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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds Practical work is often seen as a key part to science, and something that differentiates it from many other subject areas. Many science teachers instinctively reach for practical work when they can, although a minority of teaches avoid it, often for reasons of lack of equipment or, more worryingly, classroom behaviour of students. However, practical work is often poorly thought through and not targeted to students well. Very rarely are specific learning outcomes set, along with suitable success criteria, for the practical activity of a lesson. Outcomes are often set just for the “stuff and knowledge” of science. If you get the chance to observe a colleague carrying out a practical lesson, ask a number of the students,

Skip to 0 minutes and 51 seconds as they are carrying out their activity: “why are you doing this practical, what’s the point?” and you may be surprised by their answers. Commonly they will say “because Sir or Miss has told us to” or “to get numbers to use” and so on. Or even just a shrug of their shoulders, as they don’t know why they’re doing it. Many practical demonstrations, especially in chemistry, are spectacular, but often if you ask students about what they have experienced, they will say what happened, but not be able to relate what they have learnt to the science. It takes skill and support embedded within a scheme of learning for teachers to really engage their students with the science during a demonstration.

Skip to 1 minute and 33 seconds We know that students appear to like practical work but research over many years finds that many students see practical work as a distraction, unrelated to their everyday lives, and it can feel very procedural. Often practical work is done to show what they have already learnt or even worse, just the teacher has said “do this, this and this” and this is what you should see, which then begs the question - is there any point to this activity? Practical science should not just be recipe following. There needs to be a degree of enquiry where student apply their scientific understanding and practical techniques to a problem and we will look at a specific example of this during the course.

Skip to 2 minutes and 11 seconds Practical work is also used to challenge students’ thinking and quick or small activities can also be used as a starter, or for students to come up with explanations of why they think something happens. We also need to plan for the thinking and discussing parts of practical activities, not just the doing part. What would be better is to focus carefully on what outcomes are appropriate and tailor the activity to suit. While it’s often useful to carry out a longer practical activity, this takes much more time, so might have to be split over two or more lessons to enable the discussion phases to be completed as well.

More than recipe following

Students may enjoy practical work, and may be engaged by a spectacular demonstration, but do they understand what they have witnessed and can they relate their observations to scientific concepts?

In this video, we discuss the need for specific learning outcomes and success criteria for practical work, where students understand why they are carrying out the practical and what they are learning.


Practical science should not be ‘recipe following’ and the carrying out of prescribed instructions. There needs to be a degree of enquiry so students apply their scientific understanding and practical techniques to a problem.

What are the challenges for carrying out practical work for learning in science lessons?

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Curriculum Design for Secondary School Science

National STEM Learning Centre

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