Open-ended experiments

Posted by @Hans-GeorgKøller on March 9, 2014, 9:46 p.m.

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The time-honoured arrangement for laboratory work in both school and higher education is based on a “cook-book” approach, with students slavishly following a written set of instructions. However this traditional way of doing practical work has recently been criticized for several reasons (Berry, Gunstone, Loughram and Mulhall 2001; Hart, Mulhall, Berry, Loughram & Gunstone 2000; Hofstein, Shore & Kipnis 2004):

  • Cook-book experiments are an ineffective way to learn science concepts and may even generate misleading ideas about how scientific knowledge is generated. 
  • Such experiments do not challenge students to think about the purpose of the experiment or the sequence of steps involved. 
  • Both the practical work and the following written report are often of a ritualized nature. The students’ focus is on following the prescribed step-by-step procedure and then getting the ‘right’ result rather than on appreciating the methodology involved and the significance of the results obtained.

It is, of course possible to use a different approach to practical work to try to overcome the reservations indicated above. One approach involving the use of open-ended experiments, also known as inquiry-based or open-inquiry experiments has received considerable support in recent years. The method employs experiments where students cannot simply slavishly follow a given procedure to complete a task successfully. Experiments can be more or less open-ended in a number of ways: data may be given or incomplete, methods familiar or unfamiliar and outcomes/goals given or open (Woods, 2006).

Creativity, problem-solving skills, and critical and independent thinking represent important goals for higher education which many science educators (e.g. Abd-El-Khalik et al. 2004; Hart et al. 2000; Hofstein et al. 2004; Lunetta 1998) believe are likely to be promoted by using more open-ended experiments. Other specific learning benefits associated with open-ended experiments which have been documented in the literature (e.g. Barnea, Dori & Hofstein 2010; Berg, Bergendahl, Lundberg & Tibell 2003; Hofstein & Lunetta 2004), include:

  • Learning of content knowledge (CK)
  • Developing scientific process skills
  • Positive attitudes towards chemistry
  • Motivation to learn chemistry
  • Understanding of the nature of science
  • Improving communication skills

Challenges associated with implementing inquiry-based laboratory work include, a lack of time, shortage of instructional materials and class sizes (Cheung, 2007). During open-ended experiments the following undesirable behaviour might be observed (Berry, Mulhall, Gunstone & Loughran 1999):

  • After students have worked out a procedure they follow it cook-book style.
  • Students can decide on and stick to an inadequate procedure leading to meaningless results
  • Students may maintain a goal of obtaining the expected results from their experiment.

It is therefore particularly important to monitor the process of students while they are carrying out open-ended experiments.

Students in their first year of chemistry studies at university level showed better learning outcome and a more positive attitude when doing open-inquiry experiments. Comparing inquiry and confirmatory experiments Katchevich, Hofstein and Mamlok-Naaman (2013) found that discourses were rich in arguments during inquiry-type experiments. The construction of arguments was particularly encouraged when students discussed possible hypotheses, analysed their results and worked on conclusions. One of the features of studying chemistry as a subject in school or at university is that it involves conducting experiments in the laboratory; at least some of these experiments should be open-ended.


  • Abd-El-Khalick, F., BouJaode, S., Duschl, R., Lederman, N.G., Mamlok-Naaman, R., Hofstein, A., Niaz, M., Treagust, D., & Tuan, H.L. (2004). Inquiry in science education: International perspectives. Science education, 88(3), 397 – 419.
  • Berry, A., Mulhall, P., Gunstone, R., & Loughran, J. (1999). Helping students learn from laboratory work. Australian science teacher journal, 45(1), 27 – 31.
  • Berry, A., Gunstone, R., Loughran, J., & Mulhall, P. (2001). Using laboratory work for purposeful learning about the practice of science. In H. Behrendt, H. Dahncke, R. Duit, W. Gräber, M. Komorek, A. Kross & P. Reiska (Eds.), Research in Science Education – Past, Present, and Future. (2001, 313 – 318). Heidelberg: Springer.
  • Cheung, D. (2008). Facilitating chemistry teachers to implement inquiry-based laboratory work. International journal of science and mathematics education, 6(1), 107 – 130.
  • Deters, K. (2004). Inquiry in the chemistry classroom. The science teacher, 71(10), 42 – 45.
  • Hart, C., Mulhall, P., Berry, A., Loughran, J., & Gunstone, R. (2000). What is the purpose of this experiment? Or can students learn something from doing experiments? Journal of research in science teaching, 37(7), 655 – 675.
  • Hofstein, A., & Lunetta, V.N. (2004). The laboratory in science education: Foundations fort he twenty-first century. Science education, 88(1), 28 – 54.
  • Katchevich, D., Hofstein, A., & Mamlok-Naman (2013). Argumentation in the chemistry laboratory: Inquiry and confirmatory experiments. Research in science education, 43(1), 317 – 345.
  • Wood, C. (2006). The development of creative problem solving in chemistry. Chemistry education research and practice, 7(2), 96 – 113.

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