How to get the best from practical work

Practical work is, again, in the science education spotlight, with findings from a recent Wellcome Trust study suggesting that recent changes to assessment at GCSE are leading to more and more pupils missing out on practical work in science.  The fact that science is, as the report states, an inherently practical subject, increases the mystifying decline in practical activity.

The study’s findings show that practical work is highly valued by school students, with over half saying that they wanted to do more. Indeed, practical activities are seen as a key part of learning science by everyone involved in science education. Findings from numerous research studies, including our own, show that practical work plays an important role in student engagement, in classroom management and in improving students’ likelihood to go on to further study of science subjects. Universities and employers alike value the skills of problem solving and group work, as well as the technical skills, that are developed through hands-on practical activities, and schools invest large amounts of money into laboratory equipment and technicians support.

However, the contribution which practical work makes to learning the subject matter of science remains in some doubt. A number of studies, such as those carried out by Robin Millar and Ian Abrahams at the University of York, suggest that it may be largely ineffective in improving learning about scientific concepts or processes. Last year’s PISA results supported this, showing an apparent correlation between a greater frequency of practical-based approaches and lower performance in science. Indeed, all of us who work in science education have observed teachers (and have probably been guilty ourselves of) using practical work as a reward for good behaviour, or – worse – withdrawing it when a class becomes difficult to manage.  This means that practical work’s role in the classroom can be perceived as an optional extra rather than an integral contributor to learning, despite what teachers say about how much they value it.

The Wellcome Trust’s study highlights another problem with practical work: the ease with which it can be reduced to a recipe-following procedure.  Around a fifth of the students surveyed said that they often simply following instructions without understanding the purpose of the work.  Indeed, our work on Improving Practical Work in Science a few years ago showed us how often teachers struggled to explain exactly why they are carrying out a particular practical, instead simply following the scheme of work or recycling the same old activities from year to year.

In the Sheffield Institute of Education, we have worked on many projects worldwide which centre on practical work and inquiry in science. This has shown us again and again how professional development for teachers is vital to getting past the idea of practical work as simple hands-on procedures so that it becomes a minds-on, thought-provoking process of learning.

We have found that it takes little prompting for teachers to realise that they can and should treat practical work like any other classroom activity, so that they consider its contribution to student learning and decide how best to assess this. For example, illustrating to primary school teachers how they can use their school grounds for practical work in science enables them to feel the confidence to take their students for a walk outside, drawing on scientific skills of hypothesising, observing and analysing.  And as part of our Chain Reaction project, supporting teachers to design and engage in scientific inquiries enabled them to observe the enjoyment of students from twelve European countries in designing and conducting their own experiments, acting as scientists including even presenting their findings at international conferences.

School leaders and governments often appear to believe that equipping schools with piles of new equipment is a route to high quality practical work.  We know, though, that the best practical work may not be the most sophisticated in terms of practical equipment or complex skills.  Sometimes the most interesting practicals stem from a lack of equipment, such as teachers we’ve worked with in Ghana who, following professional development, rustle up an engaging and meaningful practical for a class of sixty students with some babies’ nappies, scissors and plastic bowls!

By improving teachers’ confidence through professional development, they feel more able to take a few risks. They use a greater range of practical activities, adapting them to student needs and expertise, and move beyond simple recipe-following procedures to truly scientific activities which are both hands-on and minds-on.  It is possible that, following professional development, teachers may end up doing less practical work but it will almost certainly be of a higher quality, so that it contributes not just to behaviour management but also to learning science.

Current changes to the assessment of practical work are once again raising the question of the purpose of practical work.  These changes pose a threat to practical work in potentially limiting the variety of practicals on offer in schools and reducing its contribution to learning to a tick-box exercise.  As yet, though, we are keeping our minds open about the impact of these changes.  We’re just beginning a research study in which we will ask teachers and their students about their experiences of practical work under the current GCSE system.  We hope that our findings will help us to better understand the role of practical work and its value in supporting students to learn science.  If you would like to be involved and to share your experiences, please get in touch and let us know.

