In partnership with the Society of Biology, Royal Society of Chemistry, and Institute of Physics

Teaching and learning using practical work

By 'practical work' we mean tasks in which students observe or manipulate real objects or materials or they witness a teacher demonstration.

Practical work can:

  • motivate pupils, by stimulating interest and enjoyment 
  • teach laboratory skills 
  • enhance the learning of scientific knowledge 
  • give insight into scientific method and develop expertise in using it 
  • develop 'scientific attitudes', such as open-mindedness and objectivity

(This list is based on Hodson, D. 1990, "A critical look at practical work in school science" School Science Review, Vol 70 (Number 256), pp 33-40.)

An effective teacher plans practical work with specific learning objectives in mind. By using different pedagogical approaches the same practical task can be used to achieve different learning outcomes.

For some practical tasks, the learning is about objects and observables. Students are expected to recall what they have observed. Other tasks involve making links between observables and scientific ideas. Students generally find the latter harder, as they involve thinking as well as seeing and doing. The task design needs to ‘scaffold’ students’ efforts to make these links.

Practical work to develop students’ scientific knowledge is likely to be most effective when:

  • the learning objectives are clear, and relatively few in number for any given task;
  • the task design highlights the main objectives and keeps ‘noise’ to the minimum;
  • a strategy is used to stimulate the students’ thinking beforehand, so that the practical task is answering a question the student is already thinking about.
Scientists at work vs. science in the classroom

It is important to bear in mind the significant differences between the research laboratory and the teaching laboratory (or classroom); and between research scientists exploring the boundaries of the known and students trying to come to terms with already accepted knowledge.

In the context of teaching scientific knowledge, practical work is best seen as communication, and not as discovery.

Further reading

A review of the research on practical work in school science was carried out by King’s College London in March 2008 and can be found on the SCORE website.