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Does Practical Work Really Motivate? A

study of the affective value of practical work
in secondary
school science
Ian Abrahams
Institute of Education, University of London, UK Published
online: 27 Oct 2009.

To cite this article: Ian Abrahams (2009): Does Practical Work Really Motivate? A study of the
affective value of practical work in secondary school science, International Journal of Science Education,
31:17, 2335-2353

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International Journal of Science Education
Vol. 31, No. 17, 15 November 2009, pp. 2335-2353 RRoutledge
Taylor & Francis Group


Does Practical Work Really Motivate? A

study of the affective value of practical
work in secondary school science

Ian Abrahams1
Institute of Education, University of London, UK
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The present paper reports on a study that examined whether practical work can be said to have affective outcomes, and if so in
what sense. The term affective is used here to refer to the emotions, or feelings, engendered amongst pupils towards school
science in general, or one of the sciences in particular. The study is based on 25 multi-site case studies that employed a
condensed fieldwork strategy. Data were collected, using tape-recorded interviews and observational field notes, in a sample of
practical lessons undertaken in English comprehensive (non-selective) schools during Key Stages 3 and 4 (ages 11-14 years and
15-16 years, respectively). The findings suggest that whilst practical work generates short-term engagement, it is relatively
ineffective in generating motivation to study science post compulsion or longer-term personal interest in the subject, although it
is often claimed to do so. This suggests that those involved with science education need to develop a more realistic
understanding of the limitations of practical work in the affective domain.


In countries with a tradition of practical work in school science (such as the UK), practical work is often seen, by
teachers and others (particularly scientists), as central to the appeal of science. There is also evidence that pupils
prefer practical work to other methods of teaching science (Cerini, Murray, & Reiss, 2003).
Yet despite the frequent and widespread use of practical work in English schools (Bennett, 2003; Millar,
2004; Third International Mathematics and Science Study, 1999), and the common perception amongst teachers
that its use motivates pupils

1 Institute of Education, University of London, 20 Bedford Way, London, WC1H 0AL, UK. Email: i.abrahams@ioe.ac.uk

ISSN 0950-0693 (print)/ISSN 1464-5289 (online)/09/172335-19

2009 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/09500690802342836
2336 I. Abrahams

(Wellington, 2005), recent studies (Abrahams, 2007; Haste, 2004) have shown that pupils attitudes towards
secondary school science become progressively more negative over time. Indeed, the absolute number of pupils
choosing to pursue science at A-level is in steady decline (Osborne, Simon, & Collins, 2003)a decline that is
most pronounced in chemistry and physics (House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, 2002),
arguably the two science subjects that offer the most practical work during Key Stages 3 and 4. 1
However, despite the potential affective value of practical work, it is important to recognise that a pupils
decision to pursue science beyond the compulsory stage of their education is likely to be more strongly
influenced by a variety of factors; for example, career and/or university aspirations (House of Commons Science
and Technology Committee, 2002), relevance (Jenkins & Pell, 2006), or the personality and teaching approach of
individual teachers (Jarvis & Pell, 2005; Reiss 2005). Whilst recognising the potential affective value of such
influences (indeed, the findings of this study lend credence to the potential value of career aspirations as a means
of motivating pupils towards the study of science), the focus of the present study has been to examine the
affective value of practical work itself rather than to address the broader issue of what factors influence
positively or negativelypupils subject choices.
Hodson suggests five reasons that teachers might be expected to give for using practical work, one of these
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being To motivate by stimulating interest and enjoyment (1990, p. 34). The House of Commons Science and
Technology Committee (2002) likewise claims practical work is absolutely essential in creating enthusiasm
(Question 514).
Whilst the term motivate was frequently used by science teachers within this study to describe the value of
practical work, the following illustrates (all names used within the study are pseudonyms) what is often meant by

I think in most instances its short-term engagement for that particular lesson rather than general motivation
towards science. In general I think its very difficult to motivate kids in Year 10 and 11 into thinking about
engaging in science and thinking about science in terms of thats a career that I want to follow. (Mr Rainton)

Are teachers, we might then ask, using this term in its strict psychological sense or as a catch-all term that
embodies elements of interest, fun, enjoyment, and engagement?
Teachers are not the only ones to say one thing and mean another. Bandura suggests that the terms motivate
and interest have been used, in the literature, to mean the same thing even though there is a major difference
between a motive, which is an inner drive to action, and an interest, which is a fascination with something (1986,
p. 243; emphasis added). An example of this can be seen in Lazarowitz and Tamir (1994), who claim that
practical work motivates pupils, citing in support of this Ben-Zvi, Hofstein, Samuel, and Kempa (1977), Henry
(1975), and Selmes, Ashton, Meredith, and Newal (1969), even though these studies focused almost exclusively
on the issue of pupil interest rather than motivation. Indeed, of these three citations, only in Henry is the term
motivation actually used, albeit only once,
Affective Value of Practical Work in Secondary School Science 2337

when Henry, citing no sources, simply states that In addition, psychological reasons can be proposed which
relate to the improved motivation of pupils by the inclusion of laboratory exercises in the science program (1975,
p. 73).

