Resource 3: Planning issues for group practical activities

As with any effective lesson, effective practical work is all about good planning before the lesson and good management during it. Group practical activities present a number of challenges or issues for teachers and students. This resource considers some strategies for improving the effectiveness of group practical work.

Issue 1: Effective groups

In effective group work, everyone in the group knows what to do, understands the purpose of what they are doing and makes a positive contribution to the group’s work.

This means that everyone:

  • has a significant role and knows how to carry out the role effectively
  • contributes to the discussions and decision making (nobody is ‘sitting it out’ or simply copying what someone else says).

You can facilitate groups to function more effectively by:

  • choosing a suitable group size for the activity, so everyone can be involved in group discussions and decisions
  • identifying who will belong to each group
  • identifying clearly what needs to be done (e.g. setting up equipment, taking measurements, recording measurements) so that group members can share out these responsibilities – some jobs may need several people doing them in the same group
  • (if necessary) either assigning roles to each group member yourself or making someone in each group responsible for doing that
  • checking how well each group works during the activity and praising examples of effective group work.

Bear in mind that in mixed groups, boys can often tend to seize control of the equipment and get the girls to do the recording and tidying up!

Issue 2: Safety

Carrying out a risk assessment is an essential part of planning for any practical activity. Where group work is involved, the planning has to take account not only of the intrinsic hazards associated with using particular chemicals, equipment or procedures, but also the effect of large numbers of students doing the activity. Aspects of planning for safe group practical work include the following:

  • Identify all the likely hazards before the lesson. Make sure you have a plan for dealing with any accidents that do happen.
  • Keep unnecessary movement around the room to a minimum. This reduces the risks of collision between people and equipment, and makes it easier for you to see what is going on.
  • You can also reduce the risk of accidents by:
    • establishing routines for working safely
    • limiting the number of different activities going on simultaneously
    • keeping the number of different chemicals needed to a minimum
    • providing appropriate, small quantities of chemicals rather than giving students access to stock bottles.
  • Make sure that your students know the correct, safe way to carry out a procedure before you let them use the procedure as part of an investigation. Include any likely hazards and how to deal with them.
  • Make sure your students know what to do if during a practical activity they burn/scald/cut themselves, spill any chemicals or damage any equipment.

Use the starter to:

  • ensure that students are aware of any specific safety aspects related to the activity
  • demonstrate any procedure that students do not already use regularly.

Issue 3: Establishing routines for practical activities

Establishing some basic routines for practical activities reduces the amount of explanation you have to give, so students can concentrate on the practical activity itself. Types of routines might include the following:

  • Getting ready for a practical activity: what to put away, what to take with you and where to go.
  • Moving around safely.
  • Setting up the practical activity: checking what is needed, collecting basic equipment, collecting specific items.
  • Basic techniques: using a pipette, using a measuring cylinder, folding a filter paper or heating something in a beaker or test tube.
  • Dealing with hot objects, spilt liquids or broken glass.
  • Clearing away.
  • ‘Attention, everybody!’ There are times when you will need to interrupt a practical activity. Whatever the reason, it is important that students know what is expected when you call for their attention.

Issue 4: Making best use of limited time and resources

Whatever type of group practical activity you have decided to use, don’t forget to allow time for a starter and plenary!

Students will be impatient to get on with the practical, but it is vital to take a few minutes to ensure that everyone knows what they are meant to be doing and why. It is also important to take time at the end of the session – when everything is cleared away – to spend a few minutes on a plenary session. Lots of different things will have been happening during the practical, and it is therefore especially important to help students to ‘pull it all together’ and refocus on the learning outcomes before they leave the room. The way you organise a practical activity can make a big difference to the resources you need to use. Two approaches that can reduce the amount resources needed are ‘circus practicals’ and ‘shared investigations’.

Approach 1: ‘Circuses’ or ‘rotating practicals

‘Circuses’, or ‘rotating practicals’, offer a way of providing group practical activities without using many sets of equipment. In this type of practical there are several short activities. Each activity takes place at a different ‘station’, in a different part of the room. Each group visits each station, carries out the activity and moves on to another station. The simplest way is to have stations round the edge of the room and groups moving from one station clockwise round the room to get to the next one.

For this type of activity to work well, there are several things to consider in planning:

  • Keep it focused: Use the circus to support a small number of key ideas effectively.
  • Limit the number of stations: The more stations to visit, the longer the whole practical session will need, because moving around will take up more time.
  • Smaller groups make it easier for students to feel involved: The number of groups needs to be the same as the number of practical stations you can provide. If you can run two complete, identical circuses, then you can halve the group size.
  • Activities should prompt students to observe and think (and discuss!), not just manipulate equipment: Some stations in a circus could just be an object or image that serves as support for a question.
  • Everyone needs to be clear about how the circus practical works: How long do they have at each station? How will you signal that it is time to stop and move on to the next station? Each group needs to know the order or sequence in which to visit stations: if it is not simply a question of (for example) moving clockwise to the next station, then you will need to identify each station with a number or letter and give each group a sequence list.
  • Keep each activity simple, short and clear: When students arrive at a station, it must be clear what they have to do and what they need to find out. Do they need to record anything? How should they leave things for the next group?
  • What should they do while they are waiting? Ideally, each station should take the same amount of time. In practice, some groups will complete an activity more quickly than others. Perhaps you could set the whole class a problem to think about and come up with suggestions at the end of the lesson.

Approach 2: Shared investigations

Where there are several factors to be investigated, it can save on time and resources if different groups take responsibility for investigating one particular aspect. Each group reports back to the whole class so that everyone can benefit from all the results.

Issue 5: ‘Hands on’ and ‘minds on’

The phrase ‘Hands on, minds on’ has often been used in relation to the design of interactive exhibits in museums, but it can also be applied to classroom-based activities. It refers to the importance of ensuring that students are not just ‘busy doing’ but also actively learning from the experience. For this to happen, students need to know the purpose of an activity as well as what they need to do.

Use the starter to:

  • identify a maximum of four learning outcomes
  • direct attention to key questions to ask or things to look out for during the practical activity
  • help student relate what they are about to do to what they have already learnt about.

During the practical activity:

  • check that students understand why they are doing something in relation to the underpinning science, not just procedurally
  • ask students to make predictions (and explain them)
  • ask students to comment on what they have observed or are observing – is it what they expected?

During the plenary:

  • ask each group of students to summarise what they found out – whether it what they expected, or if they found anything odd or surprising.

Resource 2: Planning lessons

Resource 4: Evaluating the effectiveness of a practical activity