Difficulties with practical work – action steps

I hope this trouble shooting guide will help your practical lessons go with the right bang! Click here for further information on practical work in science lessons.

Students don’t know why we are doing the practical but I’ve explained it so many times!

This is hard, but such an important feature of good practical work – if students are not clear on the purpose then practical lessons can be confusing places and this can then spiral into off-task behaviour. There are a few strategies that you can try but first make sure you are clear on your intended goal for the practical lesson: to teach principles of scientific inquiry, to improve understanding of theory through experience, to teach specific practical skills, to motivate and engage students, to develop teamwork, communication and perseverance (purposes taken from Gatsby report)

Top tips

  1. Try to make the outcome of the practical clear before students begin. You can do this by creating a resource that helps to define the outcome e.g. when separating salt, sand and iron get students to first label plastic weighing boats with salt, sand and water before they touch any practical equipment. The objective of the experiment is now clear.
  2. Use a simple context or narrative that makes sense to students e.g. for a lesson on the Benedict’s test  “today we are going to find out which of the following urine samples is from a diabetic“. Don’t over complicate the context as this can actually confuse students further.
  3. Get students to make a prediction before they carry out the practical. This will help to engage students with the question they are going to explore.
  4. Get students to create their results table first – a very simple strategy is to present students with an incomplete results table i.e. one with missing units, or row headings and get students to modify this. Only when students have completed this task can they begin; this can be quite motivating to get started!

Students don’t know how to collect practical equipment 

This is all about training so that procedures become routinised. We want students to think about the science and not where to get the tripod from.

  1. Make sure students are clear on where apparatus is stored in the lab. A nice activity is to get students to draw a bird’s-eye view of the laboratory which is then annotated to show where glassware, reagents and other equipment is stored or picked up from.
  2. Put students in the same group each lesson and make sure roles are established that determine who collects what. Keep this the same for each lesson.
  3. Start with practicals with 3 or 4 pieces of apparatus and then build from there.

Why do students mess around when they are doing practical work?

OK, there are many reasons why behaviour can go array during practical work. I think the first thing is to make sure that you have good behaviour during normal lessons before you brave the lab. Then, it’s really important to ensure that lab skills have been developed over time, in a step by step manner that is mapped in schemes of learning. Don’t expect a lesson to go well if students are meeting complex apparatus for the first time whilst trying to master some difficult concepts – cognitive demand will be too much!

  1. Make sure students have become confident at using some apparatus before more items are introduced. For example, get students to confidently use Bunsen burners and splints before you go anywhere near glassware, thermometers or separating techniques.
  2. Make sure your department has a scheme of learning for practical skills  – when do they learn to fold filter paper, when do they learn to stain cells, when do they learn how to use a clamp? Build on these skills over time ensuring progression and continuity. No one is going to be good at using a microscope if it’s used once in Yr7 and then in Yr9.
  3. Don’t chose practicals that involve lots of apparatus and reagents – in my experience the best practicals are where students have to perform the same procedure over and over again e.g. don’t try and perform all food tests in one lesson, just perform one food test on lots of different foods and perhaps demonstrate the others.

How should I manage behaviour during practical work?

  1. Group sizes of a maximum of 2.
  2. Don’t get sucked into 1-1 conversations during practical work. Plant yourself at the front of the class and ask students to come to you if they have questions or need further guidance. Once students become more accomplished and confident you can then go around and speak with individual groups to provide and get feedback.
  3. Have a periodic table at the ready. If students are unable to behave during the practical just move them to a clear table and ask them to copy out the periodic table. This may seem punitive but it means that you don’t need to waste time finding work that may then result in more questions. You are then free to focus on the rest of the class who are doing it right. At the end of the lesson have a discussion about what went wrong so they can get it right next time.

Students mess around when they finish the practical work 

The key here is to reduce transition times to zero as students move from practical, to clear up, to the next task. To achieve this students need to know what to do before they get there.

  1. Make sure students are clear from the beginning what they need to do when they finish in terms of packing away equipment
  2. Before students begin the practical share the work you want them to complete when they finish the practical. This prevents  dead time waiting for all students to get to the same place and allows students to move at different rates.
  3. At the start of the term allocate lab monitors who can do final checks of equipment and sinks at the end of each lesson. Routine is key!

What do I do if a practical lesson is a disaster?

We have all had practical lessons that were a complete disaster from beginning to end! The key is not to give up and use this feedback to get it right next time! Just as you wouldn’t ignore a student who couldn’t draw a graph we’re not going to ignore a class that can’t complete a practical.

  1. Never be afraid of stopping a practical – re-start next lesson. Have a back-up activity in case you need to do this.
  2. Get students to reflect on what went well and what could be improved. This could be a good Do Now.
  3. Reflect on what went wrong. What were your aims? Had students used the equipment before? Was the procedural and conceptual demand too great? Had the outcome been defined for the students? Were routines established for equipment collection and pack away?
  4. Re-do the practical but this time slightly reduce the level of difficulty by simplifying the apparatus or method, performing a demonstration or clarifying certain routines.


  1. Demonstrations in practical science
  2. Whole class practical work
  3. Scientific inquiry
  4. Troubleshooting practical lessons