Home » Biology Rocks Edition 2 » Active Inquiry Learning in the Biology Classroom

Active Inquiry Learning in the Biology Classroom


 Editor’s note: The following manuscript explains the tests that confirm success of the “Biology Rocks” curriculum. It is published in the final pages of “Biology Rocks!” and “Biology Rocks! Edition 2” and appears here because we wanted to give anyone interested a chance to check out the data before they download. There’s a lot of information here that shows how the teacher’s guides can help bring inquiry-based learning to your classroom!



During the 2009-2010 school year, Dodge City High School began implementation of a new inquiry-
based curriculum in the biology classroom. The biology classes at DCHS are divided into honors and general biology, with honors representing approximately the top third of the class. During the school year, two teachers used the study curriculum in five general biology classes and two honors classes. There were two control general biology classes and two control honors classes. The efficacy of the new curriculum was measured both subjectively and objectively. Objective data included the district standardized assessment and state life science assessment. Subjective data gathered included written student feedback, a video recorded student interview, classroom visits by the principal, and anecdotal instructor experiences. Results show increases in student achievement on standardized tests and dramatic increases in student morale and opinion of science. Honors classes show increases in the subjective aspects, including student opinion, and non-significant increases in test scores. High- achieving students showed no loss in learning gains.


The project arose when observed a program that is in operation at Kansas State University. She observed a biology class that used laboratory experiences to teach the class material, not supplement it. The success of the program prompted her to investigate the possibility of taking the same approach to secondary level biology. Upon discussion, the building principal was supportive in developing a project to redesign the curriculum in a way that the students interact with the material in a way that was both concrete and relevant to their lives. The final obstacle to the program was finding a co-author who was both trained in inquiry education and skilled in the technological aspects that would be central to the course. In the spring of 2009 Michael Ralph was finishing UKanTeach, a program at the University of Kansas that focuses heavily on training teachers to use inquiry in the classroom. He also possessed the aptitude in technology necessary to make the project possible.

The classes for the study were chosen at random. The students were not aware of the program’s existence during enrollment, and the classes were assigned to either the study or control groups from the master course catalogue. In this way, the students in each group were randomized as much as possible.

Two cooperating teachers were chosen who would meet the requirements of the research design. Shannon Ralph, a co-author of the program, taught multiple sections using the new curriculum in order to evaluate the efficacy of the program materials. A non-authoring teacher, Kevin Self, was chosen as the other cooperating teacher in order to determine the reproducibility of the program. Self was uninvolved in the writing process and was largely unaware of the program’s content prior to the school year. Ralph administered one of the pilot sections of general biology first semester, and the following semester to two sections of honors biology. Self taught the other pilot section of general biology in the fall semester and three sections of general biology in the spring semester. Figure 1 shows a visual summary of the teacher assignments for the 09-10 school year.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 2.09.37 PM

Figure 1

The students that comprised the study classes were not unusual for courses at DCHS classified as general and required for graduation. Student background varied widely, from the typical student with little remarkable record to the student that struggled academically. In addition, some students also carried significant behavioral histories. The most severe case was a student who had accumulated over fifty (50) discipline referrals.


The core of this curriculum is inquiry. In this context, inquiry is defined as a student centered approach to learning based on answering questions and solving problems. The inquiry approach was applied in every context within the classroom: laboratory investigations, simulations, model analysis, and student projects. Inquiry provides perspective for the students. Instead of viewing each day’s material as strange and isolated processes on a screen or piece of paper, they investigate how it relates to the world around them. They see how each unit fits together and reach an even deeper understanding of each topic.

Laboratory learning is also central to this approach to biology. Working in the lab not only allows students to directly observe the phenomena discussed in the classroom, but is also one of the most enjoyable and interesting aspects of biology. Laboratory investigations develop critical thinking skills when they use an inquiry approach. Questions asked in the classroom can be directly investigated and answered in the lab. Data gathered in the laboratory can also lead to more insightful questions afterward, which can lead to more effective student problem-solving. The additional documents contain a summary of the laboratory experiences in the program (Document 1).

