When you understand why you’re teaching a practical, your students learn more

‘Are we doing a practical?’ Science teachers will recognise that excited cry from pupils as they make their way towards the lab. The majority of GCSE students (58%) interviewed by Wellcome said they wanted to do more practical work. Young people at higher performing schools reported doing practical work more often and young people from more deprived areas do less practical work than other areas. Practical work motivates and engages pupils, but is this enough of a reason to devote so much of our valuable time to it?

An image showing a female student dressed in a lab coat, holding a bow and aiming her arrow at the centre of a target shaped like a chemical round bottom flask

Source: © Claudia Flandoli

According to Wellcome’s science education tracker, over a fifth of students interviewed in England often ‘just followed instructions for practical work without understanding its purpose’. This can mean a potential disconnect between the enjoyment of practical work and its intended impacts on pupils’ learning. Each practical should have a purpose and all pupils should be actively engaged and intellectually involved. The purpose of practical activity has central themes:

  • to teach the principles of scientific enquiry;
  • to improve understanding of theory through practical experience;
  • to develop higher level skills and attributes such as communication, teamwork and perseverance;
  • to teach specific practical skills that may be useful in future study; and
  • to motivate and engage pupils.

When you are completing your requisition sheet for next week’s practical activities, consider carefully their purpose. Think about the following three examples.

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Monday, year 7 are using microscopes

Traditionally in this practical, teachers introduce the rudimentary basics of the structure of microscopes and then move quickly into studying cell organelles, often struggling to focus literally and metaphorically.

When microscopes are returned to periodically, and notably during GCSE required practical activities, many of their functions are yet to be taught and are in need of further explanations.

If we know the purpose of the microscope practical (in this case observation) and explain it to the class beforehand, pupils will be clear why they are doing the experiment rather than simply following instructions.

In your class

Download our What’s the purpose? resource (as MS Word or pdf) to help you identify the reasons for teaching a topic as a practical. 

Wednesday, year 10 are looking at neutralisation

What might be the reason for carrying out a titration practical? Maybe familiarity with glassware? Accuracy? Precision? It isn’t possible or necessary to consider all these during one practical lesson.

You could follow up a neutralisation practical with discussion of and reflection on the theory behind neutralisation developed through practical experience. Pre-teaching the theory may be beneficial, but be flexible so you can respond to unexpected outcomes as cognitive dissonance can challenge preconceptions and improve understanding.

Friday, year 11’s biology lesson

This extended experimental work on phototropism links to the germination of seeds. The activity involves careful planning and possible out-of-lesson data collection as living things change slowly.

This practical requires teaching the principles of scientific enquiry and their application in this context. The design of the practical, control of variables and the amount of reliable data required are essential components of the investigation.

These longer practical activities can develop skills such as communication, teamwork and perseverance. Gatsby’s Support for practical science in schools suggests these investigative projects are linked with both improved attainment and the motivation to continue with science education.

When planning your lessons, hopefully you will consider more deeply the purpose of each practical activity. Remember, practical activities don’t have to be long and can include demonstrations and simulations. Frequent and varied is a good maxim. You will be able to get the most out of your precious lab time by being clear about a practical’s purpose and how to sequence it with other learning activities.

This article is part of the series 7 simple rules for science teaching, developed in response to the EEF’s Improving secondary science guidance. It supports rule 5a, Know the purpose of each practical activity