Problem-Based Learning & Scientific Inquiry in Introductory Biology
  PI - John S. Peters, College of Charleston, Department of Biology
Co-PI - Brian Scholtens, College of Charleston, Department of Biology

Project Abstract

If you would like information about
  • adopting any of the inquiry-based labs developed for this project at your institution.
  • help (faculty workshops or consulting) with implementing Problem, Case Studies or Inquiry-Based Learning at your institution.
Contact the project PI - Dr. John Peters (

What's New?
Of interest...!

PBL Instructor Resources
Inquiry-based Labs
What and Why of PBL
Collaborative Learning
Evaluate your Teaching Approach
Project Evaluation & Research
Teaching Journals and Conferences
Science Education Research
Journal of Undergraduate Biological Investigations
General Education Goals

“Learning can be externally encouraged, but only internally initiated. Such a statement, however, in no way relieves a teacher of serious responsibility and the effort that goes into effective classroom behavior. These ideas, in fact, point out clearly that good teaching entails a great deal more than abundant knowledge clearly articulated. The real goal of teaching is to persuade students to initiate their internal learning processes.” -Robert Leamnson, Thinking About Teaching and Learning.

College of Charleston, Randolf Hall

Project Abstract

Randolf Hall

NSF DUE 0410720 - This project utilizes Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and inquiry-based laboratories to teach the core concepts of biology from the perspective of civically engaging issues or problems.  Our goal is to facilitate civic biological literacy in college non-science majors’ biology students by utilizing PBL problems of timely importance and/or local interest to our students in order to provide a context and reason for learning.  Related inquiry-based labs are designed to engage students in the process of scientific discovery in the context of understanding real world problems.  Biology and science education undergraduates and graduate students are involved in the development and implementation of the curriculum as teaching assistants and peer facilitators.  The evaluative thrust of the project is to assess how PBL/inquiry-based vs. traditional content-driven strategies affect the development of biological literacy by examining students’ pre and post course views about various aspects of science-technology-society.  The SENCER Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG) is also being used to assess students’ views about how the different approaches affected their learning.  Additionally materials to facilitate the training and support of college faculty and undergraduate and graduate teaching assistants are being developed.  Dissemination of the methods and results of this project are on-going and will encourage and assist with reforms in other courses and at other institutions.

PBL Instructor Resources

Addlestone Library

Instructor PBL/Case Studies Resource Library - The intent of the resource library is to facilitate the teaching of introductory biology from the perspective of relevant, and real world issues that are likely to confront students in their personal, professional and civic lives.  This Instructor Library Index does this by organizing teaching resources by both biological content area and by issue.   Choose a topic/content area and get a brief list of issues which are relevant to that topic area. Click on an issue and get a detailed summary of available teaching resources (case studies, problems, videos, articles, activities, and other resources).   Many of the resources are internet links or downloads, others are available in the resource file cabinet outside Rm. 207 SCIC.  Contact John Peters for passwords and/or a key to this cabinet.

SUNY Buffalo’s National Center for Case Study Teaching -  This site contains case studies and other resources for assisting with implementation in the classroom.

University of Delaware's Institute for Transforming Undergraduate Education.  The PBL Clearinghouse has PBL problems, and teaching suggestions and resources for problems in many areas of science. This site requires free registration.

Vision & Change in Undergraduate Biology Education Working Group Resourses

Biology: Concepts and Applications by Cecie Starr  - On-line Textbook Resources - This site gives you access to all of the instructor & student resources available with the textbook.  Instructor resources are organized in a matrix form by chapter to help you easily find instructional support materials.

Addressing Faculty Questions about Student-Centered Learning - Assembled by Jeff Froyd and Nancy Simpson - Texas A&M University

MERLOT Biology Portal - A clearinghouse for a wealth of resources for teaching biology.

Teaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology (TIEE) - a peer reviewed publication of ecological educational materials by the Ecological Society of America

RubiStar - A neat little web site which helps teachers create grading rubrics for writing assignments.  Rubrics are a scoring tool that lists the criteria for a piece of student work.  A good rubric will list the things the student must have included to receive a certain score or rating. Rubrics help the student figure out how their project will be evaluated, and provide a way for teachers to standardize grading practice.  I've also found that good rubrics make the process of grading writing assignments easier and faster.

Inquiry-based Learning

Discovering Biological Science - Inquiry-based Laboratories for Introductory Biology
by John S. Peters, Ph.D., College of Charleston Department of Biology

These labs are available through Hayden-McNeil Publishing for preview and adoption. 
If you think you may be interested in adopting any of these labs, contact Dr. John Peters (

How are inquiry-based labs different from more traditional labs?
  Most would agree that introductory science courses should help students develop a literate understanding of how scientists reveal knowledge about the natural world.  It is also clear that students are more engaged and seem to “learn better” when they are actively doing, rather than passively listening.   This is in large part why “hands-on” labs have traditionally been an integral part of science classes.   But, what does it mean for a student to be more engaged in their learning, and what are students learning about the nature of scientific discovery in our science labs?

Now, think back to your own experiences in your college science labs when you were in school.  Were they engaging?  What kinds of behaviors or attitudes did science labs foster in you?  Did they foster an appreciation for the creativity involved in doing science?  Did they help you to become more comfortable with the uncertain or tentative nature of scientific discoveries?  Did they help you to understand why we should trust the knowledge revealed through science?  Did they foster a deeper understanding of the connections between basic scientific knowledge and issues that will confront you in your personal or civic life?   Did they foster an appreciation for the differences between basic and applied science, and help you to make decisions about how you would like to interact with science in your future professional life?  Did they increase your confidence that you are capable of doing real science?

Science education researchers have discovered that for many students immersed in more traditional labs the answer to most of these questions is a resounding no!  So what are traditional science labs, and why is it that they often fail to meaningfully engage students in science and foster less than literate conceptions of the nature of scientific discovery?

Traditional Science Labs - The goal of most traditional science labs is to confirm or reinforce understanding of concepts or processes, and it is usually those very abstract concepts which serve as the context for the lab exploration.  Although these labs use scientific methods, they often prompt students to follow an explicit set of instructions which should yield a preplanned outcome.  Because the context of the lab is often quite abstract to the leaner, they often mindlessly follow these instructions.  Then after the data is collected they are asked to try to interpret the findings by answering questions explicitly provided to them at the end of the lab.  So for students, these lab experiences can be more akin to blindly following a cookbook recipe, and like a recipe, is often thought to have failed if the expected results don’t materialize.  Research in science education has revealed that this more “cookbook” approach to science labs does little to help students develop literate conceptions of the nature of science, fosters very little appreciation for the creative nature of scientific discovery, and does not foster increased confidence in an ability to think scientifically. 

So, what are inquiry-based labs, and how are they different from more traditional lab experiences? In inquiry based labs, observations and questions, which are sometimes centered on issues that are relevant to students’ personal or civic lives, initiate and set the context for the lab exploration.  This is because research in science education has revealed that students are more likely to be engaged in the lab exploration if there is an initial context which is centered on student interests, observations or experiences.  This “student-centered”, rather than solely “concept-centered” initial focus creates a learning environment in which students are more interested in the outcomes of the lab. 

Another important feature of inquiry-based labs is that students are allowed to make critical decisions about questions, hypotheses, predictions and the design/execution of the experiment.  This fosters a deeper investment in the outcomes, and helps students to more fully appreciate the creative aspects of science and understand how design decisions can influence the validity of their findings.  Inquiry-based labs also are designed to allow student to experience the collaborative nature of science.  Much like professional scientists, students work in small teams, share ideas, and reach consensus on important design and analysis decisions. This collaborative approach is intended to foster both a deeper understanding of biological concepts, and how the collaborative nature of science can help to more fully reveal new understandings of the natural world, and establish knowledge as trustworthy. 

The Inquiry-based Lab Curriculum - During early "practicing inquiry" labs students explore biological concepts and processes while developing their scientific inquiry skills.  Students then build on knowledge obtained from the previous labs to explore biological concepts and science process more deeply through a multi-week student-directed inquiry.  Working in research teams, students will identify an aspect of a biological concept they wish to explore further.  Within the context of a manageable framework, students work collaboratively to formulate questions, conduct, and analyze experiments of their own design.  Final projects will be peer-reviewed and presented to the class as both a written article and an oral presentation.  Quality research papers can be submitted to the Journal of Undergraduate Biological Investigations (JUBI) for publication. In this way students not only learn about key biological processes, but also how we know about these processes and how scientific knowledge is shared and evaluated by the scientific community. 

Adopting Individual Labs - Although the labs were designed to fit within the curricular framework described above, most of the labs can be adopted individually to support a curriculum that is already in place at your institution.  The primary audience for this lab manual is undergraduate biology majors and non-majors courses and fits very nicely with the recent reforms to AP biology courses.   Many of these labs can also be modified for use in a upper-level high school biology course.

Instructional Support - College lab instructors, who are often graduate teaching assistants, typically have little experience teaching inquiry-based, collaborative & student-centered labs.  Therefore a variety of instructional support materials are provided with the labs to provide students with essential structure they need to engage in more student-directed inquiry and to provide instructional support.  Each lab comes with a Team Lab Notebook (TLN) which helps lab teams plan and organize their findings.  Homework activities, and interactive tutorials help students to explore concepts relevant to the lab exploration.   Each lab also comes with an instructor guide which educates instructors in relevant learning theory and pedagogy in order to help instructors effectively facilitate student-centered inquiry-based and collaborative learning.   

Click on the name of the lab for a brief description of the lab. 

Collaborative Learning

The Helping Puzzle - A interactive activity which can be used to help students, SI Leaders, and faculty experience the benefits of collaborative learning.

