New Perspectives for Learning - Briefing Paper 4

Labwork in Science Education

Context of the Research

Within the broader issue of motivating young people to study science, is the issue of the cost of "labwork" experiments. Practical activity in laboratories (this is what is currently named "labwork" by science teachers) tends to be an expensive component of science education across Europe, and is felt as poorly effective and disappointing in term of effectiveness.

This project based on seven European countries - Denmark, France, Germany, England, Greece, Italy and Spain - focuses on the use of labwork in teaching biology, chemistry and physics to students in academic science streams, in the years of upper secondary schooling and the first two years of undergraduate study. It examines the effectiveness of labwork and develops approaches designed to promote more effective teaching and learning outcomes.

Key Conclusions

The following conclusions were drawn: -

  1. The first step of the work was to give a faithful description of the reality of labwork. There is considerable diversity in the organisation of science teaching in terms of:

    1. Whether science subjects are optional or compulsory.

    2. The extent and nature of central control of the upper secondary science curriculum in terms of time allocations and assessment structures.

  2. Although use of demonstrations by teachers in academic streams of upper secondary students is common in all countries, the amount of labwork varies in the following ways: 

    1. Regularly performed by upper secondary students. (Denmark, UK and France labwork).

    2. Depends on the wishes of individual teachers (Germany).

    3. Rarely performed (in Italy in specific schools, and in Greece only at undergraduate level).

  3. At university level, labwork is commonly used in all countries and for all disciplines. The most frequent type of labwork tends to be small groups of students working with real objects/materials following very precise instructions about methods and analysis given by a teacher or a written source (referred to as a ‘labwork sheet’). However open-ended project work is practiced, rarely, though wished by many teachers.

  4. Labwork is mainly assessed by grading reports from labwork according to the quality of students’ descriptions of the way in which tasks were performed, data acquisition, discussion of the quality of data and interpretation of experimental results. This means that presently the variety of objectives is poor: they are mainly conceptual.

  5. At upper secondary school, the students normally have to use standard procedures, to measure, and to report observations directly. They do not have to present or display or make objects, nor explore relationships between objects, to test predictions or to select between two or more explanations.

  6. Even at university, it is rare for students to have to test a prediction made from a guess or a theory or to account for observations in terms of a law or theory, although sometimes in physics, students are asked to test a prediction made from a law.

  7. The similarities both between disciplines and countries in terms of typical labwork is more than might be expected, given the differences in educational systems in each country.

  8. From a survey carried out in all the countries implied, it came that teachers considered the main objective of labwork as being able to "link theory to practice", with the objectives of "learning experimental skills" and "getting to know the methods of scientific thinking" also being rated. Experiments carried out by the students were seen as overwhelmingly useful for promoting all learning objectives of labwork.

  9. From another survey directed to teachers and students, came the conclusion that a positive attitude towards science is rarely promoted with labwork generally failing to address important scientific questions like how to: -

    1. Recognise the validity of results.

    2. Design an experiment.

    3. Choose the relevant method to process data.

Innovative studies

The work continued with case-studies, carried out in five countries, relying on a long tradition of research in science education. For each labwork session implemented in view of the study, the teaching device is carefully chosen, the objectives are pointed at, the underlying principles are elicited. Among 23 case-studies can be found: -

Key Recommendations

Specific recommendations from this project are:

  1. Labwork should address a broader range of learning objectives than the range currently addressed. In particular, labwork rarely addresses epistemological objectives and teachers rarely make these objectives explicit when designing labwork activities, sequences of labwork or labwork sheets. Similarly, conceptual objectives, procedures to be learnt, data collection and processing are generally left implicit in the design of labwork.

  2. Labwork could be better designed to address clearly defined learning objectives. Fewer objectives for each labwork session and a more coherent overall organisation of labwork ought to lead to improvements in student learning. This is what is meant by the key-word "TARGETED LABWORK" used in the conclusions of the project.

  3. There is a need to improve the design of assessment along side the design of more effective targeted labwork.

  4. Improvements to labwork practices need to be addressed at teacher education level. In particular, teachers should be trained to identify two types of effectiveness for labwork: what is learnt (as for any academic activity), and what is performed in students' minds: putting into operation consciously procedures, methods as well as models and theories. This should lead to an improved image of science and a better motivation for it.

  5. Collaboration between researchers, teachers and policy-makers should be one of the key aims of research in Science Education in Europe over the next few years.

Further Information

The full title of the project and final report is: "Improving Science Education: Issues and Research on Innovative Empirical and Computer-Based Labwork in Europe" (April 1998).

Full report, Abstract, Summary Partner details

Contact Person

Dr Marie-Geneviève Séré
Université Paris Sud XI
Bâtiment 333
91405 ORSAY Cedex, France
Tel : +33-1-69155452
Fax : +33-1-69155454

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Last updated 28 June 2007