ResearchED Aberdeen – Effective Practical Work in Science

Yesterday (Saturday 19 November 2022) I gave a presentation at the fantastic ResearchED Aberdeen conference with the title “Effective Practical Work in Science”. The slides and notes from the presentation can be found here.

According to the excellent EEF Improving Secondary Science Guidance Report, practical work is carried out for the following reasons:

  1. to teach the principles of scientific enquiry; ​
  2. to improve understanding of theory through practical experience;​
  3. to teach specific practical skills, such as measurement and observation, that may be useful in future study or employment; ​
  4. to develop higher level skills and attributes such as communication, teamwork and perseverance; and​
  5. to motivate and engage pupils.

Basically, (1) and (3) are good aims of practical work. A number of writers (including Kirschner 1992) explain very clearly why (2) is poor for epistemological and pedagogical reasons, (4) depends on how you manage the practical, and (5) has been shown to be problematic by Abrahams.

Kirschner gives 3 reasons for using a practical activity:

  • Develop specific skills​
    • Observation, measurement, estimation, manipulation, planning, interpretation​
  • Developing investigative skills​
    • Learning to solve problems​
  • To experience phenomena​

I finished by suggesting ways to make practical work in science more effective:

  • Don’t use a practical to ‘discover’ a scientific concept​
  • Consider the purpose of the practical​
    • What are the pupils doing and what are they learning?​
    • Do we want them focusing on the domain of observables or the domain of ideas?​
  • Consider where the extraneous load is coming from​
    • What will your pupils be thinking about?​
  • The Slow Practical (Adam Boxer)​
  • Use integrated instructions
  • Devote time to discussing the results of the practical​
  • Teacher-led demo?​

As well as the readings mentioned in the presentation, I also found these readings helpful:

Please get in touch if you have any questions/queries/comments.

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