How can we scaffold laboratories in a way that doesn’t micromanage the students, keeps the task interesting, and helps the students to make sense of what they are doing and seeing? A really interesting way to structure this through writing is the Decision/Explanation/Observation/Inference method by Van Duzor (2016).
Van Duzor (2016) develops and tests a method to create a student-centered learning situation without going all in on inquiry-based approaches. They basically propose a four-column table that will be filled with notes by the students. The “decision” column thereby includes the procedural steps that the student is conducting, and that they might modify depending on what they observe. The “explanation” column is where students reflect on the decisions they made in the decision column and connect theory and practice. The “observation” column is about what students observe (surprise!) and the “inference” column is about interpreting the observations and how the students know what their observations mean.
The students are trained in using the table by first looking at an example of where it has been filled in completely, plus a motivation of why this specific method is used in the course. Later, they receive tables that include prompts, typically a filled-in “decision” column plus questions in the explanation column, and maybe also prompts for what kind of observations should be made, or what values need to be noted down. There can also be prompts in the “inference” column to make sure relevant aspects are discussed. When students have gotten used to this structure, they can gradually generate prompts themselves.
To me, this method seems to be a good step from a classical “cookbook” lab towards something more student-centered, and I think that having students write down their thoughts in such small steps can be really helpful. When I think about implementing it in my own teaching, I would try to more explicitly include elements of collaboration between peers than has been done in this article to move from self-explanations to actual discussions between peers. But for many purposes, for example doing #kitchenoceanography experiments in an asynchronous online course, I think this method could be super helpful to support students in a structured way of thinking about the experiments they are doing.
Van Duzor, A. G. (2016). Using self-explanations in the laboratory to connect theory and practice: The decision/explanation/observation/inference writing method. Journal of Chemical Education, 93(10), 1725-1730.