10 Top tips for planning a practical lesson

Tamsin Hart

Why do you teach practical lessons? You may think they enthuse and engage your learners. You may think students learn better ‘hands on’. You may think they help students to discuss their learning. Or you may just think that they are science students, so should ‘do’ some science.

But do students really enjoy practical lessons? Wouldn’t they rather have a discussion than do practical work? And does it really help teachers to focus on students’ learning? For example, we may get preoccupied checking that students have followed instructions, rather than checking they are learning. And if we’re doing practical work so learners can ‘do science’, then we need to think about what science they are actually ‘doing’.

So, before you start practical work, think about what you want the learners to do and see, and what you want them to learn. You may want them to learn a scientific idea (such as the reactants in photosynthesis), to learn scientific competencies (such as how to use a pipette) or to learn scientific inquiry skills (such as how to make a prediction).

10 top tips for planning a practical lesson

1. Safety! Do your risk assessment, decide how to minimise the risks, and communicate the risks to students. Establish a routine for stopping the class in an emergency. Ensure everyone wears their safety glasses! Spread out the equipment around the room to prevent bottlenecks.

2. Prepare. Try it out yourself first. You need to know what will happen during your practical lesson, and what your students will do and see. If you don’t, you can’t write good instructions, and you can’t think of good questions to help them to learn.

3. Instructions. Tell them what to do, show them what to do, put the instructions on the board, and put the instructions on a worksheet. Include a diagram, and clear, numbered steps, to ensure they do and see what you intend.

4. Get students to work in groups of two or three.

5. Before they start, set the scene, by discussing prior learning. It helps them to understand what the practical is about, and why they are doing it. Ask students to write down the purpose of each step of the instructions – it helps them to understand what they’re doing and why.

6. During the practical, circulate around the class, solving any problems you encounter, and focusing their attention on what you want them to see and do. As the lesson continues, start to ask students questions, in order to help them to learn.

7. Students always take a long time to draw a results table, and to draw a graph! Don’t be afraid to give them a results table to complete, and make sure you budget enough time.

8. If you expect students to wait for more than five minutes for a reaction to happen, ensure they have something to be getting on with.

9. Make sure students know how you expect them to pack up (for example, how to dispose of reaction mixtures, and where to put equipment) and write up.

10. Give yourself enough time to discuss what they have learnt as a class – if you don’t, students will just follow the instructions without learning anything.

Above all, enjoy yourself! It’s a privilege educating the scientists of tomorrow. Practical work is a key part of a scientist’s role, and doing practical work is at the heart of science. Make sure you come up with plenty of practical lesson ideas to keep your lesson plans full!

About the author:

Mark Winterbottom is Senior Lecturer in Science Education at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge and author of Approaches to learning and teaching Science. 

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