Modeling and simulation are also key components of the experimental class. Biological processes do not always lend themselves to direct study in the laboratory. Some processes can be investigated using other active learning techniques. Whether students are building DNA molecules with modeling kits or watching populations change using a computer simulation during an evolution unit, students can answer questions and solve problems in an inquiry environment.

The classrooms that participated in this program were also enhanced with technology in many ways. A classroom set of netbooks (mini laptops) was provided to students with daily access during class time. The computers were used to simulate phenomena, employ the Internet as a resource in projects, utilize the class website for notes and assignments (both download and turn-in), and participate in class forum discussions. The students also produced various presentations from lab work that included lab write-ups, PowerPoint presentations, and posters. At the start of the class, most students were unfamiliar with many of the uses for the computers. Within a short time, the netbooks became another classroom tool that students could use with confidence and ease. Students reported at the end of the semester that many of the computer skills they learned would transfer to other areas in their lives.

The class had many other technological components. There was a class website that was always kept up-to-date with class assignments, notes, and electronic assignment turn-in. The classroom was equipped with a projector and smart board. The students also used a classroom response system (clickers) during the semester. Many types of laboratory equipment were also employed throughout the year including microscopes, probes and interfaces, and other lab tools.

In summary, the classroom focused on inquiry learning through laboratory investigations and other active learning lessons. The students also became familiar with many forms of technology in the classroom. Of 83 calendar days during the semester, 44 of them were classified “lab days”. That means 53% of all class days involve lab activities. From the 83 calendar class days, one can subtract 12 days for unit assessment and standardized testing, 8 days for material review and catch up, and 1 full day for lab safety. This subtraction would leave 62 teaching days in the semester. In addition to 44 laboratory investigation days, there were 6 days of modeling and simulation. That leaves 50/62 (81%) of all true teaching days as inquiry investigations.


Data was gathered both objectively and subjectively to describe students’ learning and attitude. The majority of the subjective feedback originated in Ralph’s classroom, although Self’s students did contribute. The bulk of the assessment scores for general biology come from Self’s classroom. However, Ralph’s numbers do appear in the results for comparison.


The students were assessed using the district standard Criterion Reference Assessment (CRA) and the Kansas State Life Science Assessment. Scores were distributed differently across the two assessments, but similar treatment was given for each group of scores. The goal was to test for a significant change in the population mean score between the control group and the study group. P was calculated from the t-test score using a p calculating website.

General Biology State Life Science Scores

Figure 2 – General Biology State Life Science Scores

General Biology State Life Science Scores

Figure 3 – General Biology State Life Science Scores

General Biology State Life Science Scores

Figure 4 – Honors Biology State Life Science Scores

Figure 5 - Honors Biology CRA Scores

Figure 5 – Honors Biology CRA Scores

Figure 6

Figure 6

Figure 7

Figure 7


Student feedback was gathered in three distinct ways: teacher request, principal request, and teacher observation. The classroom instructor asked for student feedback in the form of written surveys completed on the final day of class. Two students also volunteered for a video interview about their experiences during the semester. The building principal also conducted a class discussion without the teacher present to gather student responses. Finally, the cooperating teachers reported their observations gathered throughout the semester.

Seven (7) students returned completed feedback forms. Their comments were overwhelmingly positive. The students responded positively to the lab activities and the technology they had used. They also reported that they felt there were being held to a higher standard than what they were accustomed, and that they were building confidence by meeting those high expectations. Their comments showed higher opinions of biology, science, and school. There were no negative comments from any of the students. Two students also participated in a video interview to discuss their experience. The interview was unscripted, informal, and done in one take. The video is also posted on the website.

The building principal also spent one day in each of the pilot classrooms without the classroom teacher present. She interviewed the students about how the class was going and how they felt their learning was progressing. She then provided a summary of the students’ responses. During the interviews, over 75% of students volunteered responses to questions. Most students responded multiple times during the hour. The interview progressed as a group discussion rather than a question-and-answer session. The students’ attitudes were predominantly positive. Full notes on the interviews are available on the above website as well.

