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Andrew Boudreaux & The Physics Team
Department of Physics & Astronomy

Inquiry-based Labs for Introductory Physics

The table below defines selected institutional learning outcomes from Western Washington University in the area of critical thinking, together with descriptions of ways in which the guided-inquiry lab curriculum developed by the Department of Physics supports student progress toward those outcomes. Specific examples from the supplemental materials included in this showcase are referred to in italics.


Critical Thinking

Learning Outcomes Definition Course Outcomes
Identification Accurately identifies and interprets evidence. Students use computer-based sensors to collect experimental data in real time. Guided questions help students interpret these data to characterize the behavior of the system being studied. This approach, together with the use of relatively simple equipment, keeps the focus on sense-making instead of on the mechanical procedures for collecting and displaying data. (Example: Activity I of Mechanics lab on Newton's 3rd law)
Alternative Consideration Considers major alternative points of view. Students interpret data collaboratively, articulating their own ideas while listening to the ideas of their partners. This provides an authentic way for alternative perspectives to emerge. Instructors may ask students to consider interpretations that have not yet come up, and the curriculum in some cases poses "fictitious dialogues" for students to evaluate. The dialogues are based on common patterns of student thinking identified through research. (Example: Activity I of Mechanics lab on Newton's 3rd law)
Accurate Conclusions Draws warranted, judicious, non-fallacious conclusions. After considering alternative perspectives to arrive at a consensus explanation, students are often asked to make a specific prediction about a related, but new situation. This allows students to use experimental results - the ultimate authority in science - as a main check for the validity of their conclusions. (Example: Activity IV of E&M lab on Electric Field)
Justification Justifies key results and procedures, and explains assumptions and reasons. Each week, students complete a written "mini-report" to describe the results of one key experiment. The report, limited to a single page, has a loosely specified format including sections on defining the problem, planning a solution, and evaluating the results. The criterion for evaluating mini-reports is that another lab group could repeat the experiment in order to check the results. Grading is on a simple "1-2-3" scale to make clear whether this criterion has been met. (Example: Activity VII from Mechanics lab on Kinematics)

Adapted from the California Academic Press's Holistic Critical Thinking Scoring Rubric.