Working towards improving student engagement, leadership and progress in practical science

Tony Le - Teacher of Physics, Woodford County High School (London)

  1. Research Foci and Aims
    This research project was centred around the role of practical activities in the science curriculum. More specifically, it sought to address three interlinked objectives; canvassing student attitudes and engagement with practical science, evaluating different teaching and learning strategies and promoting not only academic progress but also leadership and transferrable skills that transcend the science classroom. 

Naturally, we as teachers believe we have a sound grasp of student engagement; whether through lesson observations i.e. focus of class, quality and quantity of responses/hands up, eagerness to participate, etc, or post-lesson analysis of books and assessments. However, these are relatively teacher-oriented, that is, these are our own perceptions of our students’ engagement. Why not foster an environment where teachers can have dialogue with learners about their own engagement? Why not simply just ask them? In theory, this open dialogue could facilitate a much more genuine evaluation of the various teaching and learning strategies that students are exposed to, promoting a sense of autonomy and ownership within the classroom. With these sentiments a key focus, this project sought to investigate how we can improve the provision of practical science in order to help students both inside and outside of the science curriculum.   

  1. Contexts and background literature
    Practical activities have always been central to science education. Abrahams and Millar (2009) discussed how science lessons are about extending “students’ knowledge of the natural world and develop their understanding of the ideas…” and that naturally teaching science lends itself to visualising these concepts. Ergo, the use of practical activities. Similarly, Osborne (2015) alluded to an even deeper role of experiments as a means for students to experience these phenomena themselves and test the ideas they have just been taught. 

Whilst Woodley (2009) largely concurred with the above rationale, she also argued that practical activities are conducted in lessons for three different reasons, and that activities should always solely focus on only one of three. These were: supporting the learning of scientific concepts, to master practical skills i.e. using equipment fluently and to develop investigative and inquiry skills. In fact, these three objectives are readily reflected in the AQA specifications for both GCSE and A-Level physics (the subject in which this project was conducted). Thus, it is seen that the nature and reasoning behind practical science has not changed significantly. What has changed, however, which serves as a key reason behind this research, is how practical science is now assessed in the new GCSE and A-Level curricula. Not only are students now obliged to conduct a number of “required practicals” (10 at GCSE, 12 at A-Level), at least 15% of their exams will assess their understanding of these and the overarching practical skills they’ve developed through completing them. This is particularly compounded at A-Level where students’ bookwork for the 12 experiments are rigorously assessed by teachers within the framework of various practical competencies. Thus, it is readily seen how vital the development of practical skills are from purely an assessment perspective, in addition to the obvious benefits of being able to confidently utilise technical equipment and analyse data.

Beyond the confines of the science classroom, there are several other purposes behind the motivation of this research project. As with most sixth forms, the sciences are healthily subscribed to at Woodford County, thus this drive towards improving students’ practical competencies would have a positive impact on later progression. Beyond the department, the school as a whole aims to create more leadership opportunities for students. Finally, from a more personal perspective, as a firm believer in teaching the ‘whole child’, it was one’s aim to help cultivate transferrable skills in the science classroom in the hope that students can apply these across other subjects and even outside of formal education.

  1. Research Questions
    Under the headings pertaining to each of the three key objectives behind this project are a series of sub questions.
  2. i) Surveying students’ attitude/engagement with practical science:
    - Do students appreciate the significance of practical skills?
    - Are they invested in improving these skills?
    - Do they actually enjoy practical science?
  3. ii) Evaluating different teaching approaches:
    - How do students engage with and reflect on various styles/approaches to practical work?

iii) Promoting leadership and transferrable skills:
- How can we mobilise students to become leaders and effective team players?
- Can we cultivate these skills in the science classroom?

  1. Methodology
    A three step model was adopted; trialling of various teaching and learning strategies, hosting a science ambassador training day with the Institute of Physics and conducting a student questionnaire at the end of the year.

The strategies for practical activities were applied across 127 students in five Key Stage 4 classes: two mixed ability Year 9s and three Year 10s (top, middle and lower ability). It is apt to note that as a selective grammar school, generic perceptions of what constitutes top/middle/lower ability will be skewed towards the higher end. The three key teaching and learning strategies were:

  • “Conventional” practical: A typical example where an explicit method sheet (often including a diagram) is provided, oftentimes following a teacher demonstration.
  • “Instructionless” practical: Objective and list of equipment provided, but without a written method or diagram. Naturally of a problem solving nature.
  • “Planned” practical: Students given objective and list of equipment (with some additional options) where they create the method and plan out each component i.e. risk assessment, results table, etc. Students were permitted to use research and modify as appropriate.

