Laboratory instruction is critical to the understanding of ecology and a central piece of biological sciences instruction. Although much investigation has focused on the content of laboratory exercises, we contend that understanding the extent to which the laboratory materials can aid or limit experimental investigation is equally important. Often termed the “cookbook mentality”, students frequently appear focused on laboratory task completion instead of thinking about the experimental outcomes and global purpose of their work. There is evidence that learning affordances can affect goal orientation which is critical for deep learning. Learning affordances are the elements, including physical objects, of the learning environment that provide opportunities for doing particular classroom work. In this study we investigated the timing and availability of laboratory affordances (e.g., materials) in the context of two different laboratory exercises. To do so, we used both case study and experimental approaches to investigate how laboratory materials guide the planning, context, creativity, and timing of ideas shared among students.
Our case analysis indicate that our novice student groups, when posed with a typical laboratory based experimental task, are like to focus quickly on the available materials, procedures, and narrower contexts when compared to the directed and global discussion of the expert student group. Further, our controlled experiment supports the notion that removal of the laboratory material can result in greater planning and more context general and creative solutions. This effect was evident even though students were naïve to the given tasks. In conclusion, our data support the notion that providing students with laboratory equipment prior to encouraging planning, and consideration of experimental context and design, may constrain students’ ideas and encourage tool focused solution to experimental design tasks.