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Rhetoric or reality? A case study into how, if at all, practical work supports learning in the classroom

David Martindill (Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK)
Elaine Wilson (Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK)

International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies

ISSN: 2046-8253

Article publication date: 5 January 2015

Abstract

Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to study the use and value of practical work in the secondary school science classroom. Informed by the findings of a large survey of students from a wide variety of schools, a case study of pupils in the middle secondary range sought to investigate the precise role of practical work in the learning of a specific topic over a series of lessons.

Design/methodology/approach

Qualitative and quantitative assessment of academic progress of two classes of pupils revealed that students who undertook practical tasks made greater gains in knowledge and understanding than those who undertook non-practical alternatives. In order to explore students’ views about the practical tasks and whether they found them to be an affective and effective aid for their learning, data were collected using questionnaires, lesson observations and interviews of focus groups.

Findings

The data suggest three reasons why practical work supported pupils’ learning. First, practical work supported their visualisation of abstract concepts and provided a stimulus for the recall of key facts later. Second, it provided a distinctive opportunity for pupils to work collaboratively, with associated gains. Finally, hands-on tasks promoted a classroom atmosphere rich in variety, semi-autonomous learning and self-discovery, which pupils found intrinsically motivational.

Originality/value

This study, which responds to the criticism practical work has received in recent years, sheds some light on the mechanisms through which the strategy supports learning in certain contexts. Moreover it argues that practical work needs to be effectively planned to maximise the learning gains made by pupils.

Keywords

Citation

Martindill, D. and Wilson, E. (2015), "Rhetoric or reality? A case study into how, if at all, practical work supports learning in the classroom", International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, Vol. 4 No. 1, pp. 39-55. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJLLS-01-2014-0002

Publisher

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited