Monday, August 4, 2008 - 4:40 PM

OOS 1-10: Using inquiry-based learning to improve science literacy and critical thinking in large lecture environmental science courses

Richard A. Gill, Washington State University


The National Research Council has identified active learning as a priority for improving science literacy, while most introductory science courses tend to be taught as large lecture courses that often reinforce students' passive attitudes toward learning. Active learning increases information retention, critical thinking, and long-term learning behaviors. Guiding active learning requires a class structure that allows students to be driven by inquiry and, over time, there is an increasingly independent investigation of science questions and issues. Unfortunately, many of our introductory science courses teach students in traditionally passive environments. Here I report on an effort to redesign an introductory environmental science course at Washington State University where my central hypothesis was that incentives to attend class and a supportive, active environment in lecture will increase students’ ability to think critically about science, reason well using the symbols and language of science, and be scientifically literate members of society.


We found that the introduction of discovery-based laboratory exercises did little to improve student critical thinking.  However, the incentives and activities in class did increase student engagement. A significant impediment to student engagement appears to be low student expectations concerning their responsibility in a general education course. One of the most important secondary results of this assessment was an improvement in engagement by our graduate teaching assistants. By focusing out courses on meeting specific learning outcomes, unique assessment tools, and active student learning we will create a student population capable of critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and broad literacy.