Classroom Experiments

This material was originally developed within the Pedagogy in Action Portal
Initial Publication Date: June 24, 2010

Sheryl Ball, Virginia Tech with assistance from Tisha Emerson, Jennifer Lewis, J. Todd Swarthout

We got tired of it. Lecturing to sleepy students who want to "go over" material that they have already highlighted in their textbooks so that they can remember the "key ideas" until the midterm. We wanted to engage our students in active learning, to exploit their natural curiosity about economic affairs, and to get them to ponder the questions before we tried to give them answers. We found that conducting experiments in class, with discussions before, during, and after the experiments is an effective and enjoyable way of moving from passive to active learning.
--Bergstrom and Miller, 1999.

What are Classroom Experiments?

Classroom experiments are activities where any number of students work in groups on carefully designed guided inquiry questions. Materials provide students with the means of collecting data through interaction with typical laboratory materials, data simulation tools or a decision making environment, as well a series of questions that lead to discovery-based learning.

During the experiment itself, collect data or observations. The instructor's role is to act as facilitator, asking leading questions and drawing attention to interesting results. A well-designed experiment targets common student misconceptions, focusing on major ideas that students will need to understand correctly in order to support deep learning. economics students

Classroom experiments differ from classroom demonstrations because the students are involved in collecting data or observations. However, just as in an interactive classroom demonstration, students involved in classroom experiments can be asked to make predictions and to reflect upon their observations.

All experiments involve collecting observations or observing actions to try to answer a question or solve a problem. Classroom experiments do this as part of a class to help students learn more about the material they are studying. In this case the hypothesis to be tested will generally be derived from material contained in a textbook or other course materials. Research experiments generally involve both control and treatment groups in order to facilitate comparison. In the classroom, an observational experiment where students "see what happens" can also be useful.

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Why Teach with Classroom Experiments?

Experiments can be used either to introduce new ideas or to clarify puzzling aspects of topics with which students typically struggle. If the result of an experiment is surprising yet convincing, students are in the position to build ownership of the new idea and use it to scaffold learning. In addition to checking that the conceptual focus of the experiment has been understood correctly, assessments can push students to describe a follow-up experiment or to extend the concept to another application. Note that some classroom experiments, such as those that involve observing chemical behavior, require safety precautions and may need to take place in a laboratory.

Classroom Experiments help instructors achieve a variety of classroom goals related to:
  • Student Learning Outcomes
  • Instructor Satisfaction With Teaching
  • Grades
  • Attendance
  • Student Retention in Course and Major
  • Teaching Evaluation Scores
The pedagogy is built on research on learning that shows that most students do not respond best to pure "chalk and talk," but rather to "active learning" environments. Classroom Experiments keep learners engaged because they get a hands-on experience.

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How to Teach with Classroom Experiments

Conducting a classroom experiment is easy to do. The first time you try one, it is probably a good idea to use an experiment that someone else has prepared. In a published experiment, there will typically be "instructor's notes" containing detailed instructions for conducting the experiment.

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Examples of Teaching with Classroom Experiments

Find Classroom Experiments and related in-class activities, as well as teaching notes on how to best use classroom experiments in your own class. Get ideas on how to create your own classroom experiments or use those already in the library of examples.

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Interested readers can find more details on topics related to classroom experiments including

  • General references on learning theory and how classroom experiments promote successful learning.
  • Research by discipline on the advantages of conducting classroom experiments.
  • Textbooks and instructor resources by discipline on classroom experiments.

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