Collecting meaningful data in an undergraduate human physiology lab course
can be difficult for a variety of reasons. I describe a way of creating an inquiry-based, semester-long project that allows students practice in designing
retrospective research questions using a large database containing common
physiology data. The database generated during this project has the capability
of adding new participants each semester the course is taught. This approach
can be used with a variety of different physiology acquisition systems and can
easily be specialized for the learning outcomes of a given physiology laboratory
Key Words: Human physiology lab; physiology; retrospective research;
undergraduate physiology; database research.
Experiencing the process of science through inquiry-based labs has
numerous positive impacts on learning, skill development, and student confidence (Luckie et al., 2004; Gormally et al., 2009; Brownell
et al., 2012). At our small liberal arts college, inquiry-based projects
are included in several courses. Most of these lab projects are prospective studies, in which students generate a hypothesis, manipulate a set of variables, and measure the results. While prospective
research design and implementation is important for learning the
process of science and research, these types of studies are not well
suited for all lab courses. Fewer opportunities exist to practice and
learn retrospective research skills. Retrospective studies are common
in clinical settings where large, preexisting patient databases are used
to answer questions of interest and look for relationships between
risk factors and outcomes. Many biology majors are interested in
health science careers and may carry out or reference retrospective
studies in the future. The inquiry-based approach described here,
designed for an undergraduate human physiology laboratory course,
provides students experience in designing retrospective research
questions, database management, and teamwork, alongside the
learning of standard physiologic principles.
Designing independent, inquiry-based projects in a human
physiology lab encompasses several difficulties. Research involving
human subjects outside of those students enrolled in the course
requires a human subject review process via an institutional review
board (IRB). The time it would take students to complete the IRB
review process, recruit subjects, and collect data would not fit
within the time constraints of a semester-long course. Another con-
founding issue is that human physiology data are inherently vari-
able; finding meaningful correlations between lab partners or
within a single lab section’s data is not useful. With these impedi-
ments in mind, I began a retrospective data-mining project.
There are several benefits to this laboratory model. A major bene-
fit of the project’s design is that the database can continue to grow
every semester. As the database grows, its power for statistical analysis
increases. A second benefit is that as students carry out classic physi-
ology experiments during lab to learn core principles of each body
system, these data are collected and become part of the database.
Another benefit is the type of work in which the students are engaged:
they get practice designing retrospective research questions, they
work on teambuilding skills as they complete the project in small
groups, and they polish their quantitative analysis and written com-
munication skills with their final lab report. An added benefit to this
model is the variety of side projects that can be developed based on
the instructor’s goals for the course. For example, students could pre-
pare an IRB review form or informed consent document to experience
what these processes entail.
At the initiation of this project, it was important to determine
what background information and physiology data would become
part of the database. To maximize the number of questions stu-
dents might propose, student input and interests were taken into
account. Many students were interested in examining how sleep,
stress, and physical activity may correlate to physiology outcomes.
With these topics in mind, the database was created with a series
of background questions. As seen in Table 1, background informa-
tion included age, gender, height, weight, and questions regarding
sleep, stress, and physical activity.
There are several considerations when determining appropriate
background questions, particularly regarding identifying information.
The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 81, No. 6, pp. 449–451, ISSN 0002-7685, electronic ISSN 1938-4211. © 2019 National Association of Biology Teachers. All rights
reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Reprints and Permissions web page,
www.ucpress.edu/journals.php?p=reprints. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/abt.2019.81.6.449.
THE AMERICAN BIOLOGY TEACHER USING RETROSPECTIVE RESEARCH QUESTIONS & DATABASE MINING
TIPS, TRICKS &
Using Retrospective Research
Questions & Database Mining as a
Basis for an Inquiry-Based Lab in
an Undergraduate Human
• CASSY COZINE