Taking a practical approach: planning and designing a compelling hands-on session

The hands-on approach: it’s duly lauded and questioned. Our programmes, however, indicate that kinesthetic learning is sometimes a very powerful way to introduce science learning objectives to students. It works especially well when they’re not able to grasp concepts easily unless they are engaging with the subject directly. It’s for this reason that our teacher-training workshops are heavily focused on how to devise, implement and follow-up on practical sessions being conducted within the classroom laboratory.

We’ve put together a series for science teachers on conducting successful practicals. In this part, we provide four brilliant recommendations on how to prepare before the practical: procuring the right resources that might help you create the session; using a scenario to contextualise the experiment; integrating the lesson firmly within the syllabus; and finally, ensuring that you’ve got everything you need to go ahead.

It’s time to stop the doodling — and try something that sticks.

 

1. Cast your eye far from conventional resources.


Take inspiration from unorthodox sources, and try not to take cues from dated educational handbooks without any window or reference to recent scientific developments. Consult science blogs, such as the Art of Teaching Science or other sources such as Discovery Education, Scientific American Frontiers/PBS, and Smithsonian Education.

In our experience, students are largely aware which experiments are repeated from year to year. Make note of the activities that students anticipate (they will often deliberately bring it to your notice), and ensure these workshops are repeated but with some permutation that ensures it’s in some way novel. Practicals provide an unparalleled opportunity in the classroom to refresh a tried-and-test syllabus — ensure that the resources you utilise to create your session are topical.

 

2. Situate the practical within a story.


Create a relevant narrative, or at the very least, avoid considering the practical an afterthought or distribute purposeless accompanying material. Make each experiment a particular case study, even reinventing the context in which the original experiment was conducted. Forensic science as an inherently applied science works especially well (of course we’d think so), as a scenario can be invented in which specific objectives can be explored (e.g. blood typing).

In our INSETs, we encourage teachers to become more creative about their work by ensuring that the practical has its own storyline. A dissection as a practical session can become significantly more absorbing, for instance, when students become veterinarians conducting a necropsy, and their scientific reports become post-mortem results.

 

3. Reiterate the lesson objectives.


Reference specific curriculum statements to assess knowledge. Neglecting to purposefully list the assessment statements doesn’t provide a frame for the practical session — and this might lead to the task being regarded as irrelevant. The best approach is to introduce the practical by referring to the objectives the workshop intends to cover.

In addition to this introduction, these curriculum statements should be reiterated across all handouts pertaining to experimental methodology, for each step, so students are continually made aware of the crossover between theory and practice. Another strategy is to devise a set of questions (perhaps as part of a comprehension checklist) to query each group as they are working on a given practical.

 

4. Make sure you’re working in a conducive environment.


Be mindful of practical constraints, or alternatively, consider time limitations, possible behavioral issues and the aptitude of the cohort. All such strategies to improve the planning and implementation of the practical may not be sufficient when grappling with a challenging group. Therefore, it is advisable that the instructor use alternative methods of teaching (such as the follow-up activities in isolation) if it is felt that the group would not benefit from such study.

 

Your Turn: What are your biggest problems when attempting to run a practical session? Are your sessions genuinely useful, or do they seem to consume time without imparting real results? Let us know in the comments. We’d like to hear from you.

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