The rationale behind selecting which mode of practical typically centred around the nature of the required experiment itself. For example, the conventional method lent itself towards practicals that involved students using equipment they are unfamiliar with, thus requiring a teacher demo and explicit instructions i.e. use of calorimeters and energy meters in measuring the specific heat capacity of metals. The instructionless method facilitated practicals where students were already competent with the apparatus and giving a written method would have perhaps rendered the practical unchallenging and cumbersome. For instance, in measuring the density of irregular objects, the handling of displacement cans and measuring cylinders is straightforward but figuring out exactly how to use them i.e. the apparatus configuration and method proved a challenging and stimulating task for students. Similarly, the planned method was optimised best for familiar equipment, but particularly proved fruitful for investigations that were not too time consuming to conduct (enabling more time for the write up), or for when conclusions and evaluations were likely to be multi-faceted (i.e. requiring detailed analysis). For example, investigating the effectiveness of materials and layering as thermal insulators.

The science ambassador day was hosted at Woodford but run by the Institute of Physics. Alongside students from other schools, twenty Year 9 students participated in a series of workshops where they developed their communication, teamwork and leadership skills within the context of practical science. Their ultimate goal was to present a scientific demonstration to their fellow trainees and schools are then able to mobilise their ambassadors as they see fit. As a by-product, Woodford were able to select Year 12s to act as mentors on the day.

Following the use of different teaching strategies and workshop day then came the questionnaire, with student answers typically following a multiple choice format. I.e. to what extent do you agree that practical science provides the opportunity to improve teamwork, to what extent did you find instructionless investigations effective. In all questions, a 1 – 5 scale was adopted where 4 and 5 alluded to the more positive student response, 3 neutral and 1 and 2 being negative. Several questions included optional follow ups where students were able to input text and expand on their responses.

Strengths and limitations
Canvassing of student perception following the use of different strategies was across a relatively large sample. The trials covered a range of abilities and two year groups, all taught and delivered by the same teacher. The questionnaire yielded manageable data, and with 119 responses canvassed a large sample again.

Conversely, as with most if not all classroom research, the typical plethora of varying classroom variables applied to this project. Some strategies were trialled more frequently than others, unavoidably so given the number of required practicals within the syllabus and their compatibility with each strategy. Measuring their impact on academic progress, using assessment data, was not possible given the lack of existing data on practical assessments and the timeframe of the project. Thus, the term progress within this project pertains more crudely towards classroom observation and student reflection. 

Naturally, as only 20 Y9 students were trained as ambassadors, this was a small sample and was not referred to in the survey questions. Students’ responses to the questionnaire were limited to their ability to recall on various lessons in the year and unavoidably, the depth of their responses depended on their willingness and effort. Questionnaires were anonymous and were not followed up with focus group discussions due to time.

  1. Findings and Discussion
    Aligned with the aims of the project, the survey questions centred around engagement, effectiveness of different practical strategies and leadership/teamwork opportunities. Responses from Year 9 students were analysed separately from Year 10, but unless there was a distinct difference, they were combined and will be discussed as such hereafter. 

The vast majority (~80%) of student responses confirmed their knowledge of the fact that required practicals exist in their GCSEs. However, only ~55% were aware that 15% of their exam would assess practical skills, which suggests they may not have entirely appreciated its significance. In terms of lesson engagement, approximately 50% of students responded with 4s and 5s in terms of enjoying practicals and agreed that they had sufficient challenge. More interestingly, when asked about why they enjoy practicals in the optional question, about 25 students alluded to the valuable visual representation of concepts and working with peers. To this end, over 65% of responses agreed that when tasked with a practical activity they understood its purpose i.e. one of three motivations outlined by Woodley and AQA specifications. When students were asked about specific examples of practicals that they found most effective and memorable, these practicals were more likely to be ones which aided their conceptual learning, as opposed to their practical or investigative/enquiry skills.

Interestingly, the survey also highlighted further reasons which deter students from enjoying practicals. While 7 students also alluded to enjoying the challenge, over 10 preferred when activities were straightforward, explaining that the theoretical content was already difficult enough to contend with. Further, students reported that they felt practicals lost purpose most often when their results were not as expected, or go wrong entirely. (It must be said that students typically over exaggerate what constitutes going wrong in a practical!).

Effectiveness of different teaching strategies for conducting practicals
Whilst quantitative data was taken, this was limited by how you could appropriately phrase a multiple choice question. In this case, the question sought how “effective” students found each mode of practical. Within this section, it was the comments sections which were of more interest.

Quantitatively, students favoured most the conventional mode of practical. They noted them to be the most efficient use of lesson time, with students most aware of the purpose of their work, which they could conduct in a stress-free climate. Many students alluded to the usefulness of teacher demos and explanations which helped mitigate misconceptions. Further, this was the strategy which enabled students to ask questions most freely. Conversely, a smaller proportion of students supported the view that conventional practicals were often too straightforward and repetitive.

