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This content is taken from the National STEM Learning Centre's online course, Teaching Practical Science: Chemistry. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 3 seconds Making new substances is at the heart of chemistry. A good grasp of technique is important for students to understand the different routes to new materials. However, chemistry, more than the other sciences, often falls into the trap of “following recipes”. Practical science often gets overlooked when it comes to setting effective learning outcomes for students. Students do not always know why they are carrying out a practical. If students don’t understand the links from the theory to the practical, what’s the point? Students need to have clear expectations of what they should achieve from a practical, why they are doing it and how they know they’ve been successful. Setting effective learning outcomes for students is critical.

Skip to 0 minutes and 47 seconds In this week, we will look at a variety of approaches in practical work, based around producing salts. Practical activities, if carefully chosen, can help support the effective assessment of student abilities, by giving opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding to enable you to spot weaker areas, and give you the tools to intervene.

How do we know if our students understand?

How well do we know if our students understand the science?

Written tests can act as one assessment tool, but careful choice of practical activities can help teachers and students gauge their level of understanding without resorting to summative assessment tests.

Often in practical science and especially in chemistry, we tend to do the whole of a practical, which, given the length of most lessons, can lead to it being rushed, sometimes with students not completing the practical. Careful thought about the staging of the practical and the reason for doing the activity are key. An understanding of the skills that students have and need to develop can also factor in to the success of a practical.

Teachers are good at setting learning outcomes for a lesson, but these often focus on a particular aspect of scientific knowledge, rather than on the activities contained in the lesson. If you are carrying out a practical, then there should be learning outcome(s) for the practical, as well as for the knowledge and understanding part.

Students need to know why they are doing an activity as well as success criteria for completing it. In this week, we will look at setting effective learning outcomes for practical work, as well as using practical work as an assessment tool.


A good starting point is thinking “why are we doing this? Is it the best way to achieve my learning outcomes?” If the answer isn’t positive, then a different activity may be needed. In the comments below, share why you include practical work in your lessons.

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This video is from the free online course:

Teaching Practical Science: Chemistry

National STEM Learning Centre