Dr Emily Perry is Deputy Head of the Centre for Development and Research in Education at Sheffield Institute of Education

Dr Stuart Bevins is a Senior Research Fellow at Sheffield Institute of Education






11 responses to “How to get the best from practical work”

  1. Dave Jones Avatar
    Dave Jones

    Richard’s “hierarchy” of learning goals is very useful I think. The European TEMI project (, that we worked with, built the idea of ‘gradual release of responsibility’ (GRR) into its investigative approach. This started with ensuring that practical skills were explicitly taught and then more and more responsibility was given to students to make decisions about what to do. There is a similar argument I think to be made about teaching skills and then helping students develop these skills over time (possibly over a lesson, a series of lessons or over several years) as they become part of a tool box for scientific problem solving.
    Perhaps it would also be useful to identify some of the conceptual understanding that develops through practical work. For example the microscope is a good way to develop ideas of scaling and proportional thinking through experience – a formalised mathematical approach won’t come until GCSE, but this will make much more sense if the concepts are present and can be related back to things that the students already know about. In the same way, using a thermometer sets up ideas about heat transfer, drawing a diagram of a test tube sets up ideas which are later used to understand sectional views of the heart and using a measuring cylinder can help cement ideas of conservation laws.
    So perhaps I am agreeing in moving towards not just a new language and clear learning goals, but also a more explicit appreciation of the conceptual understanding that develops through practical experiences.

    1. Emily Perry Avatar
      Emily Perry

      The idea of using simple standard practical activities to learn about concepts is really interesting – the use of a thermometer to learn about heat transfer/expansion is one that struck me. Do we ever explicitly use these simple tools to teach these things? Why do we add extra, more complex, practicals in when actually we could use the familiar things you describe to teach some simple concepts? I’m really intrigued by this idea!

  2. Andy Bullough Avatar

    Practical Work….ummm I agree that it may not be vital in terms of learning about scientific process and content. However this rather misses the point in that what it does do is to help develop a range of softer transferable skills important to inquiry, numeracy and I would argue literacy through discussion. Even better this is achieved through a very current and in vogue multimodal way of working.

    1. Richard Needham Avatar
      Richard Needham

      Hi Andy
      Here is a list of ‘transferable skills’ I was discussing yesterday in the context of a chemistry curriculum:

      1. Communication

      2. Digital literacy

      3. Independence

      4. Team working

      5. Logical reasoning and problem solving

      6. Creativity

      7. Resilience

      Can all of these be taught (and therefore assessed) via ‘practical work’. For some people these skills alone are sufficient justification for teaching a subject.

      1. Emily Perry Avatar
        Emily Perry

        And maybe part of the point is that these things don’t need to be assessed? Or do they? I would like to see the assessment of resilience…
        But on the other hand if we want to make claims for practical work developing these other things which sit outside the subject of science then perhaps we ought to be assessing them.
        Perhaps we also need to challenge ourselves somewhat – if we want students to develop skills like those, is practical work an effective way of achieving this? Or are there other ways which are more effective, less risky (!), less expensive…?

  3. Adarkwah Avatar

    I agree with you. Sometimes students don’t really know and/or understand the importance and significance of having a practical session. Certainly, most teachers conveniently ignore it and stick to route learning. But let keep trying, hopefully, one day things will be as we have always be wishing for

    1. Emily Perry Avatar
      Emily Perry

      Thanks Cida! We have lots of work to do with teachers – and students – to help them understand what practical can be for. I think you’re leading the way in how you teach your students!

  4. Richard Needham Avatar
    Richard Needham

    The use of the term ‘practical work’ needs to be reconsidered as it has become mired in polarising debates over progressive / traditional teaching practice. As science teachers we need to be clear about the different types of activities and their purposes we use to help children learn science, that get lumped together under this heading. Time for a new vocabulary?

    1. Emily Perry Avatar
      Emily Perry

      Thanks Richard – interesting thought! What should we call it if not practical work, I wonder? Technical skills?? Doesn’t cover the conceptual stuff – maybe even makes the problem worse!

      1. Richard Needham Avatar
        Richard Needham

        Practical work includes teaching pupils to use a microscope, draw cells through a microscope, and to compare the shape of cells on the surface of different leaves.
        I consider the first to be aligned with how to set up and use equipment safely – which I would call ‘technical competence’.
        The second involves making observations and recording them – which is all part of thinking scientifically, and what I would call ‘investigation’.
        The third component of this hypothetical activity is to note that leaf cell shape differs between classificatory groups of plants, and is part of an activity to explore or illustrate a scientific concept (classification and biodiversity in this case) so for want of a better term I would describe this as an illustrative activity to develop some concept of science.
        The three activities have very different learning goals, but all three could be encountered within a single science lesson and be considered ‘practical work’. By separating out the various goals, and making them explicit we are better able to recognise the progress made by pupils. The adoption of more precise language when describing aspects of practical work is part of this process.

        1. Emily Perry Avatar
          Emily Perry

          I agree. This type of thinking was key to the Getting Practical project a few years ago. Well worth revisiting, I think.

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