Welcome to practical physicsPracticle physics - practical activities designed for use in the classroom with 11 to 19 year olds

Managing open ended practical investigations

Experimental work should never make students feel as if they are just carrying out a detailed set of instructions to find out something that they already know. 

Whatever the constraints on teaching time, it is important that some lessons give students a degree of autonomy in practical investigations and allow them sufficient time to try different approaches. As well as motivating learning, open-ended practical investigations help them to appreciate the nature of scientific enquiry. 
The management of open-ended practical investigations can present challenges for the teacher. Different students in the same class may be carrying out different activities, perhaps as pairs or in small groups, and be at different stages within their investigations. A clear framework is needed to ensure that all students continue to work successfully and at a good pace throughout the allocated time. 
These strategies help to make open-ended investigations successful:  

  • Make clear at the start a minimum data set or equivalent required for all groups (e.g. ‘three variables need to be investigated, with at least 8 sets of repeated results for each one’). Also, make clear what written work needs to be produced. 
  • At the outset of a practical session, get each student (or student group) to agree a target with the teacher (e.g. “in this lesson we will collect at least 10 sets of results for mass against acceleration”). This could be done in advance of the session. 
  • Organize lessons so that there are allocated times for planning, for practical work and for ‘writing up’. Ideally, there should be at least one practical session after an initial ‘writing up’ session, so that students have an opportunity to repeat and check results, or to refine their method. This will help to encourage students to improve their results.  

Practical investigations can be a stimulating and interesting part of students’ science education. A balance may need to be struck so that they enjoy what they are doing but also learn through their experiences. 


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