Implementing hands-on experiences for students in the classroom

Direct application of topics and concepts that are discuss in the classroom can enhance the learning experience for students as well as their understanding. Hands-on experiences provide a unique opportunity to test and challenge critical thinking in our students. It can be a fascinating experience for both students and instructors but it requires a lot of work, particularly in the organization of lecture and the different components that are part of it as well as coming up with activities and assignments that will put student’s skills to the test.

I have  had some experience teaching courses that are designed to be “hands-on”, here is what I learned after 2 years of teaching of an inquiry-based learning class. My first exposure to teaching an inquiry-based learning class was during my master’s, where I taught an Introductory Biology course. One of the objectives for this class was to have students develop data analysis skills and understand the different applications of the scientific method by applying different ecological concepts to it. A big part of the course consisted in students designing their own research projects based on data that they collected. For their first project, student’s were provided with all the instructions for sampling and some potential questions/topics  they could focus on. Once the data had been collected, they would come up with research questions and hypotheses. For the second half of the semester, they would design a research project from scratch and come up with an experimental design that would allow them to collect all the data needed to answer their questions and test their hypotheses. Students often found this challenging, because it was thinking “outside the box” and trying to come up with a question and a hypothesis, which often they wanted to be “right”.  Although this was somewhat challenging, the greatest challenge for students was the data analysis. Prior to taking this course, very few students had some background on data analysis or using any sort of data analysis software. When I noticed that students were struggling, I decided that it would be more beneficial to spend more time in class reinforcing those data analysis skills and start the semester with an assessment of the students knowledge regarding basic data analysis and descriptive statistics. This assessment gave me an idea of the areas I should spend more time going over in class. In addition to the assessment, I increased the amount of activities and class assignments that involved any sort of data analysis as a way to reinforce and revisit the different things students had learned throughout the semester.

Overall, the incorporation of inquiry-based learning or problem-based learning practices provides a unique opportunity to diversify the learning experience in the classroom and promote the development and application of a variety of skills. Critical thinking is  a skill that is important for students to develop but this often gets overlooked because sometimes the students focus is more on passing a class than learning from it. This on its own can be a major challenge because it directly leads to a lack of engagement which make incorporating these teaching practices more challenging.