Framework for Considering the Affective Value of Practical Work

What the examples above illustrate is the similarity between the lack of precision in the definition and use of key
terms when discussing the affective value of practical work and those relating to attitudes to science (Ramsden,
1998). To avoid what Ramsden (1998, p. 127) criticises as the overlap of terminology, it is necessary both to
clarify what terms such as motivation and personal interest mean in a psychological sense and also to consider
how such terms can be effectively operationalised. As Wellington suggests, in talking about the motivational
value of practical work, the question as to [w]hat does it motivate pupils to do? (2005, p. 101) needs to be
answered. It is, after all, relatively easy to make general claims about the affective value of practical work; it is
quite another to state what such claims actually mean in terms of specific observable consequences.
It is to a consideration of the psychological literature that we now turn.
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Motivation, in the context used here, refers to an inner drive to action (Bandura, 1986, p. 243) that, in terms of
observable consequences, might manifest itself in a pupils decision to actively pursue the study of one, or more,
science subjects in the post-compulsory phase of their education, or in additional voluntary actions undertaken by
the pupil. Such actions might include participating in a science club, doing more than required for homework (or,
at the very least, doing all that is required well), reading science books/magazines, watching science programmes
on television, viewing science-based web sites, visiting places of scientific interest, and the like. A comparison of
claims regarding the motivational value of practical work, with pupils actions both in and out of the laboratory
including particularly their intentions to pursue science in the post-compulsory phase and, if so, in which of the
three sciences (and the reasons for this)provides a useful means of appraising the extent to which such claims
are supported by the evidence.
If, as has been claimed (Hannon, 1994; Henry, 1975; Lazarowitz & Tamir, 1994), practical work does
motivate, then it might be expected, given the frequent use of practical work in English schools (Millar, 2004;
Third International Mathematics and Science Study, 1999), that all three sciences would be amongst the most
popular subjects pursued post-compulsion. The findings of the House of Commons Science and Technology
Committee suggest that in fact the converse is true and the proportion of A level entries accounted for by
chemistry and physics is falling ... (2002, p. 23). It could logically be argued that without the frequent use of
practical work in chemistry and physics throughout Key Stages 3 and 4, the number of pupils pursuing these two
subjects might be even lower. However, the increased use of practical
2338 I. Abrahams

work that accompanied the Nuffield-inspired changes to the curriculum during the 1960s did not, as Hodson
(1990) has noted, result in any increase in the number of pupils choosing to pursue science post compulsion, as
might have been anticipated had practical work been an effective motivating factor. In fact, a report by the
Department of Education and Science (1968)The Dainton Report, produced at a time when Nuffield-inspired
changes to the curriculum might have been expected to increase the uptake of science at A-levelfound that
the number of pupils pursuing science at this level had actually decreased.
There is, however, a need to recognise that the educational system in England, in which pupils are required to
specialise at the end of Key Stage 4, must result in some pupils not pursuing their study of science because of
positive choices in favour of other subjects, rather than negative views of, or a lack of motivation towards,
science. However, the old adage that actions speak louder than words lends credence to the claim by Bennett
(2003) that, whilst certain practical tasks can generate interest and/ or engagement within a particular lesson,
there is little evidence to suggest that they motivate pupils towards science in general or, more importantly,
towards the further study of one (or more) of the sciences in particular.
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Prenzel suggests that the term interest, as commonly used, describes preferences for objects (1992, p. 73)
where the term objects is used in a very broad sense as, for example, when someone claims to have an interest
in sport. Within the psychological literature the term interest is used more precisely to refer to a persons
interaction with a specific class of tasks, objects, events, or ideas (Krapp, Hidi, & Renninger, 1992, p. 8; original
emphasis). Whilst this description of interest is widely accepted (Hidi & Harackiewicz, 2000), many
psychological theorists make a distinction between what have been termed personal interest and situational
interest (Bergin, 1999; Hidi & Harackiewicz, 2000). To evaluate what is actually meant by claims that practical
work generates interest, it is necessary to understand that these two types of interest differ appreciably one from
the other.

