Science teachers sour on hands-on labs

Hands-on science labs waste time, teachers at a Florida middle school tell the Palm Beach Post.

Greg Loumanis and colleagues at Osceola Creek Middle School replaced most labs with videos, Powerpoint lectures and demonstrations by the teacher. Test scores rose.

“If we take a day to do a lab, (the students) don’t see it as a learning day. They see it as a free day to mess around,” said Jay Mermelstein, another Osceola Creek science teacher who has minimized the number of labs in his classes. He said students quickly get off-topic with labs, so it often takes more time to teach a concept using a lab rather than other methods. He said that it’s already difficult fitting all the necessary curriculum into a semester or a school year.

The National Science Teachers Association recommends that labs make up 80 percent of middle-school science instruction.

“There’s little evidence to support hands-on learning,” said David Klahr, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He suggests a mix of hands-on activities, direct instruction and other techniques.

“Teachers like to use discovery methods, but if that’s all they do, the semester is over before you’ve gotten to all the topics,” Klahr said. “If you want to go back to discovery learning things in the classroom, you have to back off high-stakes tests and not have every topic covered.”

Linda Cronin Jones, an associate professor of science education at the University of Florida, blames testing for squeezing out labs. If teachers think their pay will be linked to their students’ test scores, they’ll spend their time on “low-level factual knowledge,” she said.

Loumanis said he recently showed students how liquids with different densities settle in layers in a glass. “Kids can see the lowest density rises. If the kids did the lab, it would take longer and it would be a mess.”

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  1. “Because science is so conceptual and at times counter-intuitive, getting students to experience the phenomenon is key,” said Francis Eberle, NSTA executive director.

    In many cases, however, students already HAVE experienced the phenomena. Sometimes hundreds or times or more. How many kids have never had the experience of getting on an elevator and experiencing various sensations when the elevator accelerates? Yet physics teachers are supposed to take their students on field trips to the elevator instead of relying on memory and imagination. How many students have never experienced packing a fragile item so it doesn’t break? Yet I’ve seen physics teachers waste two weeks on the “egg drop” activity where kids learn that packaging keeps stuff from breaking (who knew?)

    Quantum physics is counter-intuitive, yet physicists don’t “experience” it either and are able to make use of it.

  2. Oh, discovery hands-on is a disaster every time… I learned it quickly enough when i started teaching HS science in middle school (Regents Bio for 8th -graders). However, labs have their value. They work great as reinforcement of the concepts learned by lecture/direct instruction. I do selected lab exercises right after the concept is taught/explained. This makes the students to apply conceptual knowledge to make predictions, explain what’s observed.

    Timing and time is the key, of course. I teach HS now, we have 40-min. periods, and 22 teachers sharing 2 laboratory rooms. So longer labs must go, prep includes strategies minimizing the idle time, analysis questions are taken for HW. If everything is planned well, I manage to teach the curriculum (and above) and do at least 25-30 labs in a marking period.

  3. Oh, I mean, a year…..

  4. I teach science at a CC, and took/have taught a lot of labs, and have also worked as a research scientist. People have the delusion that if students figure things out themselves it’s like ‘real science’. The difference, though, is that real scientists know a lot about the subject and therefore usually have some idea about what is constant enough to be a control and what they’re actually trying to measure (and what techniques work to do that). With beginning students of any age, they don’t know what they’re doing.

    Labs are great for teaching about equipment and doing things that you just look at (dividing cells, etc). It can also work if students are taught a concept and then test it themselves within predetermined parameters. They can also sometimes come up with something varying one thing after they’ve done the procedure several times. Asking somebody to design an experiment with a procedure that they’ve never done or seen is really hard. Most researchers would follow around somebody experienced and even travel to see a new procedure done before trying to replicate it themselves.

    • Thank you.

      Kids are expected to form hypotheses about subjects they know nothing about, so you practically have to whisper their hypotheses in their ears and then lead them by the hand through their experimental designs and then finally to their conclusions.

      Some science teachers seem to think that MythBusters is a perfect example of “real science”. So what is it that research scientists who don’t have tv shows do?