The open-ended instructionless strategy yielded the widest range of results, perhaps unsurprisingly. On the positive side, some students reflected that they developed their independent thinking skills and resilience, notably due to the more challenging and engaging nature of figuring out the method behind an experiment. One student suggested that being more involved in the creation of the method leads to more secure understanding. Conversely however, a larger proportion of students did not see the time spent figuring out the method as productive, but rather, demotivating and stressful. These students recalled being more worried about getting the experiment wrong, potentially reinforcing misconceptions and shifting the focus away from the practical’s purpose.

Finally, the planned practical strategy yielded generally favourable results, but not to the same degree as of the conventional. Similar to the instructionless mode, students found planning the investigation gave rise to increased independence, resilience and depth of understanding. It promoted the learning of exam technique, given the more formal approach, which again makes recalling much easier. On the other hand, this was the strategy most dependent on teacher feedback, and the lengthier write up considered much more time consuming.

Leadership and transferrable skills
While students largely agreed that practicals gave room for improving teamwork and communication, there was a range of results in terms of leadership. Only approximately 25% of Year 9 responses agreed practicals helped develop leadership, compared to about 50% of Year 10s. Whilst this might suggest older students had more experience of practicals and can then testify further to their leadership capital, many responses did suggest a variety of different lesson activities which had more potential. Over 25% of responses described projects, group research, presentations, quizzes and problem solving as examples of leadership-improving activities, whereas only 8% mentioned practicals.

  1. Recommendations
    Overall, it has been seen that while students do generally enjoy practical work, even if only when they perceive a task to be straightforward, new curricular demands and different styles of teaching can lead to learners being overwhelmed and intimidated. Various approaches to pitching required practicals were trialled, leading to an array of responses. Amongst these, students reflected broadly in terms of straightforwardness vs challenge, productive vs unproductive use of lesson time and the importance of independence vs teamwork. Most importantly however, student responses to each mode featured enough positivity to justify their continued use in future planning, albeit with inevitable adaptation and modification to varying extents. The pros and cons to each strategy were explicit enough to inform the next steps in putting into action the findings from this project, with the following recommendations:
  2. i) Reinforce Woodley’s notion of explicitly focussed practical activities.
    Given that students generally found sufficient challenge in conducting practicals, even in the conventional or planned modes as opposed to the instructionless, it is even more clearer that explicitly focusing practicals is key to students making progress. While students found the most memorable experiments to be the ones which supplemented conceptual learning, they understood the overarching objectives due to curricular demands and engaged best when this key focus was present.
  3. ii) A rich practical science curriculum needs to be planned to accommodate a diverse range of teaching strategies, selected to match the needs of both subject content and learners.
    Much like how different modules/chapters of schemes of work are subject to medium term planning, so should a school’s practical science programme. In order to sufficiently satisfy each of Woodley’s three objectives behind conducting a practical, how teachers present and pitch experiments is of paramount importance in enabling students to make effective progress. To foster this balance across a 2-3 year GCSE curriculum, teachers should consider mapping out the practicals to be conducted and ensuring the correct focus is selected for each one. In addition, this will support learners in being trained in practical science, to help overcome barriers, often mental ones, such as the sentiments that investigation write ups and problem solving are a waste of time. Much like in peer/self-assessment and flipped learning, students will take time before truly understanding how to apply themselves properly and further develop their resilience. 

iii) Where possible, maximise opportunities to cultivate skills such as problem solving, resilience, independence and interpersonal skills and mobilise student leaders.
There is evidently great scope for furthering student opportunities in leadership. Across school curricula, subjects such as PE and drama readily give rise to student leaders where lesson activities are often in groups and of practical nature. It is thus surprising that conducting science experiments in groups is not often considered by learners as potential leadership development. To this end, a greater emphasis towards problem solving should be considered when conducting experiments, to cultivate these transferrable skills within the science classroom so that students not only progress in this subject but beyond the classroom. This can be readily implemented through training students to take leadership roles within their practical groups, present demonstrations to their class or help teach younger pupils. The response from the 20 student ambassadors generally indicate that more students would benefit from such training and these subject leaders should be mobilised wherever possible.

  1. References
    Millar, R. and Abrahams, I. (2009) ‘Practical work: making it more effective’, in School Science Review, 91(334), 59-64.

Osborne, J. (2015) ‘Practical work in science: misunderstood and badly used?’, in School Science Review, 96(357), 16-24.

Woodley, E. (2009) ‘Practical work in school science – why is it important?’, in School Science Review, 91(335), 49-51.