Personal interest. Personal interest, sometimes referred to as individual interest, is primarily concerned with the
relative ranking of an individuals preferences. As Bergin makes clear, the individual approach [to interest] asks
what dispositional preferences people hold, or what enduring preferences they have for certain activities or
domains of knowledge (1999, p. 87; emphasis added). Recent studies in the area of personal interest (Renninger,
1998; Schiefele, 1996) have found that children who undertake a particular activity, or study a subject, in which
they already have a personal interest will, relative to children with no prior personal interest, be observed to pay
closer attention to, learn more from, and engage for longer with, any new material that they are presented with.
The relationship between personal interest in, and knowledge of, a subject or activity arises because individuals
prefer, when given
Affective Value of Practical Work in Secondary School Science 2339

a choice, to study what already interests them (Bergin, 1999). By increasing their knowledge of that subject, or
activity, they increase their personal interest in it (Alexander, 1997; Alexander, Jetton, & Kulikowich, 1995;
Deci, 1992), yet further developing what might usefully be thought of as a system of positive feedback.
Numerous factors can stimulate personal interest. Bergin (1999) suggests relevance, competence,
identification, cultural value, social support, background knowledge, and emotionsall of which are, generally
speaking, beyond a teachers immediate domain of influence. Whilst personal interest can be an important factor
in effective learning (Schiefele, Krapp, & Winteler, 1992), it is not something that is, in the short term,
susceptible to teacher influence (Bergin, 1999; Hidi & Harackiewicz, 2000).

Situational interest. Situational interest refers to the interest that is stimulated in an individual as a consequence
of their being in a particular environment or situation (Bergin, 1999; Hidi & Harackiewicz, 2000; Krapp et al.,
1992), such as, for example, when a pupil undertakes practical work within a science laboratory. Unlike personal
interest, situational interest is susceptible to teacher influence in the short term (Hidi & Anderson, 1992; Hidi &
Berdorff, 1998). Although it is less likely than personal interest to endure over time (Hidi & Harackiewicz, 2000),
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it does provide an opportunity for teachers to influence the effectiveness of pupil learning in specific lessons in a
positive manner (Hoffmann & Haussler, 1998).
It should be noted that whilst personal interest is relatively stable, and hence resistant to influence by the
teacher, it is not immune to situational influences. In discussing the generation of personal interest, Bergin
stresses that personal or individual factors always interact with situational factors to create interest, or lack of
interest (1999, p. 89), a claim endorsed by Hidi and Harackiewicz (2000).
Despite the possible role of practical work in stimulating situational interest, there has been no specific
research to ascertain what particular situational factors, if any, make a practical task appear more, or less,
interesting to the pupils. To date the only studies that have been undertaken on the issue of how to increase pupil
interest have been those that have examined the factors that influence the degree of situational interest stimulated
by different types of text (Hidi, 1990; Hidi & Anderson, 1992; Wade & Adams, 1990). These studies have shown
that situational interest is stimulated to a greater extent by texts that were characterised by the researchers as
surprising, vivid, intense, and novel. This study has also found (Abrahams & Miller, 2007) that practical tasks
that formed memorable episodes (White, 1991) also shared these same characteristics.
It should be recognised that whilst it has been reported that pupils themselves claim to like practical work
(Ben-Zvi et al., 1977; Henry, 1975; Hofstein, Ben-Zvi, & Samuel, 1976), or that teachers claim that their pupils
like practical work (Jakeways, 1986), such claims do not necessarily imply that the pupils are in fact interested in
it. This point is of particular relevance given that a necessary condition for personal interest in a subject or
activity is that the individual concerned also likes that subject or activity per se (Schiefele, 1991). In contrast an
interest in and a liking of a
2340 I. Abrahams

subject can, in the case of situational interest, arise independently of each other (Hidi & Anderson, 1992).
It is also necessary to recognise that interest in doing a particular practical task as evidenced by the
pupils apparent involvement with the objects, materials, and phenomenadoes not imply cognitive engagement
with any, or all, of the intended ideas or concepts. It has been reported (Blumenfeld & Meece, 1988) that pupils
can be fully engaged and seemingly interested in what they were doing without their being cognitively engaged
with the task in a manner that would have been necessary for them to have learnt what the teacher intended.
Indeed, Bergin cautions that although most teachers aspire to increase the interest of their students, they should
keep in mind the fact that interest enhancement does not necessarily lead to learning enhancement (1999, p. 96).
The literature has shown that there is a clear distinction, within psychological theory, between the terms
motivation, situational interest, and personal interest. Analysing the comments and actions (actual and/or
intended) of both teachers and pupils using this psychological framework provides an effective and consistent
means of evaluating the affective value of practical work.

