Most practitioners would agree that good quality practical work can engage students,
help them to develop important skills, help them to understand the process of scientific
the investigation, and develop their understanding of concepts.
Practical work in school
science – why is it important?
ABSTRACT The reasons for carrying out practical work are explored and activities to increase the
quality and relevance of practical work are described.
For most UK science teachers, practical work ICT. These are closely related to the core
is part and parcel of what teaching and learning activities and are either a key component of an
in science is all about. In fact, the TIMSS 2007 investigation, or provide valuable first-hand
study (Sturman et al., 2008) found that, as has experiences for students.
been the case for many years, 13- to 14-year-
A range of activities were also identified which
old pupils in England are more likely to spend
complement, but should not be a substitute for,
their lesson time doing practical science
practical work. These complementary activities
activities than many of their international
include science-related visits, surveys, presentations
counterparts. It also found that science teachers
and role play, simulations including use of ICT,
in England tend to adopt a more ‘hands-on’
models and modelling, group discussion, and group
approach to their teaching.
text-based activities. They have an important role
Given that such a large proportion of time
to play supporting practical work in developing
in science lessons is spent on practical work, it
understanding of science concepts.
is important to be able to justify that amount of
time by understanding the purposes of this type Purposes of practical work
of activity as a tool for teaching and learning.
Most practitioners would agree that good-
But in order to understand why we use practical
quality practical work can engage students,
activities, we must first consider what practical
help them to develop important skills, help
work in science is.
them to understand the process of scientific
Earlier this year SCORE (Science
investigation, and develop their understanding of
Community Representing Education) produced
concepts. A further consequence of experiencing
A framework for practical science in schools
practical work, particularly in chemistry, is the
(SCORE, 2009a), defining practical work in
acquisition of an understanding of hazard, risk
science as ‘a “hands-on” learning experience
and safe working. These are just some of the
which prompts thinking about the world in
many different reasons for choosing to use a
which we live’. The associated report (SCORE,
practical activity in a lesson. The Framework
2009b) has a list of activities that could be
for practical science in schools also identifies
considered to be practical work. These fall into
a multitude of ways in which practical work
two main categories:
can support learning in science, from ‘Personal,
l Core activities: Investigations, laboratory learning and thinking skills’ to ‘How science
procedures and techniques, and fieldwork. These works’ (Figure 1). Any single activity might
‘hands-on’ activities support the development focus on one or more of these purposes.
of practical skills, and help to shape students’ A good practical task is one that achieves its aims
understanding of scientific concepts and of effectively communicating a clearly defined set of
phenomena. ideas, but this can sometimes be difficult to achieve.
l Directly related activities: Teacher Teachers’ identified outcomes can often be quite
demonstrations, experiencing phenomena, different from the outcomes that students perceive.
designing and planning investigations, With any activity, communicating its purpose and
analysing results, and data analysis using learning objectives to the students can increase its
SSR December 2009, 91(335) 49
Practical work in school science – why is it important? Woodley
effectiveness as a learning experience and enable that make these links explicit are more likely to be
the students to get the most out of it. If the goals and successful (Millar, 2004).
objectives are not expressed in terms of being able In planning an activity, the task should
to apply scientific knowledge, understanding and be tailored to achieve the identified aims, for
skills there is a danger of students simply following example through discussion between students.
‘recipes’ during practical activities. When done well, Allowing time for students to use the ideas
practical work can stimulate and engage students’ associated with observed phenomena, rather than
learning at different levels, challenging them seeing the phenomena as an end in themselves, is
mentally and physically in ways that other science vital if students are to make useful links.
experiences cannot (SCORE, 2009b).
A good question to consider before planning Improving practice
to carry out any practical activity is: What do I As part of the SCORE project on Practical Work
expect the students to learn by doing this practical in Science, the Association for Science Education
task that they could not learn at all, or not so well, is leading a new programme of professional
if they were merely told what happens? (Millar, development, called ‘Getting Practical’ (see
2002). Asking this question will help to define the Websites). The programme is designed to support
objectives of the activity, and justify its use. teachers, technicians and teaching assistants in
improving the effectiveness of practical work
through using, tailoring and managing practical
Really effective practical activities enable students activities to meet particular aims.
to build a bridge between what they can see and The aims of the programme are to improve the:
handle (hands-on) and scientific ideas that account
l clarity of the learning outcomes associated
for their observations (brains-on). Making these
connections is challenging, so practical activities with practical work;
Skills Development The development of Experiential Learning
• Planning Personal, Learning and • Test out own ideas
• Manipulation of equipment Thinking Skills (PLTs) • Test out theories
• Observation and How Science Works • Develop problem
• Analysing (HSW) solving strategies
• Evaluating • Develops team work
and taking responsibility
• Develops students
as self learners
Practical Science Supports:
Independent Learning Learning in Different Ways
• Students work at their own pace • Working in teams
• Students work at their own level • Working as individuals
• Supports differentiation by • Manipulating materials and objects
outcome, task and questioning • Observing using all senses
• Builds student confidence • Informal dialogue with peers
Figure 1 How practical work supports science (From Getting practical: a framework for practical science in
schools (SCORE, 2009a) p. 7)
50 SSR December 2009, 91(335)