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Mounting evidence suggests that inquiry-based activities in the introductory physics laboratory enhance students’ scientific reasoning skills (Etkina et al., 2006, 2010; Etkina, Karelina, & Ruibal-Villasenor, 2008; Kung, 2005; Lippmann Kung & Linder, 2007; Lippmann, 2003). However, as different approaches propose different degrees of inquiry, one cannot necessarily claim which degree of inquiry is optimal. The goal of this research project is to explore multiple inquiry-based curricula simultaneously. Students engage in two different types of “design-focused” laboratory activities during one semester of an introductory physics course. We find that students who participate in the less scaffolded activities exhibit marginally stronger scientific reasoning abilities in distinct exercises throughout the semester, but exhibit no differences in the final, common exercises. Overall, we find that, although students demonstrate some enhanced scientific reasoning skills, they fail to exhibit or retain even some of the most strongly emphasized skills.

Social interactions play an important role in the dynamics of learning in the instructional physics laboratory, and improving instruction ultimately depends on better understanding that role. We elaborate on our findings, explore changes in the exhibition of scientific reasoning skills over the duration of the semester and make several suggestions for introductory laboratory instruction.

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