Learning through practical work

To complete the Energy Challenge, students must do practical work. But why is practical work important?

Well first, it’s a part and parcel of what most scientists do – whether you’re a chemist, biologist or a physicist. If students know what scientists do, they may get much more of a sense whether ‘science is for me’. In fact, doing practical work may even give them that sense.

So, what types of practical work can achieve that? First, let’s think about teacher demonstrations. If they involve surprise, whizzes or bangs, they can have an immediate effect on students’ interest. The ‘wow’ or ‘pretty cool’ responses are always good to hear in a classroom. But real satisfaction comes from real motivation and real learning.

To try to achieve that, recent research on practical work, provides a framework for teachers to think about learning in their planning. It asks teachers to think about what they expect students to do, and what they expect them to see. This is the easy bit. It also asks them to think about what they expect students to learn about (the concepts) and what they expect students to learn how to do (the process).

For example, a teacher can plan a practical activity where students count the number of bubbles given off by pond weed at different distances from a lamp. It’s easy to get students to set the activity up, and to count the bubbles. But that’s not enough for conceptual learning. The teacher needs to think about the right questions, to get the students to think about what their results mean, developing ideas about photosynthesis in the process.

In fact, getting students to work out ideas themselves, with the right prompting from the teacher should underpin good practical work. Learning through inquiry in this way gives students real ownership of their learning, and gives them the experience of being scientists.

But what about motivation? One of the most important motivational theories – self-determination theory – suggests that students need to feel autonomous, competent, and a sense of connection or relatedness to others. By asking students to build their learning through inquiry, they develop that sense of autonomy. By undertaking practical work in groups, they build that sense of relatedness. And by focusing on procedural and conceptual learning, they build the sense of competence. All of this combined effectively makes it more likely students will ultimately decide that ‘science is for me’.