Just read a series of interesting articles on inquiry based science:

Inquiry Science rocks: Or does it – David Klahr tries to test the efficacy of discovery learning (APS News 12. 2012).

Direct Instruction rocks: Or does it – Richard Hake takes issue with Klahr’s inferences.

To be contrasted with:

The Efficacy of Student-Centered Instruction in Supporting Science Learning – Granger et al Science 338 105 (2012) [sub]

The amount of data on the efficacy of the different teaching methods is still pathetically small.

I am inclined to believe that student center instruction or inquiry science is better for learning, and I plan to expand my use of it next year, but I remain worried by various confounders which I have not seen adequately explored.

One issue is that the curriculum I have seen for instruction science tends to accommodate the pedagogy by reducing content.
It is, all things being equal, easier to get proficient if there is less to learn.
Also, there are persistent whisper of propensity to “teach to the test” when the pedagogical alternatives are tested, particularly when working towards the best metrics for learning like the Concept Inventory tests – certainly the temptation must be there by the instructor, whether subliminal or volitional.
Impossible to prove.

Based on my personal, anecdotal experience, I suspect that more basic issues in science teaching are that courses are not in tight enough sequence and fail to repeat, reinforce and build on previous material, and, due to the same modularity, testing is concurrent and therefore does not test for retention of concepts.
A much stronger test of learning is to revisit the material ~ a year later and test for comprehension and retention then.

I don’t have the answers, and I don’t think there is one unique approach that works better for all students – but it gets to be very discouraging to see new pedagogial fads come through, with nary a mention of the previous fad, or the one before that…

In the meantime:

A Truly Devastating Graph on State Higher Education Spending – from the Atlantic


  1. #1 Scott
    May 4, 2013

    Here is a neat study that found, when they moved to more emphasis on inquiry, they covered less content (as you mention) but test scores improved even on the content that was omitted. Less teaching, more learning: 10-yr study supports increasing student learning through less coverage and more inquiry

  2. #2 Michael Richmond
    May 7, 2013

    Great! Now all we have to do for our introductory physics classes is to find a common ground among the chemistry, math, and engineering departments: exactly WHICH topics should we drop from the class so that we can spend extra time on discovery learning?

    You can do this at home: look at any first-year physics textbook and decide which 10 of the 40 chapters should be omitted.

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