Research Strategy and Methods

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Previous large-scale questionnaire-based studies of practical work in English and Welsh secondary schools
(Beatty & Woolnough, 1982; Kerr, 1964; Thompson, 1975) have focused on the rhetoric of practical work. That
is, whilst they explored the views and opinions of teachers and students, they did not examine and/or compare
such views with actual practice. Indeed, Crossley and Vulliamy (1984) have suggested that questionnaire-based
surveys are more likely to reproduce existent rhetoric than to provide accurate insights into the reality of teaching
within its natural setting. As similar objections have been raised to the use of studies based solely on interviews
(Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2000; Hammersley & Atkinson, 1983), this study adopted a multi-site approach,
involving a series of 25 case studies in different settings, similar in scale to those undertaken by Firestone and
Herriott (1984) and Stenhouse (1984). This approach enabled the researcher to focus on the observation of actual
practices and to augment these with interviews conducted in the context of these observations.
There are a number of precedents in which case studies have been used, within an educational context, to
explore the relationship between rhetoric and reality (see, e.g., Ball, 1981; Sharp & Green, 1976). The use of case
studies also offers the potential for achieving a higher degree of external validity and generalisability to other
settings: what Bracht and Glass (1968) refer to as ecological validity. As well as the fact that studying numerous
heterogeneous sites makes multi-site studies one potentially useful approach to increasing the generalizability of
qualitative work (Schofield, 1993, p. 101), such an approach also avoids what Firestone and Herriott (1984)
refer to as the radical particularism of the traditional single in-depth case study.
Affective Value of Practical Work in Secondary School Science 2341
Table 1. School samples
School Location Size Age range (years) Education authority

Derwent Urban 500 11-16 A

Foss Urban 1,480 11-18 A
Kyle Urban 1,550 11-18 B
Nidd Rural 890 11-18 B
Ouse Rural 630 11-18 B
Rye Rural 720 C
Swale Rural 670 11-16 B
Ure Rural 1,280 11-18 C

Eight schools were approached, with the head of the science department being asked for permission to
observe one or more science lessons at national curriculum Key Stage 3 or Key Stage 4 (students aged 11-14
years and 15-16 years, respectively) that involved some student practical work, to talk to the teacher about the
lesson, and perhaps also to talk to some of the students. All the schools approached were maintained state
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comprehensive schools (all school names are pseudonyms), in a variety of urban and rural settings. Some of their
characteristics are presented in Table 1. As a group they were broadly representative of secondary schools in
One other factor influenced the nature of the science lessons we requested permission to observe. The English
national curriculum divides the science curriculum into four main strands, or attainment targetsone of which
is called Scientific Enquiry and is about developing students understanding of the scientific approach to
enquiry and their skill in using it. This is assessed, at ages 14 and 16 years, through one or more written reports
by each student on a practical investigation they have carried out. Donnelly, Buchan, Jenkins, Laws, and Welford
(1996), in a detailed exploration of this aspect of the English national curriculum, point out that extended and
more open-ended investigative practical tasks are rarely used to teach students about scientific enquiry, but
almost entirely to assess their performance in conducting an enquiry scientifically. In identifying practical tasks to
observe, we wanted to observe (and thought we would be more likely to be given permission to observe) teaching
situations where no high-stakes assessment was involved. We also knew that open-ended enquiry tasks typically
extend over several science lessons, and would therefore require several visits to observe the complete task. We
therefore chose to restrict our data-set to a broad range of practical tasks that were not being used for assessment
purposes, which in practice meant that we observed tasks associated (in teachers minds) with the teaching of the
biology, chemistry, and physics strands of the national curriculum.
Typically on arrival at the school, the head of science would present the researcher with a list of lessons that
were taking place on that day and that it would be possible to observe and, as such, we had limited control of the
content or subject matter of the lessons actually observed in each school. Choices were made, whenever practical
2342 I. Abrahams

considerations of timing permitted, to allow pre-lesson and post-lesson teacher interviews, with the aim of
achieving a reasonably balanced coverage of the five school years in Key Stages 3 and 4 by the end of the study,
and of ensuring that the sample included biology, chemistry, and physics topics. Whilst the sample was not
unduly large, it was felt, on the basis that later lesson observations in the sequence appeared to raise the same
issues as earlier ones, that data saturation had been achieved by this point and that nothing would be gained by
increasing the size of the sample further.
Field notes were taken in each lesson observed, and tape-recorded interviews were carried out with the
teacher before and after the lesson. The pre-lesson interview was primarily used to get the teachers account of
the practical work to be observed and of his or her view of the learning objectives of the lesson. The postlesson
interview collected the teachers reflections on the lesson, its success as a teaching and learning event, and their
views on the affective value/role of practical work. Where possible, conversations with groups of students during
and after the lesson were also tape-recorded. These conversations provided an opportunity to gain insights into
the students thinking not only about the task that they were observed undertaking, but also with regards to the
affective value of practical work in general.
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Pupils Claims to Like Practical Work

