4 ways to make science practicals go with a bang

Practical lessons can be the stuff of lasting memories - in the right way and the wrong way. Simon Harding offers his tips

Girls have overtaken boys in terms of entries for A-level sciences for the first time ever

Science practicals have given me some of my most memorable moments as a teacher. 

I can look back with great satisfaction at the best ones, thinking of students who have effortlessly produced a rich set of results, leaving us all with a deep sense of pride. 

Then there are the memories that, even now, fill me with terror: faulty equipment, confused students and a learning environment bordering on chaotic. 

My only solace is that they’re in the past.  

Making science practicals a success

Regardless, the opportunity to do practical work is a blessing. It is a great tool for the keen mind, even if it ends up being a lesson on how things don’t always go to plan. 

It provides us with opportunities to ask deep and thought-provoking questions, probing what students have learned, their subject knowledge and their skills as scientists

But after reading this year’s examiners’ reports, it seems that students face the same issues that they have for many years. Many just don’t seem to get it. 

Problems with science 

Questions related to practical activities are often poorly attempted, especially when they are extended, or based on a familiar practical but novel concept. 

Practical science skills underpin every curriculum or exam syllabus. Ask a Year 7 student what they are looking forward to in their science lessons and they are far more likely to say using a Bunsen burner than learning how to draw a graph. 

But we can too easily fixate on the most exciting parts of teaching science, given the satisfaction of seeing things happen in front of our eyes, and not focusing on why it works the way it does.

 For this reason, the practical aspects of the curriculum need careful planning. Some things my colleagues and I have tried to do are as follows:

1. Don’t rush practical work

Allow time to focus on key aspects of any practical. Look for opportunities to consider planning, not just writing a method and identifying variables, but the questions around it: why are we doing what we are doing? Is this the best method? What might go wrong?

2. Make every practical count 

You may not have time to do a full investigation for every practical activity, but they are always solid learning opportunities. If not focusing on planning, then think about analysis of results and follow up with examples of exam questions that students could face.

Check examiners’ reports for commentary related to practical exams. You don’t want to just teach to the test, but it is vital to know what examiners are expecting your students to be able to do.

3. Revisit required practicals just ahead of exams

Students can forget simple details of required practical activities (RPAs). We organised a carousel of practical activities along the corridor, moving students room to room, completing related revision tasks. 

We then followed up with video clips students could access, and linked homework. This allowed them the opportunity to refine their skills with a series of short, sharp sessions.

4. Model best practice throughout the school 

Demonstrate the expectations, approach and questioning used with RPAs at key stage 4 during earlier science lessons. Identify key practical activities in Years 7, 8 and 9 that you will undertake similarly as you would if they were RPAs at KS4.  

The best practical science lessons allow students the opportunity to combine learning about their subject with improving their skills as a scientist. 

By reflecting on how we implement and design our practicals, and the school structure around them, we have made sure our students share our love of the subject while maximising their chances of exam success.  

Simon Harding is director of science at Tendring Technology College

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