A Practical Challenge

I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I’m more comfortable doing maths than practical work. I really value practical skills, they just take me ever so slightly out of my comfort zone. My comfort zone is being sat with a tricky physics problem, calculator and pile of text books.

I’ve spent this year challenging myself to include more practical work in my lessons (don’t worry, I do most standard experiments already! I just know I can do it better and have more variety).  I started off way back in January when I successfully set up, and got working(!) Millikan’s Oil Drop experiment.


I was ridiculously pleased with myself. But, more than that, it brought the topic to life and gave the year 13s the experience of seeing a classic, important experiment in front of their own eyes. They could see the drops responding to the change in field.  Brilliant.

So, a great start. I’m now going to make a list of  why I want to improve and increase practical work in my lessons. I can look back at this when I’m finding my barriers/excuses getting in the way (see later list 😉 ):

  • I tend to avoid it. This on its own is enough to tell me I need to work on being massively more comfortable with a range of experiments.
  • It can enhance the theory, and therefore give a…
  • deeper understanding of a topic.
  • I want my teaching to cater for different students and their preferences. I may have to accept not all my students are just like me.
  • Direct experience of some practicals can help with exam prep. Especially with A level papers asking students to describe or explain some experiments. And practicals are still…
  • assessed as part of the A level. And last year we were marked down for our year 12 practical assessment.  I didn’t teach yr12 last year, but was involved in the coursework moderation.
  • I want to increase my own skills.
  • Practicals can break up theory lessons.
  • It’s fun! (When they work…)

Sounds great! There are a couple of barriers I need to overcome. They are:

  • Time. Of course. The destroyer of many great ideas 😉  I need to set aside one of my frees to plan specifically for practicals.
  • Technician availability. This one’s a specific issue for the physics department at my school. Our physics technician is part time. This means she’s not available before school, or after school. This is seriously limiting time available for discussions about what equipment we have squirrelled away in the prep room. But, this is no excuse, I just need to find time for these discussions in my frees or at lunchtime. I’ve been consciously doing this recently and it’s a big help.
  • Very small physics department. Me at 0.6 and one full time teacher. So not a huge pool of people to learn from. It’s a really good job the other physics teacher is (annoyingly 😉 ) really great with practicals and usually happy to help me set things up after school. I need to ask him to show me experiments when he has them set up for classes in his lab. *adds to to do list*. I think the loss of physics specialists in my school is really a tragedy.  When I started there were 6 full time physics teachers. We’re a wee bit stretched now!

I’ll be sharing my success and failures here. My big success last week was getting a version of the Monkey – Hunter set up and working! Forgive the awful pictures, I forgot to take a picture of it being used. These were for my reference so I can set it up again!



I will use the excellent practical physics website to help me plan. And get ideas from the useful book The Resourceful Physics Teacher (I need to buy the new version!).

Teaching SHM after half term so plenty of practicals to practice!





This entry was posted in A level, Activity, General, KS3, Ks4, planning, Practicals and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A Practical Challenge

  1. dodiscimus says:

    There is a stack of research on practical work in science and it seems to largely reach the same concusion – that it’s really important to think about what you want your students to learn and then design the practical, and the time before and after, to focus on that. I work with trainee teachers and often see them slot the practical in as if it’s purpose is just for it to be completed, rather than to help their students to learn something. For me, the key is to ensure that students spend a considerable amount of time thinking about what you want them to learn, not just the nuts and bolts of the thing. This may already be obvious to you – sorry if I’m not being helpful.
    Photos – like yours of the monkey and hunter – are a brilliant for recording practical set-ups. Particularly for things like oscilloscope settings, CRT tubes, etc. and well worth using for instructions for students too, saving time and thinking capacity for the point of the practical.
    Finally, I think your list of reasons for doing practicals is good but I would add my pet project which is little mini-practicals every now and again to get them applying theory in novel contexts e.g. a mass supported by two newton meters in a V, read the meters, measure the angle, take components to find the mass – that sort of thing – taking only a minute longer than a written question. Best wishes.


    • audsley says:

      Thanks, that is helpful.

      This week I have a data logging experiment to do – and wrestling with the software is the first hurdle! and some SHM examples to set up. 🙂


  2. missb0107 says:

    You sound a lot like me! Hand me a thought problem any day!

    Great to hear that you got Milikan’s working, a good ‘proof’ practical. I’ve just given year 12s an open ended SUVAT investigation using coloured ink and syringes for projectiles 😀 They are rather creative when trying to minimize error! I’m learning a lot, and they’re limited only by the skills I’ve required them to show. In fact, it was a student’s idea to allow investigations to be more open ended – though I maintain structure.

    Great posts, keep them coming


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s