      Mythbusters experiments tend to have binary answers and the results look interesting on camera. There are plenty of experiments that involve gathering reams data and the science is in interpreting that data. Our kids are learning “entertainment science”

  5. dangermom says:

    I can see where trying to run a lab for 30 kids looking for a way to goof off is asking for trouble. OTOH I can’t really approve of not having labs. I wish there were a way to have small-group labs with 4-5 kids and one adult; evening the odds would help a lot, I should think.

    My kids always enjoy doing labs even when they fail (then we document the failure!), but I’m working with a 3-to-1 ratio, so it’s much easier.

    • Performing a lab to reinforce ideas recently introduced is one thing. But what the “kids learn best by using their hands” crowd does is that it skips the ideas and jumps right into the “activity” insisting, for example, that kids throwing a ball will learn kinematics “hands on”, even though they haven’t learned kinematics to date in spite of playing little league for years.

      • Look for a moment at the recommendation that 80% of the time be spent on labs. So when are the ideas that are to be supported by the labs be introduced and practiced?

        • When I taught Middle School, the whole school was supposed to follow “workshop model” – daily hands-on activity followed by 10 minutes (maximum!) of teacher presentation, and reflection (in science journals). So the labs per se in MS are not “labs” but hands-on activities. Kids must be engaged.

          I was fortunate enough to be able to shut my door and teach as I saw fit (the principal wanted to keep Regents classes, which were the major attraction for parents) but the rest of the science teachers were subjected to frequent check-ups – hands-on, hand-on, hands-on……. Urghhhh…….

  6. Labs definitely have there place but this post really hits on a problem. Students show up to high school science classes thinking that science is all about hands-on playing, which they generally learned in earlier grades and sometimes in high school.

    My students often tell me about the awesome things they have previously done in science classes. I always ask what they learned from the activity. Most can never say.

  7. I applaud the Florida teachers for having the courage to flout the ed school and administrators’ orthodoxy to say what many of us know to be true: group work and hands-on activities are a nightmare to control –unless you are dealing with small groups of nerdy kids. After years of laboring to implement the complicated experiential history activities from Teachers Curriculum Institute in my run-of-the-mill CA middle school, I have arrived at an empirically-based conclusion: old-fashioned direct instruction is usually way more efficient.

    So much of the progressive ed orthodoxy is simply false.
    Contrary to what the “experts” say, the “banking model of education” has NOT been discredited.
    Learning does NOT have to be social.
    Listening is NOT simply a passive modality.
    Kids DON’T have to talk or touch to learn.
    Restating facts is not “regurgitating” (a highly pejorative, commonly-used term); it is demonstrating and cementing knowledge.
    Teachers SHOULD control the classroom and can win power struggles given enough support.
    Reading and writing are not all-purpose skills that can be imparted independently of a content-rich curriculum.
    Rote memorization is an essential and respectable element of furnishing a mind.
    Critical thinking, reading comprehension and writing facility DEPEND on vast factual knowledge.
    Knowledge is not the enemy of creativity and imagination; it is their fountainhead.

    • Thanks for this crisp manifesto, Ben. I agree right across the board.

      Dismayingly high numbers of ‘professional’ educators manage to ignore — and some perhaps not even grasp — the concept of opportunity cost. Hands-on activities are so, so costly in terms of time. Each minute spent fussing around with materials and logistics is a minute lost for other forms of learning.

  8. Michael E. Lopez says:

    In my academic career, I outright cheated once: I helped a friend on a chemistry exam.

    But I couldn’t count the number of lab reports I fudged. You never want your data to be perfect… just close enough.

    At the time, I didn’t even REALLY understand what the lab report was supposed to be. It seemed, like much else in high school, to just be an assignment on which one should try to get the right answer. It was only some years later I realized that what we should have been doing was learning to document and present data.

    But as wonderful as my Chemistry teacher was (physics and bio was another story entirely) none of the science teachers I ever had ever explained the participatory, discursive nature of science, nor the way that lab reports fit in the way the field operates, as a way to communicate your results and allow for testing of your data.

    It was just like a book report on a dead frog or whatever. Not science… just school.

    So if we’re not going to do that — if we’re not going to attempt to show students how the disciplines get their work done, and all of my experience tells me we don’t — I say screw the labs.

  9. How sad! Jeb Bush and his business approach to education reform has truly poisoned Public education in Florida – and his agenda has reached my state of Oklahoma!

