Three Reasons You're Afraid to Ditch the Recipe-Style Labs

83: 3 Reasons You’re Afraid to Ditch the Recipe-Style Science Labs

May 17, 2021

Are you using recipe-style science labs in your classroom? While these activities are common, they don’t teach students how to plan and carry out investigations. In this episode, Erin discusses the main reasons that teachers are afraid to ditch these recipe-style labs. Then, she provides easy to implement solutions.

If you are interested in learning more about student-driven investigations, get on the waitlist for Erin’s Student-Driven Investigations Course.

What are recipe-style science labs?

Recipe-style science labs are the type of labs that we are familiar with. These are typically hand-outs that students fill in. Students follow a step-by-step procedure. By following this procedure, they get the desired result.

Typically, this investigation reinforces what students have learned during the lecture part of the class.

What’s wrong with recipe-style labs?

These type of labs may still have a place in your classroom. But ultimately, we want students to Plan and Carry out their own investigations.  We want them to fully understand experimental design.  And, giving them a lab where the procedure is already set doesn’t help them understand how to plan an investigation.

Why are teachers afraid to ditch the recipe-style science labs?

There are three major reasons that teachers are afraid to give students control of investigations. Here they are, along with possible solutions.

Problem 1: You are afraid of losing control.

Often, teachers imagine that student-driven investigations are a free-for-all. Making sure that students know the procedures is an important part of running a well-managed classroom. It’s not unreasonable to think that without well-defined procedures, chaos will ensue.

Solution: Provide clear boundaries and expectations.

When you allow students to design their own investigations, your role in the classroom changes. You act more as a facilitator than the “sage on the stage”. However, that doesn’t mean that boundaries don’t exist.

Make sure that students understand the purpose of the investigation. Then, review the expectations for the investigation just as you would for a recipe-style lab.

Finally, create some clear boundaries. For example, let students know what materials are and aren’t available for their investigation. Also, approve student-procedures before allowing them to conduct their investigations.

Problem 2: Your students lack lab skills.

Your students enter your room with poor lab skills. Unfortunately, since science instruction is often de-emphasized, this is a very common problem. It’s difficult to have your students plan and carry out an investigation when they don’t know what they are doing.

You can't control what happens outside of your classroom.  You can't control what your students come in with.  But, you can make sure that students leave with stronger skills than they came in with.
-Erin Sadler

Solution: Scaffold and Make Mistakes a Part of the Learning Process

You can’t change what happens outside of your classroom. But, you can make sure that your students leave with stronger skills than when they entered your classroom. Still, this will take a lot of scaffolding.

Take a look at the NSTA Matrix for the Science and Engineering Practices. This document provides a progression across grade-level bands. One way that you can scaffold the practices is by looking at the grade band before yours to get ideas. In some cases, especially if you are a high school teacher, you may have to go back farther.

Also, it’s important to make sure that students are getting regular feedback so that they are learning from their mistakes. But, whenever possible, it’s important to do this in a way that doesn’t create more work for you.

Often, students struggle with taking accurate measurements. So, make sure that students have a way to share their data with the class.

Put a table on your whiteboard and have students come up and enter their data. Or, create and share a Google Sheet™ and ask students to input data. Then, ask students to review their data as a class and ask them to identify data that doesn’t make sense. Finally, when time allows, have students go back and redo any measurements that were identified as incorrect.

Problem 3: Not Enough Time

When students have to design their investigations, it takes longer than when you provide them with the procedure. And, as previously discussed, you often have to also teach them skills that they really should have come into your class with.

But, if you don’t help them develop these skills no one will. So, its important to take the time that is needed to help students with experimental design.

Solution: Ditch the methods that don’t work to free up time for experimental design.

Time is limited in our classroom. So, we have to make sure that we make the best use of it. Many practices that are used in science classes are actually a waste of time. Here are a few that you can ditch to get some of that time back.

  • Front-loading vocabulary. Check out this episode to learn more
  • Teaching the scientific method or all of the practices at the start of the school year. Learn why this practice isn’t ideal in this episode.
  • Providing explanations before students have time to explore. Learn more about a discovery-based approach here.

These practices waste a considerable amount of class time because don’t give students a solid context. Ditching these methods frees up considerable time that can be devoted to experimental design.

Context Matters

Ditch the Recipe-Style Science Labs with the Student-Driven Investigations Course

If you are interested in ditching the recipe-style labs and would like more support, get on the waitlist for Erin’s Student-Driven Investigations Course. The course will teach you everything you need to know to help students with the experimental design process.

Here are some of the concepts covered in the course:

  • Ditching the Scientific Method
  • Customizing a Plan for Your Students
  • Developing Scaffolds
  • Incorporating the Other Science and Engineering Practices

The waitlist is open now. Fill out the form below to save your spot.