Scholarly Communications Project

Investigative Learning in an Undergraduate Biology Laboratory: an Investigation into Reform in Science Education


Woodrow L. McKenzie

Dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of

Doctorate of Philosophy


Dr. George E. Glasson, Chair
Dr. Arthur L. Buikema
Dr. Darrel A. Clowes
Dr. Jan K. Nespor
Dr. C. David Taylor

June 20, 1996
Blacksburg, Virginia


This study examined an innovative, project-based curriculum in a freshman biology laboratory by focusing on how students developed their conceptual understanding of a biological species. A model for learning was posed based on learners working in small groups. This model linked a socio-cultural approach to teaching and learning to conceptual change theory. Qualitative research methods were employed to collect a variety of data. Documentation of this innovative curriculum is provided. This investigative curriculum incorporated the research practices that scientists use. A wide range of dynamic interactions with students actively investigating problems and sharing both their findings and thoughts during this time occurred. This essentially modeled the authentic practices of scientists. A direct comparison was made with this learning environment and the model for learning. Peer tutoring, cooperative learning, and most importantly, peer collaboration were observed when students grappled with difficult problems for which there was no single right answer. Teachers served as guides in learning, shifting responsibility to the students. Analysis of student writing revealed richer, more complex definitions of species after the experience of the laboratory project. Several of the students used knowledge gained directly from their experiences during the laboratory project to help elaborate their definitions. The electronic discussions showed a range of social interactions and interactivity. High quality discussions were found to be rich in scientific thought, engaging discussants by offering information, questioning, and actively hypothesizing. Mediating and facilitating discussions by the participants was found to be an important factor in their success. Groups exhibiting high quality discussions also had a lower response time than other groups, indicating that more substantive dialogues which are rich in thought proceed at a slower pace. Significantly, an important connection has been made between the socio-cultural approach to learning and conceptual change theory. A closer examination of how small groups of learners develop conceptual understanding is needed. This approach also needs to be extended into other settings where reform in science education is taking place.

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