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This content is taken from the National STEM Learning Centre's online course, Managing the Practical Classroom in Secondary School Science. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds ADAM LITTLE: During this section of the course, we’re going to consider the effectiveness of instruction when it comes to successful, practical work. Written instruction can often be hard to implement and confusing for students. Clarity of instruction is key to effective, practical, and in many cases, written text is likely not to be the best method to convey your requirements. Research into working memory, cognitive load, and development of practical skills is ongoing, and thus far has led to the publication of several papers and resources, such as design and evaluation of integrated instructions in the secondary level chemistry practical work published in the Journal of Chemical Education by David Patterson.

Skip to 0 minutes and 52 seconds David’s approach includes the use of integrated instructions, a form of dual coding where information is presented both pictorially and in the form of texts. The instructions are based on five key features– standard cut through diagrams of apparatus showing relative positions and orientations. The apparatus is not labelled to reduce the extraneous information given that students learn these diagrams early in their secondary curriculum. Numbered instructions arranged where possible in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction to minimise students having to jump around the instructions, use of clear arrows to direct action, minimising the number of words required in the instructions.

Skip to 1 minute and 36 seconds For example, place 2 centimetres cubed of 0.1 mole sodium hydroxide in the test tube becomes 2 centimetres cubed 0.1 mnoh with an arrow from the instruction box into the mouth of the test tube, use of checkboxes to allow students to track their progress through the practical, helping to ensure all steps completed and minimising the need to remember which step they are on, and use of pictograms to draw the students’ attention, such as an eye to indicate exactly where observations should be made. For example, measuring the length of a spring from the top to the bottom and clocks and bounces to indicate measurements to be made. Thanks to David Patterson for allowing us to use his work during this section.

Skip to 2 minutes and 25 seconds If you wish to follow this research further, you can find David on Twitter @dave2004b.

Instructions for practical work

Providing clear instructions for practical work, without unnecessary information, can support effective practical work.

The principles behind this stem from cognitive load theory, developed by John Sweller in the 1980s. Cognitive load theory proposes there is a limit to the amount of information your working memory can hold at any one time. Any distracting or irrelevant information can hamper students’ ability to process the information.

This useful guide provides an overview of cognitive load theory for teachers:

Page 7 presents some examples of approaches for the classroom.

The key takeaways from a recent article in Impact, the journal from the Chartered College of Teaching, suggest:

  • Break down subject content when introducing new topics and pause regularly to check understanding.
  • Present instructions clearly without using too many sources of information at the same time.
  • Be wary of reducing cognitive load too much – the learning process should be manageable, but not overly fragmented.

However, there is also some discussion about the evidence for cognitive load theory, what it does not consider or take into account, and whether it is transferable to the classroom.


Consider the approach that Adam presents in the video with ‘integrated instructions’. You can view examples of integrated instructions on Dave Paterson’s blog.

Identify one advantage and one disadvantage of this approach. How might this approach support or challenge your students?

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This video is from the free online course:

Managing the Practical Classroom in Secondary School Science

National STEM Learning Centre