New Perspectives in Science Education

Edition 12

Accepted Abstracts

Rhetoric or reality? A case study into how, if at all, practical work supports learning in the science classroom

David Martindill, Faculty of Education University of Cambridge (United Kingdom)


This study, which will be published as a paper in January 2015, concerns the use and value of practical work in the secondary school science classroom. Informed by the findings of a large survey of students from a wide variety of schools in England, a case study of pupils in the middle secondary range sought to investigate the precise role of practical work in the learning of a specific topic over a series of lessons. Qualitative and quantitative assessment of academic progress of two classes of pupils revealed that students who undertook practical tasks made greater gains in knowledge and understanding than those who undertook non-practical alternatives. In order to explore students’ views about the practical tasks and whether they found them to be an affective and effective aid for their learning, data were collected using questionnaires, lesson observations and interviews of focus groups. The data suggest three reasons why practical work supported pupils’ learning. First, practical work supported their visualisation of abstract concepts and provided a stimulus for the recall of key facts later. Second, it provided a distinctive opportunity for pupils to work collaboratively, with associated gains. Finally, hands-on tasks promoted a classroom atmosphere rich in variety, semi-autonomous learning and self-discovery, which pupils found intrinsically motivational. This study, which responds to the criticism practical work has received in recent years, sheds some light on the mechanisms through which the strategy supports learning in certain contexts. Moreover it argues that practical work needs to be effectively planned to aid successful learning in the secondary school classroom.

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