Education Research Fellow Update: David Paterson

In 2018, we are providing support for five educators to help them conduct research in the classroom. Support is in the form of funding and mentoring.  Over the year, we will hear about each of the five projects. First up is Dr David Paterson.

David’s project is about practical work – he has given an overview of his plans below, and has recently published a fantastic blog post update detailing progress so far on his own website.

From David:

Practical work is a key part of many science teachers’ repertoire, and is commonly cited by students as a favourite aspect of their science lessons. Practical work has many uses, including exemplifying scientific concepts, developing investigative and practical skills, motivating students and fulfilment of exam specification requirements.

For practical work to be effective, students need to ‘minds-on’ as well as ‘hands-on’ (Abrahams and Reiss, 2016). There are several barriers to students being ‘minds-on’, including unfamiliarity with equipment, noisy and distracting work environment, overloaded practicals (too much to do, not enough time to ‘think’) and literacy issues.

The standard format of a practical activity, a sequential list of instructions with an associated diagram, can be a barrier to ‘minds-on’ practical activities. This can be the case particularly for students with weaker literacy skills, but also for students with stronger literacy skills but less intrinsic motivation towards learning science. These students tend not to read instructions carefully, and/or fail to accurately follow the instructions.

The problem of interpreting complex information presented in multiple forms (written instruction and diagrams) is theorised as the split-attention effect in the Cognitive Load Theory field (Plass et al. 2010). Some studies indicate that integrating written and diagrammatic information reduces the extraneous cognitive load on the student (Ayres & Sweller, 2005). Such integration of information is one of the features of a range of microscale practical activities (e.g. OCR, 2016). This style of information delivery has similar features to one of the ‘six strategies for effective learning’ (dual coding) as advanced by the Learning Scientists group (

The research intends to continue work I have started on adapting currently available practical activity instructions to a ‘integrated diagram’ format, and to try to identify whether there is any benefit to the students.

I have a wide range of practical opportunities available with teaching groups from Year 7 to 13. I have the support of my Head of Department to experiment with the manner in which practical work is used in the classroom, and school support in improving teaching practice through research.

I intend to apply an action-research type methodology:

  • make changes to ‘standard’ practical activities as provided from publically available sources such as examination boards, RSC LearnChemistry and CLEAPSS;
  • gather data on the effectiveness of the practical activities in the form of
    • teacher perception of student engagement – a reflective diary written on the day of the practical
    • student progress through the practical activities – percentages completing/partially completing practical
    • ability of students to answer questions relevant to the activities – assessment of student responses to questions
    • student feedback on the activities – simple questionnaire
  • analysis of these data would then feed into the modifications made to future practical work.
  • recruitment of another school to trial 2-3 of the practicals during the development progress to get external validation of my findings/conclusions.

The expected outcomes of the project would be any general rules for improving the effectiveness of practical work through ‘integrated diagrams’, and a set of modified practical activities available to other teachers.


Abrahams, I. and Reiss, M.J. (2016), Enhancing Learning with Effective Practical Science 11-16, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Ayres, P. & Sweller, J. (2005) The split attention principle. In R. E. Mayer (Ed.), Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning (pp. 135-146). New York: Cambridge University Press.

OCR (2016), Suggested Activity 2: Reactivity of metals,, Access on 30 Oct 2017.

Plass, J.L., Moreno, R. & Brunken, R. (Eds.) (2010), Cognitive Load Theory (pp. 29-47). New York: Cambridge University Press.


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