Almost all of the pupils questioned in this study said that they liked practical work. Yet when these responses
were probed further it was found that in many cases it was not that the pupils actually liked practical work per
sealthough some pupils in Year 7 did, and these will be discussed laterbut merely preferred it to most
alternative methods of teaching science. In contrast to Head (1982), who reported finding an appreciable minority
of pupils who expressed a dislike of practical work, in this study one pupil claimed to dislike practical work, on
the basis that it was boring, whilst 96 students claimed to like it. Because of time constraints it was not possible
to question all of the pupils, but there seems no reason to believe that the responses obtained are not
representative of the pupils involved in the study as a whole. Pupils reasons for claiming to like practical work
are presented in Table 2, in which there are two types of claim: those indicative of a relative preference
(containing comparative terms such as better than, less than, more than), and what might be termed absolute
claims (such as it is fun, it is exciting, I just like it). An asterisk indicates a relative preference.
Of the 96 claims, 65 (68%) are indicative of a relative preference for practical work whilst 31 (32%) are
absolute. Whilst the sample size (N 96) was relatively small, and not all year groups were equally
represented, it is still possible to compare the proportion of absolute and relative responses given by pupils in
each Year groupand these results are presented in Table 3.
Affective Value of Practical Work in Secondary School Science 2343
Table 2. Pupils reasons for claiming to like practical work (N = 96)

Number of pupils offering such a

Generic category of response work Pupils reasons for claiming to like practical work

Because it is less boring than writing*
Reasons that related to the Because it is fun
affective value of practical work 4
Because it is better than listening to the teacher*

Because it is better than reading from a textbook*

Because it is better than theory* 1
Because it is exciting 1
Because it is more believable* 1
Because it is better than work* 1
Reasons relating to making, Because you get to make/do things 10
doing and seeing Because you can see what happens
Because you get to find things out 1
Because you gain an experience
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Reasons relating to learning, Because you will remember it better* 3
understanding and recollecting Because you learn more* 3
Because it helps you understand better*

Note: *relative preference.

What emerges clearly from Table 3 is that after Year 7, in which the majority of pupil responses were
absolute, the situation reverses to one in which the majority of claims to like practical work have become
statements of relative preference. This remains much the same in Years 8, 9, and 10 before shifting even further
towards relative in Year 11. One possible explanation for this is that, amongst Year 7 pupils, many of these
practical tasks provide the first opportunity to use scientific equipment and/or materials and this is something that
the pupils appear to like in an absolute sense. Many Year 7 pupils spoke excitedly simply about being allowed
to use standard

Table 3. Comparison of absolute and relative responses by year group

Number of Number of relative Percentage of absolute Percentage of relative
Group absolute responses responses responses responses

Year 7 14 12 54 46
Year 8 8 23 26 74
Year 9 2 7 22 78
Year 10 6 16 27 73
Year 11 13 87
1 8
2344 I. Abrahams

pieces of laboratory equipment and/or materials such as Bunsen burners, electrical wire, and acidssomething
that was not observed amongst pupils in later years. The following extracts are a sample of the comments made
by Year 7 pupils.
FS11: FS10: At the beginning of the year we got red cabbage liquid and ... [Interrupting.]
FS11: Yeah it was great fun.
We was adding acid to it and different kinds of real chemicals and seeing what colour it turns
Researcher: stuff. It were fun.
KG5: Do you like practical work?
Yeah because we get to use proper wire for the first time and we get to use a six vec [s/c]
[volt] battery thing which is very powerful.

What the data in Table 3 suggest is that an absolute liking of practical work, which arises out of the fun,
enjoyment, and excitement that many pupils appear to associate with using new equipment and/or materials in
what is a novel environmentthe science laboratorystarts to wane during the latter part of their first year at
secondary school. Whilst the onset of a decline in pupil interest in science (practical work was not considered
independently) from Year 7 onwards has been reported (Bennett, 2003; Doherty & Dawe, 1988), the fact that this
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study found almost one- half (46%) of the Year 7 claims (Table 3) regarding practical work were already claims
of relative preference lends credence to the findings of Pell and Jarvis (2001) that a decline in interest in science
may start before pupils reach secondary school.
Because it appears that many pupils, especially after Year 7, cease to like practical work in an absolute
sense, the interest that it generates seems best described as situational rather than personal. Since situational
interest does not persist beyond the immediate period of an individuals interaction with the subject or activity
(Hidi & Harackiewicz, 2000), it might be expected that without regular practical workto re-stimulate
situational interestpupils will perceive science as boring despite their having used practical work on numerous
previous occasions. This does, in fact, seem to be what was observed in this study. The following extract
illustrates how an underlying view that science, as a subject, is boring emerged as soon as it was suggested that
practical work, the source of situational interest, be either reduced or removed from science lessons:

Researcher: What do you think science would be like if there was less practical?
KD13: Boring. If you come in and theres no practical its not as fun, youre just
sitting down writing stuff from the textbook.

