Can Team- and Inquiry-based Methodologies Work in a Field Laboratory?


  • Athena Rayne Anderson

Note: William Bromer is the editor of Ecology 101. Anyone wishing to contribute articles or reviews to this section should contact him at the Department of Natural Sciences, University of St. Francis, 500 N. Wilcox, Joliet, IL 60435, (815) 740-3467, e-mail:


The traditional 50-minute lecture does little to stimulate significant learning among students, and falls short of achieving the higher levels of Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning (Anderson and Krathwohl 2001, Fink 2003). In the lecture methodology, the instructor is a fact-delivery machine, and students are passive receiving vessels. Students commonly complain of boredom with lectures and their preparation for class focuses on achieving a high final exam score.

A large body of research supports the use of active learning methods in the undergraduate classroom (for example, Fink [2003] and Knight and Wood [2005]). Integration of discussions, role-playing, debates, and case studies are several simple yet powerful ways to make learning an active and meaningful experience. Inquiry-based learning is an active method that has been successful across many disciplines (for example, Grant and Vatnik [1998], Rivers [2002]). Rather than telling students what to do and how to do it, this approach encourages students to develop their own questions and methodology for investigation. During the process, students not only learn content material, but they develop tools for answering their own questions that transcend the boundaries of a single class. By engaging students in the process of doing research, from hypothesis formation to presentation of results, they learn what it means to “think like scientists” (Chaplin 2003). This experience is not only valuable for the students' concept of how real science works, but it greatly increases their investment in class activities (Green et al. 2004).

Team-based learning is another strategy for creating an active classroom (Michaelson et al. 2002). With this methodology, students work in permanent groups to achieve course goals. This strategy also differs from traditional lecturing in that students learn content basics on their own and spend time in class working on assignments that emphasize deep learning (for example, critical thinking and analysis strategies) (Anderson and Krathwohl 2001). Students are evaluated individually and for their performance as a team member. Research shows that students of all backgrounds and learning styles are more motivated, learn more, and develop social skills when taught in this manner (Michaelsen et al. 2002). Also, having students turn in their work as teams decreases the workload for them and their instructors, while giving them valuable experience collaborating with peers on major assignments.

While inquiry- and team-based learning methodologies have been tested in typical college laboratory and classroom settings, few studies have explored their use in field-oriented laboratories. This study redesigned an introductory field-based ecology lab using inquiry- and team-based strategies in an attempt to increase student engagement and motivation, and provide a more authentic learning experience. Several hypotheses were tested:

  1. Student overall satisfaction with teamwork would increase due to the redesign.

  2. Teamwork would have a positive impact on student motivation to learn lab material.

  3. Students would report that teamwork helped them learn lab material.

  4. Student perceptions of how often teamwork is used in the “real world” would increase as a result of the redesign.


ECOL 3500 (Ecology) is taken as an elective by many Biology majors and is a requirement for all Ecology majors at the University of Georgia (UGA). A typical semester enrolls ~200 undergraduate students. This course redesign was implemented in ECOL 3500 laboratories in the fall semester of 2009.

Inquiry-based learning

With the original structure, students went on several trips to explore field sites, including a forest trail, an old field, a stream, and a working farm. The stream site was visited twice and students conducted a “cookbook-type” experiment there in which they were provided with hypotheses and instructions for data collection. Other site visits were conducted as learning “tours” in which the instructor lectured and led students around the site, while students answered questions from a handout that would be graded afterwards.

The lab was redesigned so that students visited the same sites as with the original structure, but each site was visited twice to allow for more in-depth research instruction. During the first site visit students learned data-collection methods (for example, sweep-netting and soil-coring), and collected preliminary data for a research project. The second site visit was devoted entirely to data collection for the same project.

Students completed two research projects during the semester. For the first, they decided as a class what they wanted to investigate, then collaborated to collect and share data for use in a written journal-style report. This served as a research warm-up to get students into the mind-set of designing experiments, and was worth a smaller percentage of their grade than the second project.

The second project required that students submit 2–3 hypotheses they wanted to investigate before the first visit to a site. This first visit began with a demonstration of data collection methods, followed by a guided brainstorming session to formulate an appropriate experimental design. Students then spent the remainder of the lab period collecting data. Based on observations and data collected during this first visit, students were allowed to modify their hypotheses and experimental designs, if appropriate, before the second visit.

After collecting all their data, students spent an entire lab session learning appropriate analysis techniques (i.e., t tests, chi-squared analysis). At the end of the semester, students turned in a report of their findings in professional journal format, and presented their research to the rest of the lab in a mock symposium. All steps of the research process were components of students' final grades.

Team-based learning

With the original structure, all student work was submitted individually, including the paper for the collaborative stream experiment.

In the lab redesign, students were randomly assigned to permanent teams during the first lab meeting. There were four teams, each with 3–5 students. Teams chose the field site they were most interested in for their research project (described above), unless two teams wanted to study the same site. If this was the case, a method was devised to determine which team would study which site (i.e., a coin toss) so that each team conducted their research at a different site. This was important so that all sites were investigated, and to ensure that each team was doing a unique study.

The team that was doing their research at a site was in charge of the other teams during both visits to that site. Once an experimental design was decided upon, the research team delegated responsibilities for data collection among themselves and the other teams. This was done to (1) encourage a collaborative atmosphere, (2) give all students the opportunity to collect data at all sites, and (3) minimize the number of idle students. At the end of the semester, students submitted their reports and presented their research as a team.

Before the first visit to each site, students completed a Readiness Assessment Test (RAT). This short quiz served to (1) hold students accountable for required readings, (2) provide frequent low-stakes assessments, (3) provide immediate feedback on student understanding of material, (4) provide individual and team grades, and (5) demonstrate the benefits of collaboration in science. Students first completed the RAT individually, without consulting class materials or their teammates. Without knowing their score on their individual attempt, students then completed the RAT as a team, coming to a consensus about their answers and receiving a team score. After the team RAT, the instructor discussed each question and addressed student concerns about the material. The RATs were an important aspect of the redesign because they required students to introduce themselves to the background information for a site or concept. This freed lab time for demonstration of research methods and data collection.

Both team and individual effort were components of students' final lab grades. To minimize problems with student laziness, peer evaluations of team members influenced a student's grade. For example, if a student was rated as not contributing sufficiently to an assignment, that student received a lower percentage of the team's score for the assignment.


An anonymous five-point survey tool was used to measure student motivation and attitudes at the beginning (pre, n = 102) and end of the semester (post, n = 111) (Table 1). There was no significant difference between responses on pre and post surveys for questions 1–5. Pre and post results for these questions were subsequently combined, and a chi-squared test was used to compare frequencies of positive responses (i.e., satisfied + highly satisfied), and negative responses (i.e., dissatisfied + highly dissatisfied) for each question. Responses for question 6 were significantly different between pre and post surveys; responses to this question were therefore analyzed using a Mann-Whitney U test in which the median score was compared between surveys.

Table 1. Survey questions used to investigate effects of lab redesign on student attitudes and motivation.Thumbnail image of

Laboratory instructors (n = 5) were also surveyed anonymously at the end of the semester for their impressions of the success of the redesign. Each instructor taught three sections for a total of ~45 students during the semester.


Instructor grading load per semester decreased from more than 400 major assignments (1+ pages) with the original structure to only 27 with the redesign. All instructors involved responded that they would rather teach ECOL 3500 labs with the redesign than with the original structure, due to a decreased grading load and perceived higher student involvement.

Student individual workload per semester decreased from 4 major assignments (1+ pages) to zero with the redesign (all major assignments were completed as teams).

Survey responses showed that students viewed teamwork in a laboratory setting favorably (Table 2). Student perceptions of how often scientists work in teams in the “real world” increased significantly (P = 0.02) from the pre to post surveys (Fig. 1).

Figure 1.

Student responses to pre- and postsurvey question: “How often do you think scientists work in teams in the “real world?” (very frequently, frequently, as often as they work alone, almost never, never).” Frequently category = very frequently + frequently responses; Infrequently category = almost never + never responses. Survey 1 (pre) N = 102, Survey 2 (post) N = 111.

