Journal Club: practical work in supporting learning in chemistry

This week we launch our first journal club. Our Group Chair, Jane Essex, will be discussing two papers on the topic suggested by members: “The role of practical work in supporting learning in chemistry”. This journal club will run from 20th February to 2nd March.

How it works:

Two papers offering some different perspectives are linked. They are publicly available, but if you have any access issues, do let us know.

  1. Kampourakis C. and Tsaparlis, G., 2003. A study of the effect of a practical activity on problem solving in chemistry. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 4(3), pp.319-333. [Available here (CERP is free to access)]
  2. Abrahams, I. and Reiss, M.J., 2012. Practical work: Its effectiveness in primary and secondary schools in England.
    Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 49(8), pp.1035-1055. [Journal Site, Pre-print freely aavailable here (PDF)]

A synopsis of each paper and discussion prompts are below. When you want to comment or add a discussion point, simply enter your comment in the text box below. It is suggested that you type your comment in a Word document and paste the comment in to the comment box, in case there are any glitches. Once your first comment is approved, it will be published and you will be able to post follow up comments immediately. This journal club formally ends on 2nd March but of course discussion can continue! If you tweet, you can announce your contribution using the #cergjc. The CERG Twitter account is @ChemEdResGroup

Article synopses

Kampourakis and Tsaparlis (2003)

The authors gave some students the chance to carry out an ammonia fountain experiment whilst others didn’t. They then explored whether having a real life demonstration of this situation, which involves different gas pressures would improve students’ ‘problem-solving’ (sic) skills. Students were also asked whether they found the experiment helpful in solving the question, which was a calculation based on data from an ammonia fountain experiment. Whilst the students who had done the experiment achieved a better mark for the calculation, there was little evidence that they identified the experiment as helpful to their understanding.

Abrahams and Reiss (2012)

The authors critique the centrality of practical work to learning in science. Observations of pupils’ abilities to manipulate objects in accordance with teacher intentions, and their acquisition of ideas in the way the teacher intended, were assessed. The assessment was carried out by evaluating a small sample of pupil responses and actions, using a framework of outcomes for the topic being studied. Primary school lessons spent less time on the manipulation of objects or materials but more time teaching the target concepts, commonly through developing the understanding of key vocabulary. Conversely, secondary teachers focus more on the manipulative elements of the activity; this is seen as a ‘trade off’ between ‘hands on’ and ‘minds on’ learning by both teachers and researchers. The researchers did not find evidence that practical activities helped to develop scientific understanding, though they did provide ‘anchorage’ for descriptive recall. Further, and more explicit, scaffolding of understanding is required if practical work is to engender the intended learning.

Discussion Prompts

Feel free to address any/all of the following questions:

  1. Is the design of the study good? For example, do you think the indicators of learning used are valid? Is the selection of the sample subjects suitable?
  2. How do the authors help readers to identify the transferability of their findings?
  3. What model(s)/ description(s)/ framework(s) of learning do the authors use in their study?
  4. What aspects of chemistry are being learnt in the study?
  5. Are there alternative interpretations of the data other than that presented by the authors?
  6. What further questions does the work raise?
  7. In what ways are the two articles similar, and in what ways do they differ?

We look forward to a lively discussion!

8 thoughts on “Journal Club: practical work in supporting learning in chemistry

  1. Before commenting on the studies, just wanted to say that I think this journal club is a great idea, and I hope that enough people get on board with it for it to continue!

    I found the choice of practical activity in the Kampourakis and Tsaparlis study interesting, in that the ammonia fountain is a practical activity which is more commonly demonstrated than run as a class practical in the UK. It’s by no means a straightforward activity for pupils to carry out; this, and the fact that only about 10% of the students involved in the study had prior experience of practical work, is likely to have resulted in a high cognitive load for students when carrying out the practical, impacting on their ability to make inferences from any observations. The authors themselves note that “little opportunity… was left for a mental processing of what was going on and why.” The level of scaffolding provided for the practical activity isn’t particularly clear from the study, so it’s not obvious if any attempts were made to reduce the load for students.

    It is also arguable that the study does not sufficiently link the practical work the students are carrying out to the problem they are asked to solve. It seems to fall foul of the problem highlighted in the Abrahams and Reiss study, which points out that we can’t expect ideas and explanations to emerge from practical work without explicit planning for how students learn about the ideas and concepts involved. Aside from working group A, it seems as though relatively little was done to contextualise the practical work and link it to the theory it was expected to support.

    Given all this, it’s interesting that the study still found students who’d carried out the practical achieved marginally higher scores than the control groups. I wonder if this is due more to the instruction received rather than the practical activity? Particularly as the ideal gas equation and molar gas constant weren’t provided in the problem that was set, is it possible that the improved student performance in groups B and C might simply have been due to more of the students in the practical groups recalling these having encountered them more recently?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Andy, yes this is an interesting finding and contrasts with the implications of the other paper. I am a subscriber to the idea that physical experience can aid recollection (variously called ‘haptic learning’ or ‘concrete preparation’), based on a lot of years as a teacher. And maybe that illustrates the point that relevant theoretical frameworks and models are important in making sense of your findings. I will be interested to hear what others think on this subject.


  2. I agree with Jane’s experience of “haptic learning” – seeing the look on a pupil’s face when they mix two colourless liquids and get a white precipitate or when they do chromatography of black ink and it separates into different colours. It really makes an impression. Trouble is, it must be really difficult to show that actually doing the practical makes a difference just because there are so many confounding variables as Andy mentioned. And besides, is the exam result the most important thing? Should we be more concerned about students getting a rich experience?


  3. Thanks, Jenny, that really moves us into the question of what is practical work for? I agree the exam is such a narrow indicator of a wider experience, but it’s what teachers are measured by and so it’s the pressure we feel. At least we don’t have to choose between exams or practical work entirely!