Yet the following example illustrates that whilst practical work might be preferred to theory, it is not necessarily
succeeding in motivating pupils towards the study of science as a subject in the post-compulsory phase of their

Have you enjoyed this practical?

Yeah it was all right; it wasnt as fun as other ones weve had though.
Are you going to take science at A level?
No not really Im not really in to it all.
But you did say you liked practical.
Yeah but, cause sometimes its fun, and practicals easier than, well, writing.
Affective Value of Practical Work in Secondary School Science 2345

Such claims illustrate that, for many pupils, practical work is perceived as distinct from, and separate to, science
as a subject. Indeed, it emerged that a preference for practical work within science did not always imply a
preference for science over other subjects.
The implication here is that even when pupils claim to prefer science practical work to other subjects, and it
must be emphasised here that the preference is not for science as a subject but rather the practical work
component within it, their reasons for doing so appear to have little to do with personal interest in the subject per
se. As with a previous study (Hodson, 1990), this study has found that, generally speaking, pupils regard
practical work as a less boring alternative to other methods (Hodson, 1990, p. 34).
Another way to look at the data in Table 2 is to divide the reasons pupils gave for liking practical work into
three broad categories:

i Reasons that related to their affective response to practical work.

ii Reasons that related to doing things with objects and ideas.
iii Reasons that related to learning about objects and ideas.

As Table 2 shows, claims in the broad affective category constitute the largest group of reasons given by pupils
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for liking practical work, accounting for 77% of all responses. It is important to point out that some of the reasons
for claiming to like practical work within this category, as the following quotation illustrates, are less of a
positive endorsement of practical work than a desire to avoid having to write and/or do too much work:

Do you like practical work?

Yeah its better than doing other work.
What other work?
Like writing.
Do you think this is going to be an exciting experiment?
Well its not exactly exciting but its better than working all the time in the lesson.
Do you think this particular practical helps you in any way?
No, its just less boring.
Researcher: This view, that practical work does not involve working lends credence to the view
expressed by Dr Kettlesing, one of the teachers in the study, who, when asked why she
SW1: thought practical work was popular amongst pupils, claimed: I think its [practical work]
just an easy option. Likewise Mr Normanby, a head of department, expressed a similar
Researcher: view when he claimed that the popularity of practical work amongst pupils was, in part,
SW1: due to the fact that it avoided their having to think.
Of the remaining pupils, 15% cited issues relating to making, doing, and seeing as their reason for liking
practical work whilst only 8% claimed that they liked it because it helped them to learn, understand, and recollect
ideas and concepts. This suggestsand similar findings have been reported by Cerini et al. (2003)that, despite
many of the pupils claiming to like practical work better than non-practical
2346 I. Abrahams

alternativesin particular, writingfew pupils see it as a better way of learning about, and understanding,
scientific ideas and concepts.

Teachers Views on the Affective Value of Practical Work

Whist some teachers initially used the term motivation when talking about the value of practical work, it
emerged, during further discussions with them, that they were frequently using the term motivate to mean
situational interest. As situational interest is unlikely to endure beyond a particular lesson (Hidi & Harackiewicz,
2000), the need to continually re-stimulate the pupils, through the regular use of practical work, becomes more
understandable. It might be argued here that the fact that pupils sometimes enter a science laboratory requesting
to do practical work exemplifies the motivational value of practical work and that its frequent use is designed to
enhance the effect. However, the fact that it was reported by the teachers that the absence of practical work for
even a few lessons, even amongst pupils who have been undertaking regular practical work for almost 5 years,
made them behav- iourally harder to manage, suggests that its affective value is better understood in terms of its
generating non-enduring situational interest than any form of enduring motivation towards science as a subject.
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Value of Situational Interest

It is perhaps useful at this point to examine the reasons given by teachers for wanting to generate what is,
essentially, a non-enduring form of interest. What emerged from the comments made by the teachers was that
they perceived practical work as having two, very distinct, affective purposes:

i To help in the behavioural management of the classparticularly with low to low/middle academic ability
ii To help off-set the image of science as difficult, dull, and boring by presenting an alternative, arguably
misleading, image of science in which the emphasis is primarily on doing fun and enjoyable hands-on
work rather than on learning about ideas (Abrahams, 2007).

