a new model of reality is influenced not only by their prior knowledge, but also by the level of intellectual development that the individual has reached. Piaget7, the author of constructivism, gave a useful scheme of intellectual development. His research showed that children progress from ‘pre-operational thought’ to ‘concrete operational thought’ and finally through to ‘formal operational thought’. The last two levels are relevant to higher education. Concrete operational thinkers argue from concrete examples; typically, they can describe without explaining, and give examples but not general definitions derived from these examples. Formal operational thinkers, in contrast, can follow a formal argument, can set up hypotheses, and are comfortable with hypothetico-deductive reasoning10.

However, it is perhaps not the progression of intellectual development that is relevant to higher education, but the fact that students will revert to concrete operational thought whenever they encounter a new area11. Before one can reason with hypotheses and deductions based on experience, there must be a sound descriptive base that has been put in order. The problem for teachers is that we are frequently expounding to students new topics with which we are very familiar (and consequently operate in formal operational mode) whereas the students are struggling to understand them in concrete operational mode, and necessarily resort to rote learning. If a student remains a concrete operational thinker within a particular topic, it is difficult (although not impossible) for that student to see the inter-connectivity between different topics that a complete understanding of a science demands.

Traditionally, laboratory experiments have been essentially expository-type exercises. Unfortunately, most students try to keep the time they think about practical work to a minimum. The basic design of a laboratory experiment is one where the students are asked to follow a set of instructions, a recipe if you will. This enables the students to complete an experiment without ever thinking about what they are doing, thus militating against any meaningful learning taking place. It is widely appreciated that there is a need for an inquiry-type dimension to the laboratory experiment. A few innovations have been introduced to the laboratory setting. These include pre-laboratory exercises12 to encourage students to think about the experiment they are about to perform, and post-laboratory exercises13 to facilitate reflection and promote consolidation of learning.

In this article, I would like to concentrate on my experiences within the laboratory class. It would be remiss of me not to mention at least a couple of issues that relate directly to my experiences in Singapore. The laboratory classes at NUS are blessed by Teaching Assistants, who at least in my experience, are diligent and hard working. However, this diligence can sometimes play into the hands of students who are trying to minimise their own diligence. By and large, experiments work and students know they work. Some students, on realising that an experiment is failing, will not attempt to discover the reason behind this, but instead expect the Teaching Assistants to fix the experiment. Some Teaching Assistants themselves compound this issue by standing over the students and stopping an experiment if they see that the data coming out are going awry. It took me awhile to realise what was happening for the lingua franca between the majority of the teaching assistants and the majority of the students is Chinese of which I have no understanding. An issue that was my responsibility, and the effects of which are completely opposed to my teaching philosophy, is that I allowed the students to write laboratory reports after class. Frequently, the experiments are classics of their type and detailed descriptions of the theory and the results that one might expect can be found in standard textbooks. It is singularly difficult to motivate students to rediscover this knowledge for themselves, rather than copy it verbatim from a textbook. I will not be allowing this practice to be repeated in future classes I supervise.

Within the laboratory class, it was clear that if I wanted any meaningful learning to take place, I had to become directly involved in the learning process. So I employed Socratic questioning. For me, this method works because in questioning the students, I gain an insight into their current level of knowledge from which I can then help guide the students construct the necessary more complex model they require to understand the concept at hand. It also allows me to help the students identify the fundamental principles and the links between diverse concepts. For the student, I believe it helps build confidence. I can introduce concepts at a rate dependent on the student’s ability, and thus, the student feels inclined to venture into areas of higher understanding where such a student may have been embarrassed to venture in a tutorial setting with that student’s peers looking on. In increasing the student–teacher interaction, the student gets full and appropriate feedback. I find that after helping a student construct the requisite knowledge, that student is inclined to ask questions about their newfound knowledge. This has the additional benefit of highlighting any misconceptions I may have introduced. If feedback to these questions is given appropriately with the proper encouragement, then that student’s confidence and motivation is increased. However, I would not like to give the impression that this method is some sort of panacea. For instance, I was fortunate that the class sizes were small. This is not the norm. Many laboratory classes can number a hundred or more and then the attention that one can give individual students is limited and the method of teaching would need to be modified.