    • I think this question (what is practical work for?) is at the center of all we do in chemistry. Why do we teach labs? Will students remember the details of every technique? Is that important? Or is it because we hope that exposure to the practical side of an experimental science will inspire the students to pursue it? Is that enough of a reason to spend time and resources in this sort of teaching?

      And, to Andy’s point, we show things because we find them interesting, but do they hit the mark with the students? I don’t think this particular activity made things clearer for the students, and in my mind clarity is an important outcome.

      If it looks like I have more questions than answers, that is exactly right. It’s not a bad thing, just lots to think about.


  4. Thank you for the comments thus far. I must say I was particularly interested in the Abraham’s and Reiss paper. I was interested in the framework for measurement of impact of practicals. Taking the example of chromatography, this is a practical I have done numerous times in recent weeks. It is of particular interest to see that researchers suggest a success of learning should be students can set up similar equipment. I must be honest and openly state that I have a bias looking at the assessment of required practicals.
    I like the distinction between manipulation of expats and understanding of ideas.
    With year 8 I have completed a practical on chromatography. The scene was a forgery of a cheque scenario. I gave sample pens one being a sharpie ( which would not run in the chosen solvent). My intentions were very much the mechanistic making a chromatography and a recognition that the choice of solvent is important and allow a discussion of why. It was interesting to see that most students just thought the expt didn’t work.
    At yr 11 chromatography I was doing a required prac on chromatography of food dyes. Again I wanted the mechanistic approach to running a chromatography, along with an explanation of Rf values and a discussion on the limitations of the expt. Again students found it confusing that specific spots were not seen, an ability to critique and apply expats was limited.
    In year 13 chromatography was again used to measure the purity of benzoic acid synthesised in a rewuired prac. At his stage I simply wanted a reflection and comparison with the use of spectroscopic techniques. Students really struggled to move beyond mechanistic approaches. Despite previous lessons, students did not recognise the technique was the same as met previously.
    It does seem to back the findings from Abrahams paper.
    Although I would suggest even when specific time is spent on planning for linking practicals to scientific ideas this outcomes have not consistently been achieved.
    It will be of particular interest to see how practical chemistry will now be assessed, the perception of teachers especially at GCSE May be a material type learning rather than application of scientific ideas.


    • Thank-you for sharing your experiences, which I think many of us will recognise! Whilst I don’t have any answers, I think the Abrahams and Reiss paper points us to the importance of thinking about what learning the practical is intended to elicit. One, personal observation is that linking experiment and ideas takes a lots of rehearsal, and we shouldn’t feel disheartened if our students haven’t got there….yet! Have you seen David Paterson’s work on how experiments are presented? If you haven’t, catch him on @dave2004b


  5. Here are two examples of very difficult experiments to bring off really well. My question is are they suitable for a research project? (I know chromatography as not specially mentioned in the papers but it was raised in the responses.)
    As Andy says the fountain experiment is a one off demo, (well 3 if you count HCl and SO2 versions as well but they are not in the syllabus). What is this showing? It shows that ammonia is soluble in water and if you add an indicator, you see the solution is alkaline. (A physics teacher might be thrilled with a vacuum.) I can provide the students with a stoppered test tube of ammonia and ask them to invert it in a beaker of water with phenolphthalein solution added.
    (And I have a beautiful microscale version of the diffusion and alkalinity of ammonia gas that can be done in 5 minutes in a Petri dish. To me the fountain is an add-on at the end of the lesson just to show off that I am a better chemist than the students in the room. It gives me kudos and I hope respect from them for my skills; yes I am showing off and why not? It takes a good 20 minutes to set up and do by the way, and that is if you know what you are doing and rehearsed it
    Then we come to chromatography, which has such an appealing aspect at primary level and then is repeated at Y8. Here it is dressed up as a CS5 Neasden crime scenario. This crime scenario looks good (especially to Ofsted inspectors and other observers) but the scenario could be distracting students all from what you want to teach, especially if you want to do research in the understanding of the chromatography process. I do not want to distract from that approach, we did it in the 80s as well. I have done stories and scenarios as well in teaching; it is a part of teaching. But now it appears (from the ASE meeting) there is a market of them in science education entertainment, usually fronted by young (Blue Peter type) people in T-shirts and supplying the students with the right clothing.
    Then 3 years later in Y11 (with extra hormones raging in the bodies of the students and lots things happened in their lives), you try the food dyes because it is a skill in the GCSE exam. If there is a practical which should be banned for unreliable results it is paper chromatography. Examiners and authors are still living the days of the 80s when brown Smarties were fantastic. Well EU legislation has moved since then. Then we are fooled by the wonderful artistic diagrams in textbooks and exams with nice spots separated by a measurable difference. In real life, you never get this on paper. You can on TLC but that is quite expensive and often required hazardous UV light to see the results. This is left to 6th form. So chromatography is done in Y5, Y8, Y11 and Y13, often with no mention in between. Students might see it in biology a well. Will they connect the two subjects?
    The other day one of our advisers at CLEAPSS separated the dyes in universal indicator on paper beautifully using no more than 0.1M NaOH as the solvent (that surprised me, the official books were telling me to use butanolic solvents). This was on special chromatography paper so I said, try it on other papers, including Whatman No 1 filter paper which schools would have, and the results were not convincing. Each type of paper gives a different result. The papers take ages to run in teaching time terms, how do we stop the students getting bored?
    In none of this have we shown how chromatography actually works at the nano-level, that consecutive distribution equilibria and adherence of molecules to the stationary phase, via electrostatic attraction. But perhaps that is a bridge to far and need sto be done at Tertiary level. (In the 1980s, I taught this!)


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