Role of Practical Work in Behaviour Management

Some of the comments made by teachers, as the following example illustrates, show how pupils frequently arrive
at science lessons with the expectation, or at least a hope, that they will be able to do practical work:

You know as soon as they come through the door theyre asking Sir are we doing practical today? (Mr Drax)

Although the researcher observed pupils making similar requests as they entered the laboratory, it appeared that
those keenest on doing practical workas evidenced by
Affective Value of Practical Work in Secondary School Science 2347

the numbers asking and their repeatedly shouting out the same questionwere often pupils of low academic
ability who subsequently informed the researcher that they had no intention of pursuing science post compulsion.
For many of these pupils the hope of doing practical work appeared to owe more to their desire to avoid writing
than any genuine personal interest in doing practical work. This desire to avoid writing was commented upon by
a number of the teachers. The following extract is an example of such comments.

It is a carrot with them [academically low ability pupils], it is more about making it bearable. For them its just
less writing. I think higher ability pupils could get by with fewer practicals. (Dr Kepwick)

One teacher saw the actual use of a laboratory, especially for non-practical science lessons, as problematicin
that laboratories, unlike classrooms, are essentially designed, with their uncomfortable stools, and benches
containing sinks, power points, and gas taps, for doing rather than sitting and writing (Donnelly, 1998).
Whether or not the pupils expectations and/or hopes to undertake practical work in science lessons are driven
by a genuine personal interest in practical work, or merely by a desire to avoid having to write, it is clear that
these expectations and/or hopes are real. What is therefore important is the question of how pupils react to those
lessons, or sequences of lessons, in which their expectations and/or hopes to do practical work are not fulfilled.
Amongst the teachers in this study, what emerges, as the following example shows, is a widespread perception
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that without interspersing practical work into a teaching sequence, on a frequent and regular basis, pupils become
not only uninterested but also noticeably more behaviourally difficult to manage during non-practical lessons:

The kids soon work out which teacher gives more practical work and certainly, for most classes, two lessons of
theory on the trot is about the limit, after that theyll be very hard to teach. Its carrot and stick really. (Mr

This indicates a concern, particularly amongst teachers involved in teaching science to pupils of low/low-middle
academic ability, about the need to establish and maintain a Normal Desirable State of Pupil Activity (Brown &
McIntyre, 1993, p. 54) and a recognition that the frequent use of practical work, irrespective of how effective it is
in terms of achieving the desired learning objectives, is an effective strategy for coping with poor behaviour. As
one teacher (Mr Drax) suggested, the pragmatic justification for using practical was that I can keep their interest
and, although they still might not learn anything, they will be easier to deal with.
Yet in order for practical work to be effective in getting pupils of all academic abilities to do, and see, what
the teacher intendedfrequently without the need to engage at a meaningful conceptual levelthe practical
work invariably entailed the use ofrecipe-style tasks (Clackson & Wright, 1992, p. 41). It should therefore come
as no surprise to find academically low-ability pupils exhibiting their displeasure, through poor behaviour, when
required to write and/or think for themselves about scientific ideas rather than simply being allowed to do a
cognitively undemanding recipe-style practical task.
2348 I. Abrahams

Amongst some of the teachers there was a perception that, for some low academic ability pupils, practical
work was essentially just something for them to do in order to make both their time, and therefore hopefully the
teachers time, bearable. In some cases there appeared to be little, if any, expectation on the part of the teacher
that any meaningful learning would occur:

Because, if nothing else, its [practical work] a relief, its something different theyre doing. (Mr Rainton)
It [practical work] gives them something to do, especially the ones who get bored with too much writing. (Mrs

In a recent study on learning experiences outside the classroom it was found that, amongst some teachers who
perceived such experiences ... as only a "fun" day out (Jarvis & Pell, 2005, p. 79), there was a similar low
expectation that any meaningful learning would occur.

Role of Practical Work in Helping to Foster a View of Science as Fun, Exciting, and Enjoyable

A disappointing finding to emerge from this study has been the fact that pupils, from as early as the end of Year
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7, have moved from claiming to like practical work in an absolute sense to merely preferring it to other non-
practical teaching methods and approaches (Table 3). One factor that might help explain this change emerged
during discussions with teachers at a school where the lesson observations occurred during a period when the
teachers were actively considering the arrangements for an impending Open Evening for prospective Year 6
pupils and their parents. What came out of these discussions was an acknowledgement that the image of
secondary school science, which these Year 6 pupils are encouraged by the teachers to see (Ogborn, Kress,
Martins, & McGillicuddy, 1996) during these initial school visits, is designed to inculcate an image of science as
being primarily a fun, exciting, and enjoyable practical activity:

Mrs Kettlesing: On Open Evening we always do whiz, bang, pops. The only physics
thing we have out is the van de Graaff.
Researcher: What do you think then of this image of science as being all whiz,
bang, pops?
Mrs Kettlesing: Maybe were giving a false picture, I think we are probably. There
arent that many whiz bang, pops and most science is really about how does the world
work and testing things out, why is this happening, why is that happening, rather than
whiz bang, pops.