Groups in Action - Video vignettes for triggering group discussion. From the University of Delaware's - Problem Based Learning

Team-based Learning
- This site has articles,references, videos, and webinars that will assist you with effective implementation of collaborative learning in the classroom.  Several articles in the TBL bibliography by Larry Michaelson at this site are essential reads if you are new to collaborative learning.

Peer Instruction - Education is more than just transfer of information, yet that is what is mostly done in large introductory courses - instructors present material (even though this material might be readily available in printed form) and for students the main purpose of lectures is to take down as many notes as they can. Few students have the ability, motivation, and discipline to synthesize all the information delivered to them. Yet synthesis is perhaps the most important - and most elusive - aspect of education. In this engaging seminar, Mazur shows how shifting the focus in lectures from delivering information to synthesizing information greatly improves the learning that takes place in the classroom.

The Readiness Assurance Process (RAP) -  These short quizzes, which I refer to as RATS (Readiness Assurance Tests), are short (5-10 minute) quizzes given at the beginning of the class period.  The purpose of RATs is to 1) check student knowledge of biological concepts from the reading/research for that day's class; 2) give both the teacher and the student feedback on what was learned from the reading; 3) engender active/collaborative and critical discussion among students about biological concepts and their problem applications; 4) help the teacher determine what concepts from the reading students need help with during class. RAT's (or RAPs) are usually first taken individually, and then again in teams.   Students receive both and individual grade and a team grade oneach RAT.  More information on the theory and practice of the Readiness Assurance Process can be found in the article by Larry Michaelsen below.
Sample Peer Evaluation form and instructions.   Hold individual members of teams accountable to their team by using peer evaluation forms after each problem or case study in which team-work is involved. 

Using class passports to form diverse teams

Concept Mapping!
IClicker - This is a student response system (each student receives a response device known as a "clicker") which interfaces with the teaching computer in your classroom.  The system allows you get anonymous feedback from your students about their learning.  At the CofC, we have a classroom set of ~82 clickers and 2 base receiver units.  Contact John Peters (, if you would like to reserve the use of these clickers for your class. 

Teaching Evaluation Resources

Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG) - The newly revised version allows instructors to gather learning-focused feedback from students. The SALG survey asks students to rate how each component of a course (e.g., textbook, collaborative work, labs) helped them to learn, and to rate their gains toward achieving the course goals. The SALG survey can be customized to fit any college-level course, and can be administered multiple times per course. A baseline instrument allows faculty to compare gains relative to incoming student characteristics. Once registered on the new SALG site, you can:

  • customize the SALG survey to fit your course goals and methods;
  • search for an existing SALG survey in your discipline;
  • have students complete the survey on-line; and,
  • download and review analyses of the students' responses.
Field Tested Learning Assessment Guide (FLAG) - The Field tested Learning Assessment Guide (FLAG) web site was constructed as a resource for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) instructors to assess learning in their classroom.

Bioliteracy Project - Concept inventories in biology: "
Our goal is to develop and distribute tools to assess whether students are learning what teachers think they are teaching."

National Study of Education in Undergraduate Science

College of Charleston General Education goals and the Natural Sciences or the AACU's General Education Goals - How well does your non-majors biology course meet these goals?

Teaching Journals and Conferences


International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.  Go to to receive email notification of new issues!

CBE - Life Science Education
- Affiliated with the American Society for Cell Biology

Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning
Go to to receive email notification of new issues!

Southern Illinois University's Problem Based Learning Initiative - this site has an extensive bibliography on PBL research.

Teaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology (TIEE) - a peer reviewed publication of ecological educational materials by the Ecological Society of America

Upcoming Conferences & Workshops

Science Ed. Research

Evidence for the Efficacy of Student-Active Pedagogies - Assembled by Jeffrey E. Froyd Research Professor Director of Faculty and Organizational Development Texas A&M University ( Version: 5 August 2008

At MIT, Large Lectures are Going the Way of the Blackboard.  by Sara Rimer. A recent article in the New York Times regarding MIT's switch to small, collaborative and inquiry-based introductory physics classes.

Why Peer Discussion Improves Student Performance on In-Class Concept Questions. Science 2 January 2009:Vol. 323. no. 5910, pp. 122 - 124. - Research into the effect of peer-discussion on students' understanding of concepts.

Project Evaluation

Thematic Maps of Focus Group Interviews - Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and Traditional Instructional Models in College General Education Biology: Student Perceptions about Learning Science.  These maps summarize our findings from pre and post reform focus group interviews.  Each map summarizes the project researcher's synthesis of student perceptions about learning that emerged from their course experience. 

SENCER Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SENCER SALG) - This web-based instrument is one of the instruments being used to assess students' views about how the course impacted their learning and and personal and civic engagement with science.

Views on Science Technology and Society -(VOSTS) - A web-based and modified multiple response version of (VOSTS) - This instrument is also being used to assess students' views about the relationships between science and technology, the impact of science and technology on society, the nature of science, media presentations, and scientists' vs. the publics' role in socio-scientific decision making. 

College of Charleston. Last updated 9-13-2012.  Questions and comments, email John S. Peters, Ph.D,