Does practical work really work? A study of the effectiveness of practical work as a teaching and learning method in school science

Ian Abrahams, Robin Millar

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Many within the science education community and beyond see practical work carried out by students as an essential feature of science education. Questions have, however, been raised by some science educators about its effectiveness as a teaching and learning strategy. This study explored the effectiveness of practical work by analysing a sample of 25 ‘typical’ science lessons involving practical work in English secondary schools. Data took the form of observational field notes and tape-recorded interviews with teachers and students. The analysis used a model of effectiveness based on the work of Millar et al. and Tiberghien. The teachers’ focus in these lessons was predominantly on developing students’ substantive scientific knowledge, rather than on developing understanding of scientific enquiry procedures. Practical work was generally effective in getting students to do what is intended with physical objects, but much less effective in getting them to use the intended scientific ideas to guide their actions and reflect upon the data they collect. There was little evidence that the cognitive challenge of linking observables to ideas is recognized by those who design practical activities for science lessons. Tasks rarely incorporated explicit strategies to help students to make such links, or were presented in class in ways that reflected the size of the learning demand. The analytical framework used in this study offers a means of assessing the learning demand of practical tasks, and identifying those that require specific support for students’ thinking and learning in order to be effective.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1945-1969
Number of pages24
JournalInternational Journal of Science Education
Issue number14
Publication statusPublished - 2008

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