Such views suggest that teachers recognise practical work is not, generally speaking, fun and exciting, and that
there are only a limited number of practical tasksthe whiz, bang, popsthat can be used on Open Days,
or the like. It must be emphasised that this is not to suggest that science is never fun, exciting, and enjoyable, but
that such an image does not truthfully reflect normal school science.
Affective Value of Practical Work in Secondary School Science 2349

It was also suggested that it was the quantity, rather than necessarily the quality, of practical work that was
important particularly amongst low academic ability pupils who were not expected to pursue science post

We try to give them [academically low ability pupils] as much practical work as possible so that they will
remember science as being enjoyable and interesting. (Mr Fangfoss)

Although this view was expressed by only one teacher, it suggests that when practical work is used with pupils of
low academic ability the aim might not necessarily be to motivate them to study science beyond Key Stage 4 but
rather to provide them with a positive recollection of the subject. The implication, if this view is taken to its
logical conclusion, is that it becomes more important for the teacher to ensure that the pupils enjoy their lessons,
irrespective of whether or not they learn, and that the best way to achieve this is to maximise the amount of time
spent doing practical work.
Some of the claims made by teachers about the value of practical work appear, as the following example
illustrates, to reflect the fact that their own positive recollections of school science involve specifically
memorable practical episodes:
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I was lucky really because when I was at school my science teacher ran a science club at lunch time and, even now, I can
remember us all getting shocks from the van de Graaff.
It made it so much fun. (Miss Kilburn)

Whilst indicating that some teachers views as to the affective value of practical work have, at least in part, been
influenced by their own experience as pupils, it must be remembered that these are the recollections of people
who, from an academic perspective, did well in science and who chose to pursue it as a career. Using such
recollections to inform their own current beliefs about the affective value of practical work fails to take account
of the fact that, in all likelihood, the vast majority of their peer group at school did not find the same practical
tasks exciting, interesting, and/ or fun, and in all likelihood chose not to pursue science post compulsion.


The present paper has suggested that what teachers frequently refer to as motivation is, in a strict psychological
sense, better understood as situational interest. The fact that situational interest is, unlike motivation or personal
interest, unlikely to endure beyond the end of a particular lesson (Hidi & Harackiewicz, 2000) helps to explain
why pupils need to be continuously re-stimulated by the frequent use of practical work. Once this fact is
recognised, the reason why many of those pupils who claim to like practical work also claim to have little, if any,
personal interest in science, or any intention of pursuing it post compulsion, becomes clearer. For whilst these
pupils do like practical work, their reasons for doing so appear to be primarily that they see it as preferable to
non-practical teaching techniques that they associate, in particular, with more writing (Hodson, 1990). What has
been shown (Table 3) is that the proportion of pupils, within each year group, who claim to like practical work in
an absolute sense, as against simply preferring it to writing, decreases as the
2350 I. Abrahams

pupils progress through the school. Indeed it would seem from the pupils comments that, within their first year at
secondary school, the novelty of being in a laboratory environment appears to wear off and they evidently
become disillusioned by the reality of school science, which is clearly very different from the image that teachers
initially seek to create in order to make their subject appear attractive on, for example, Open Days.
This paper has also considered the affective value of practical work as a means of contributing towards
effective behaviour management. Teachers comments suggest that when faced with having to teach science to
pupils with little, if any, personal interest in science, or in some cases of even being in the lessonand this is
particularly so at Key Stage 4practical work provides an effective coping strategy. Whilst these teachers felt it
unlikely that such pupils would learn any more (or, equally importantly, any less) from practical work than non-
practical work, it was thought that the use of practical work made them easier to deal with from a behavioural
perspective. Whilst this might be considered a lost learning opportunity, it is arguable that amongst those pupils
who have already switched off the use of practical work might, at the very least, mean that their perception of
science will be less negative than it might otherwise have been were they compelled to undertake more
conceptually demanding, non-practical, work.
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1. The use of the term Key Stage is peculiar to the UK. Key Stage 3 relates to the first three years of secondary school
education (ages 11-14 years). Key Stage 4 corresponds to the fourth and fifth years of secondary school education (pupils
aged 15-16 years), the completion of which marks the end of compulsory education in the UK.


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