The final method of evaluation was teacher observation. Both instructors reported a positive experience using the program and decided to expand its implementation during the following semester. The program’s continuing success is prompting its adoption by additional staff for the 2010-2011 school year.


The purpose of this study was to document how an active learning inquiry-based environment will affect student achievement and student attitude. It was hypothesized that students would have increased achievement in the inquiry environment based on previous studies done in smaller scales (Taraban et.al. 2006).

Student feedback gathered at the end of the semester indicated that participation in an active learning environment positively affected student attitude. Students with a history of behavioral problems had none. Retention levels, while difficult to test, showed signs of being higher than in previous years. One student was retaking the first half of the course during the following semester and was discussing the material with Shannon Ralph. She was pleased with his retention of some of the most difficult material, explaining entire processes several months after taking the class.

A key requirement of the curriculum is content mastery; students will learn as much or more than students using other content delivery methods. Analysis of student scores on two separate standardized tests was used to evaluate content mastery. The experimental class test scores were compared to control courses using a two-tailed t-test. Arithmetic means of percent correct on the overall assessments were compared.

All the sections of honors and general biology were taught by the same teacher, with one exception. Section 6 of general biology was taught by Ralph, and not Self. Her numbers are not included in any of the aggregate totals. Instead, it is isolated from the two general populations. The numbers from section 6 are compared to the two for consistency, but otherwise excluded.

A significant increase in student scores on the district assessment was observed in the general biology classrooms. With a p value below 0.05 (0.0431), these numbers provide the strongest evidence that the students learned more in the study sections. The section 6 results aligned well with the observed change, and are considered consistent. When section 6 is compared to the experimental group using a two-tailed t-test, a p-value of 0.8482 is obtained.

The Kansas State Life Science scores were less conclusive. The increase in scores falls short of most significance thresholds. The degrees of freedom are also high enough that increased resolution will be difficult to obtain. The section 6 results were also inconclusive, with the mean falling nearly half way between the study and control means. While these results are inconclusive about learning gains, what is certain is that the minimum requirement of the curriculum was met; the students had no loss of content acquisition. The combined results of the general classrooms on both assessments support the claim that there are significant benefits to learning in an inquiry environment.

In the honors classes the Criterion Reference Assessment results showed a small increase in mean, but that increase was not deemed statistically significant. The CRA data is inconclusive, with a p value 0.6459. These results still meet the minimum requirement of the curriculum that there be no loss of achievement.

The Kansas State Life Science Assessment results showed a similarly small increase in mean. The difference in the two data sets was small, yielding a p-value of 0.8766. These results are also inconclusive, but are closer the value required to accept a null hypothesis of no significant difference between the study and control groups (p=0.95). While there were not significant gains in test scores, all the subjective gains were still present.

Inconclusive scores regarding achievement gains were most problematic in the honors classes. Future studies that would attempt to resolve those inconclusive results will need a more precise assessment tool. Due to limitations in work-time and resources, the only assessment tools available to this study were standardized assessments already in place. Honors students who are already considered successful in traditional classrooms were least able to resolve at the top of the scoring spectrum. The large variance values also made drawing conclusions more difficult.

The inquiry lab-based curriculum implemented at Dodge City High School yielded increases in student attitude toward science. The curriculum did not lead to decreases in standardized test scores for either honors or general biology students.


1 Comment

  1. […] What is most interesting to me is when students identify questions or uncertainties within our growth model that prompt nuanced and challenging debate regarding how they learn. This week a student asked me why I love to see them struggle. Many teachers likely hear this question in some form from students, but this time it was different. The student wasn’t seeking laziness or escape, she was honestly asking why her struggle was preferable to just telling her the “answer”. We dropped everything and had that discussion right then and there! (If you’re not familiar with why struggle in the classroom is so important, here’s the data.) […]


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