Table 2. Results from survey investigating effects of lab redesign on student attitudes and motivation (chi-squared test). Symbols “+”, “–”, and “n” denote numbers of positive, negative, and neutral responses, respectively.Thumbnail image of


Survey results supported both hypotheses about students' perceptions of the utility of teamwork; students reported that teamwork helped them learn lab material, and that it increased their motivation to do so. Student satisfaction with the use of teamwork in laboratories did not increase as a result of the redesign, but students reported a high level of satisfaction with teamwork during the semester. Finally, student perceptions of how often teamwork is used in the “real world” increased as a result of the redesign.

Based on these results, the ECOL 3500 redesign was successful in facilitating student motivation and engagement, and decreasing instructor and student workload. This study supports previous findings on the utility of team- and inquiry-based methodologies in the college environment (for example, Kolkhorst et al. [2001], Myers and Burgess [2003], Lightner et al. [2008]). The author has several suggestions for instructors who wish to implement similar changes in their courses:

  1. Train students in good teamwork skills. The redesign would have been improved had several short sessions on effective team management and communication been integrated into activities. Students often needed coaching in the areas of giving and receiving constructive criticism, compromise, and cooperation. These observations support published research on the need to instruct students in conflict management and group dynamics (Winter et al. 2005, Hamlyn-Harris et al. 2006, Phillips et al. 2007).

  2. Keep teams small or use online editing sites. If students will be required to collaborate outside of class time, such as on major writing assignments, having more than three students per team could pose a scheduling problem. This is in contrast to the recommendation of Michaelsen et al. (2002) that in-class teams consist of 5–7 students. The nature of ECOL 3500 labs did not allow in-class time to be devoted to collaborative writing, so students were forced to meet outside of class time to work on major assignments. Teams with 4 or more students commonly complained of scheduling difficulties. The author suggests either limiting teams to 2–3 students or implementing online editing sites. For instance, GoogleDocs would allow students to edit each other's written work without having to meet face to face.

  3. Ensure that instructors maximize research potential during both site visits. The author noted the temptation among instructors to treat the first site visit as less important than the second. Releasing students from lab without having them collect preliminary data during the first visit defeats the purpose of visiting a site twice. One of the goals of the redesign was to give students an authentic learning experience; they learn what it means to do science when they collect data, learn from their mistakes, and modify their design for future use. Finally, have students collect as much data as time allows and teach them the value of appropriate sample size.

  4. Ensure that team evaluations are anonymous. Peer evaluations are used so that students have a way to tell the instructor if a member of their team is not contributing. For this redesign, students were instructed to fill out a form before coming to lab and turn it in on the due date. Instead of completing the form in privacy, most students brought it to lab and filled it out in front of their teammates. Post-semester surveys contained many comments that students were unhappy with some of their teammates, but they did not voice their concerns on their team evaluation forms. The author suggests having students e-mail the form, rather than bringing it to class, to encourage honest evaluations.

The survey results from this study suggest that team- and inquiry-based methodologies can be successful in a field-oriented laboratory course. Overall, both methods were well received by students and instructors. As a result of the teamwork aspect, students became more aware of the common use of collaboration in real-world science. Also, students reported that the use of teamwork helped them learn and increased their motivation to do so.

It remains to be tested whether this redesign affected student learning. While student-reported changes in attitudes and learning are valuable, quantitative analysis is necessary to determine the effectiveness of any teaching method (see Handelsman et al. 2004). One of the original goals of this study was to compare student laboratory grades between the semester of the redesign and a previous semester taught with the original structure. Unfortunately, this was not possible due to a number of uncontrollable variables. The author urges that anyone implementing changes to facilitate student learning consider doing so in a way that can be rigorously tested. With advanced planning, most classroom innovations could contribute to our scholarship of teaching and learning.


The author thanks Jim Richardson and the Odum School of Ecology Undergraduate Committee for supporting this research. Thanks also to Kaitlin McLean, Bill McDowell, Christina Baker, and Marcia Snyder for their willingness to implement the redesign. Thanks to C. Ronald Carroll, Luanna Prevost, and William Bromer for reviewing an earlier version of the manuscript. Paul Quick and Peggy Brickman provided invaluable advice, and the UGA Center for Teaching and Learning provided funding for equipment that improved instruction in ECOL 3500 labs.