    I know many Oklahoma science teachers, myself included, that still believe the Scientific Method must be part of science class! Sure, you can cover more material by replacing labs with lectures and teacher demos! But science is an ADVENTURE. Science class as a vocabulary class is BORING!

    “Cookbook” labs, where students follow directions without understanding why things are done, ARE a waste of class time. If you truly love science, and want to share that love with your students, I would suggest investigating Hypothesis-Based Labs. Successful lab experiences for students require LOTS of teacher preparation time – but that’s part of a science teacher’s job!

    When you give up on teaching students skills and focus on standardized test scores and value-added teacher evaluations, you are KILLING Public Education – just as Jeb and his business cronies planned!

    • Jim,
      science is NOT an adventure. Neither it should be. Physics, Chemistry, and Biology are the subjects that contribute to the development of the mind and are necessary foundations for any educated person. At least that’s their role in K-12. We cannot and should not teach the LOVE of science. I tell you that as a doctor of veterinary medicine and researcher (former) and HS science teacher (current). You have to have the foundations before you can appreciate or apply them.
      And “cook-book” labs – done at the right time and correctly selected, they reinforce, visualize, and confirm concepts, at the same time giving students practice to follow directions. They are just like piano practice – you do it, and you get better at it.
      And anything is boring to the bored and untrained mind.

      • I have never been a dvm or a researcher, but I AM a teacher. As a teacher, I tell you that the job is to teach students how to learn, no matter your speciality area. Teachers are professional learners. Sharing the love of learning with students so they do see it as an adventure is the only thing teachers can do for students that will truly serve them in the future.

    • Where I have taught or taken labs, they are usually synched with the lecture. Sometimes they get out of synch, and you can always tell, because without the lecture the students have no clue what they’re doing. I love teaching labs at the college level (intro level, so not far removed from high school), but I still find myself giving the same mini-lecture 10 times as each group comes up to certain parts of the lab.
      They don’t know that a membrane is what surrounds a cell, that it’s permeable, or why. They don’t know that a decalcified egg can work as a membrane, or that the plastic tubing that looks like a ziploc bag is in fact NOT a bag, it’s porous membrane. They couldn’t come up with an experiment doing anything until I’ve walked them through it the first few times so they know what they’re looking for. I guess that they might eventually think to put the egg into solutions with different salt/sugar/protein concentrations and then weigh them to see if they increase or decrease in water mass, but it’s a heck of a lot more efficient if I tell them what to do (or demo’d it for them, but I don’t do that since it’s a lab course). They still think it’s cool and go home to do it for their kids, but without the frustration of bumbling around with it.

  10. I also agree across the board with Ben’s manifesto in his comment above. I don’t have a whole lot of experience teaching science, but my experience with labs in college courses gave me some definite ideas about what is appropriate use and expectations of labs and what is not so appropriate. I’ve developed these ideas in an article on my website, “The Rationale For Laboratory Exercises in the Teaching Of Science”. It’s at

  11. I’m of two minds on this. On one hand, teaching in lecture mode is frowned upon by most schools. On the other hand, I have had those classes that treat the hands-on activity as a “minds-off” activity.

    I’m fortunate this year. I have 3 other teachers who also teach the Physical Science classes, so we can benefit from each others’ experiences. This year, we did an activity involving building paper roller coasters. It took a huge amount of time, and, although the students did seem to benefit from the experience, we agreed that we will have to re-visit the activity, and trim down on the time that is used. We also found that just getting cooperation in labs is exhausting with 9th grade. They fuss. They “conversate”. They often slack off until prodded. It’s not like teaching 10th or 11th grade, where the students generally apply themselves to the task.

    Part of that is maturational. Part is learning from the experience. And part is the work of the teacher.

    I have done the lab activities/hands-on activities for some time with 7th – 9th grade students. Done right, it can be valuable. Done wrong, true, it can be a waste of time. But I remember something a Biology teacher told me after several years at that school: “I can always tell which students had you as a teacher. They know how to work in labs.”

    • Gee, if only there were some reason, beyond pride, to differentiate between “done wrong” and “done right”.

  12. Well, I would much rather teach a lecture and demo-only course than a 80% hands-on course… and I’d confidently predict that my students would rather be in the former than the latter too.

  13. Yet another example of the fallacy “we will teach children to know what experts know by having them mimic doing what experts do”.