Reducing cognitive load in the chemistry laboratory by using technology-driven guided inquiry experiments

Date of Completion

January 2004


Education, Sciences|Education, Curriculum and Instruction




The chemistry laboratory is an integral component of the learning experience for students enrolled in college-level general chemistry courses. Science education research has shown that guided inquiry investigations provide students with an optimum learning environment within the laboratory. These investigations reflect the basic tenets of constructivism by engaging students in a learning environment that allows them to experience what they learn and to then construct, in their own minds, a meaningful understanding of the ideas and concepts investigated. ^ However, educational research also indicates that the physical plant of the laboratory environment combined with the procedural requirements of the investigation itself often produces a great demand upon a student's working memory. This demand, which is often superfluous to the chemical concept under investigation, creates a sensory overload or extraneous cognitive load within the working memory and becomes a significant obstacle to student learning. ^ Extraneous cognitive load inhibits necessary schema formation within the learner's working memory thereby impeding the transfer of ideas to the learner's long-term memory. Cognitive Load Theory suggests that instructional material developed to reduce extraneous cognitive load leads to an improved learning environment for the student which better allows for schema formation. ^ This study first compared the cognitive load demand, as measured by mental effort, experienced by 33 participants enrolled in a first-year general chemistry course in which the treatment group, using technology based investigations, and the non-treatment group, using traditional labware, investigated identical chemical concepts on five different exercises. Mental effort was measured via a mental effort survey, a statistical comparison of individual survey results to a procedural step count, and an analysis of fourteen post-treatment interviews. Next, a statistical analysis of achievement was completed by comparing lab grade averages, final exam averages, and final course grade averages between the two groups. ^ Participant mental effort survey results showed significant positive effects of technology in reducing cognitive load for two laboratory investigations. One investigation revealed a significant difference in achievement measured by lab grade average comparisons. Although results of this study are inconclusive as to the usefulness of technology-driven investigations to affect learning, recommendations for further study are discussed. ^