I have been rather liberal in my use of quotations during this discourse. However, I hope that they have been useful in illuminating the concepts that I have introduced and my thinking concerning teaching. In conclusion, I would like to leave you with a final quotation that returns us to why, how and what we are trying to teach to our students. In 1929, the eminent philosopher and mathematician Whitehead turned his thoughts to education and wrote:

In my own work at universities I have been much struck by the paralysis of thought induced in pupils by the aimless accumulation of precise knowledge, inert and unutilised. It should be the chief aim of the university professor to exhibit himself in his true character—that is as an ignorant man thinking, actively utilising this small share of knowledge. In a sense, knowledge shrinks as wisdom grows: for details are swallowed up in principles. The details of knowledge which are important will be picked up ad hoc in each avocation of life, but the habit of the active utilisation of well-understood principles is the final possession of wisdom14.

It is clear that motivating students to think has been an elusive goal of educators for a very long time.


1 Haldane, J.B.S. (1923). Daedalus, or Science and the Future. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner. This paper was read before the Cambridge Heretics, a radical freethinking society established in 1909 and dedicated, inter alia, to the open discussion of religious matters.

2 The laboratory class provides perhaps some of the earliest examples of problem-based learning. In fact, von Liebig at the University of Giessen in Germany first introduced laboratory classes for general student use as early as the 1820s.

3 Byers, W. (2002). ‘Promoting Active Learning through Small Group Laboratory Classes’. University Chemistry Education. Vol. 6, pp. 28–34.

4 de Bono, Edward. (1967). The Five Day Course in Thinking. London: Penguin.

5 Biggs, J.B. (1989). ‘Approaches to the Enhancement of Tertiary Teaching’. Higher Education Research and Development. Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 7–25.

6 Kuhn, D. (1993). ‘Science as Argument: Implications for Teaching and Learning Scientific Thinking’. Science Education. Vol. 77, No. 3, pp. 319–337.

7 Piaget, J. (1926). La représentation du monde chez l’enfant, Paris: Librairie Félix Alcan. Translated as The Child’s Conception of the World by Tomlinson, J. & Tomlinson, A. (1929). London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner.

8 Bodner, G.M. (1986). ‘Constructivism: A Theory of Knowledge’. Journal of Chemical Education. Vol. 63, pp. 873–878.

9 Ausubel, D.P. (1986). Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View. New York: Rinehart and Winston, Inc.

10 For example, we can consider gravity. People have always known that what goes up must come down. Concrete operational thinkers can describe the force of attraction between objects and of course give diverse examples. However, prior to the publication of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, we did not have a working hypothesis for why the apple falls from the tree towards the Earth; instead it was considered a Law of Nature. In developing his theory of gravitation, Newton asked why do objects fall towards the Earth. It is the asking of this question that contrasts the concrete with the formal operational thinker. The brilliance of Newton’s theory was not that it explained why objects, like the apple, fall towards the Earth, but that it explained the ocean tides, why the Moon orbits the Earth and why the Planets orbit the Sun.

11 Bailey, P.D. & Garratt, J. (2002). ‘Chemical Education: Theory and Practice’. University Chemistry Education. Vol. 6, pp. 39–57.

12 Johnstone, A.H.; Sleet, R.J. & Vianna, J.F. (1994). ‘An Information Processing Model of Learning: Its Application to an Undergraduate Laboratory Course in Chemistry’. Studies in Higher Education. Vol. 19, pp. 77–88.

13 Johnstone, A.H. (1997). ‘Chemical Education, Science or Alchemy?’. Journal of Chemical Education. Vol. 74, pp. 262–268. Ditzier, M.A. & Ricci, R.W. (1994). ‘Discover Chemistry: Balancing Creativity and Structure.’ Journal of Chemical Education. Vol. 71, pp. 685–688.

14 Whitehead, A.N. (1929). The Aims of Education and Other Essays. New York: Macmillan. The chapter, ‘The Rhythmic Claims of Freedom and Discipline’, from which the quotation was lifted was originally published in the Hibbert Journal.

 First Look articles

Search in
Email the Editor
Inside this issue
Personal Observations of Student-centred Learning: The Laboratory Experience
Learning and Coping as Dental Students
Decoding the DNA of NUS Students: A Survey of Student Learning Habits
The Role of Proper Questions