What Are Classroom Experiments?

Initial Publication Date: June 24, 2010

Barry Keating's class conducts an market experiment.

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 the students and/or instructor collect data or observations. However, the most critical role for the instructor 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.

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. However, there are differences between research and teaching experiments. 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.

While the nature of the goals for classroom experiments is the same, experiments themselves vary widely across disciplines due to the fundamental differences in the disciplines themselves. For example, solubility is an important concept in Chemistry. A classroom experiment might observe the behavior of a number of chemical substances and investigate the extent to which they are soluble. By contrast, market price is an important concept in Economics. A classroom experiment might observe the behavior of student traders and investigate the prices at which they trade an experimental good. Some other examples are:

  • In marketing, students might examine how information about a food's health benefits affects consumer purchasing decisions.
  • In mathematics, students might investigate sine waves using weights and springs.
  • In physics, students might investigate properties of circuits.
  • In political science, students might investigate voting behavior by participating in an election exercise.
  • In sociology, students might look at inequality by making decisions in an environment where some students have an unearned advantage compared to others.

Some possible goals of classroom experiments/labs are that students participate in include:

  • Discovering existing scientific concepts
  • Elicit misconceptions
  • Formulating questions
  • Involving students in the design of experiments
  • Creating and revising models
  • Understanding the relationship between empirical research and models
  • Learning how scientific studies are conducted
Best practices in classroom experiments have evolved beyond traditional laboratories where students follow a series of steps with the goal of replicating existing scientific knowledge. Classroom experiments are not limited to small classes; however, involving a large class in a classroom experiment may require the use of teaching assistants, clickers or other technology.

Some Related Teaching Pedagogies

Students participating in Cooperative Learning exercises might be doing an experiment, however there are a number of other possible tasks. Some Classroom Experiments are Cooperative Learning exercises wherein others students work independently during the experiment.

Data Simulations use physical materials or computer generated data to give students a chance to make predictions and come up with rules that describe a phenomenon.

Guided Discovery Problems and Indoor Labs allow students to complete a series of assigned steps and learn a new concept as they go.

When compared to Classroom Experiments Indoor Labs are most likely to take place outside of class. They are what one traditionally thinks of as a science lab.

Interactive Demonstrations are similar to classroom experiments except the instructor describes the experiment and then carries it out in front of the class.

For the most part, Classroom Experiments are a special case of Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning, which divides students into self-managed teams to participate in guided inquiry activities.