1 What kind of practical work?

Effective practical work is practical work that leads to more effective learning. It is both ‘hands on’ and ‘minds on’. There are several broad types of practical work, each with its own benefits and planning issues:

  • demonstration
  • structured practical
  • ‘rotating’ practical or ‘circus’ practical
  • investigation
  • problem solving.

With the exception of demonstrations, all the types of practical work involve students working in pairs or groups. Investigations and problem solving practicals give students the opportunity for independent, creative work, while structured practicals are good for becoming familiar with and practising standard techniques. Circus practicals can help reduce the need for equipment. You can find more about each type of practical work in Resource 1.

The choice of what kind of practical work to use depends on the purpose of the activity as well as on time and resource constraints. ‘Purpose’ or ‘what students should learn’ refers to the conceptual science knowledge or laboratory procedures. It also refers to investigative skills, presentation and communication skills, and group working skills: all skills need to be taught and practised.

It is useful to spend time teaching students a set of routines for carrying out group practical activities. This will enable students to spend relatively more time on the key purpose of the activity as they will know what is expected of them in a practical activity.

An effective group practical lesson depends on effective planning before the lesson; you need to select the best type of activity and also think about timing, organisation and what you will do during the practical activity.

For any activity, it is important to ask ‘What do I want students to learn?’ and ‘Where does the learning happen in this activity?’

Pause for thought

  • What types of practical work have you used?
  • Which type do you enjoy most?
  • Which type do you feel most comfortable with?
  • Which types have you seen other teachers use?

Case Study 1: Teaching gravitation and using activities

Mr Gupta decides to review his plans for Class IX practical activities on gravitation.

Previously, I have used demonstrations for most of the practical activities with Class IX. This year, I would like to introduce some different types of practical work into my lessons. The next topic will be gravitation, so I have decided to review the different activities in the Class IX gravitation chapter and decide which ones to keep as demonstrations and which ones might work better if I planned them as group practicals.

Three issues will affect my decisions:

  • There are many students in Class IX and I do not have a lot of equipment.
  • I have not done much group practical work before, and I am a bit worried that it may be difficult to control some of my students when they are working in groups.
  • Whatever way I choose to plan an activity, my students must see the point of the activity quickly and not get distracted.

Today I made a table for all the practical activities in Chapter 10 [Table 1]. I filled in information about each activity, and my reasons for using a demonstration or a group practical activity:

Table 1 Choosing practical activities to match teaching points.
Activity Key teaching points Type of activity Reasons and comments
10.1 Circular motion at a steady speed involves acceleration. For circular motion there must be a force on the object directed towards the centre of the circle. Without this force, the object moves in a straight line. Gravi­tational force keeps the Moon in orbit around the Earth, etc. Teacher demonstration Projectile hazard when the stone is released – too risky – I need to control this! Demonstration can be done quickly and will keep student’s attention
10.2 Gravitational force – objects fall back to earth when thrown upwards. Objects in freefall show constant acceleration towards the surface of the Earth Teacher demonstration Potential hazard/control issue – over-enthusiastic stone throwing! I need to do this
10.3 Effect of air resistance means paper does not fall as rapidly as a stone. But without air resistance, all objects fall at the same rate. Demonstration by selected students for the air part, then teacher demonstration – or video clip of astronaut demo on the Moon if no vacuum pump available. You could download a clip onto your mobile phone and pass it around for all to see. More motivating to get some students actively involved.
10.4 Need to push down on a bottle containing air to keep it underwater by overcoming buoyancy force from water. Upthrust – upward force on an object in a liquid Group practical More memorable and more fun if students experience the force themselves, But if they are over-excited then it could be a demonstration with student participation
10.5 and 10.6 Nail sinks in water but cork floats. If weight > upthrust force, object sinks. Upthrust depends on density of liquid and density of object; if object density > liquid density, object sinks Demonstration with additional directed questioning Potentially messy and students think they already know the answer. Quick demonstration with directed questions will give a chance to check their understanding of the forces involved
10.7 Apparent weight measured by a spring balance/extended spring/taut string decreases as object lowered into water – this is due to upthrust from the liquid Group practical Doesn’t need much equipment and worth letting students experience the effect on the spring/string/elastic band for themselves

So I am planning to try group practicals instead of demonstrations for just two of the activities in this topic, but I am going to make more use of student helpers for some of the demonstrations.

Activity 1: Planning practical activities

This activity will help you to plan practical activities for your class.

Mr Gupta uses the textbook produced by the National Council of Educational Research and Training. Use your own textbook to make a table similar to the one that Mr Gupta made for the chapter on gravitation. Look at the range of practical activities that you could do. Use Resource 1 to make sure that you plan at least two different types of practical work. Keep this plan to use it as you teach gravitation.

Pause for thought

What are your key issues when you plan for practical work?

Obviously you need to think about the equipment that you have and how to improvise if necessary. However, you also need to think about how to organise your students into groups, what they will actually do and what they will learn by doing it. You can find out more in Resource 2, 'Planning lessons'.

Activity 2: Planning a structured practical

This activity will help you to plan for using practical work to help students learn about gravitation. You will need to refer to Resources 1 and 3.

In this activity you are going to plan for a structured practical.(For example, teaching about buoyancy using Activity 10.4 in the textbook.) The key teaching points for this activity are noted in Table 1.

Use Resource 1 to identify the key features and benefits of a structured practical. Then look at Resource 3. Use it to help you plan for doing this activity with your class, using the checklist below (Table 2). Some boxes have been partially filled in already.

Table 2 Structured practical checklist.
Issues and information Action needed/notes
What do I want students to learn?
Forward planning: what equipment do I need?

Access to sinks

Bowls – big enough to immerse bottles

Plastic bottles with screw tops

Check there will be enough bowls or sinks for each group.

Ask students to bring in a small plastic drinks bottle with a screw cap for lesson on …

Timing: how long should the practical activity take? How much time should I allow for setting up and putting away?
Groups: how big should they be? Who should be in each group? Where will each group work?
Safety: What are the potential problems? Water splashes and spillages – slippery floor Make sure students mop up any spillages straight away
Issues and information Action needed/notes
Where does the learning happen? What are the key things tor students to notice?

What information will my students need to know before they do the activity? Do I need to add any questions or information to the textbook activity?

What routines or standard procedures will my students need to carry out this activity?

Now use this plan to help you carry out the practical activity with your students. Were all students involved in the activity? Were all the male and female students involved? Will you use these student groups next time?

Why this approach is important

2 Using an investigative approach in practical work on gravitation