Assessment of practical work


It is clear that teachers, and others, think that it is important that practical work is an important part of science education. Recently #ASEChat discussed ‘The challenges and benefits of practical work in science teaching’. The discussion was led by Alom Shaha (@alomshaha), who has made a video for Nuffield about how to get the most out of practical work. There was much heated debate, and you can read a summary written by Richard Needham (@viciascience) here. At the end of the summary is a useful list of links for those interested in getting more out of their practical work. In particular for those who have not come across it, take a look at Getting Practical and also Robin Millar’s work. Stephen Taylor (@iBiologyStephen), an IB teacher in Japan has also responded to Alom’s video in this post on his i-Biology blog.

But this post isn’t about practical work in the classroom, in this post I want to raise the issue of assessment of practical work. Michael Reiss, Ian Abrahams, and Rachael Sharpe carried out a study for Gatsby of how practical work is assessed in other places. It makes interesting reading

Recently the DfE published a consultation document in which they lay down their proposals for the subject content and assessment objectives (AOs) (pp47-48) for GCSE Science for examinations from 2017. Teachers often don’t spend long looking at the AOs in a specification, more important to them is how they are exemplified in the assessment materials. However, in this consultation document the AOs contain many more statements and give far more detail than in previous subject criteria and these AOs will drive changes in the the assessment.

So, wearing my York Science hat, let’s take a look at the AOs that relate directly to teaching practical work:

AO1 Recognise, recall and show understanding of:

  • uses of scientific instrumentation and apparatus
  • scientific quantities and their determination
  • working safely in a scientific context.

AO3 The experimental skills and abilities to:

  • select or formulate propositions amenable to experimental test
  • devise procedures and select apparatus and materials suitable for synthesising substances or producing or checking the validity of data, conclusions, generalizations and hypotheses
  • recognise and explain variability and unreliability in experimental measurements
  • evaluate quantitative and qualitative data acquired through practical work, the design of experiments and experimental observations, draw conclusions and suggest improvements where appropriate.

AO4 The ability to:

  • follow instructions accurately
  • use scientific instrumentation, apparatus and materials appropriately
  • work with due regard for safety, managing risks
  • observe, measure and record accurately and systematically
  • carry out and report on investigations or parts of investigations.

The statements listed under AO1 are a subset of the full AO1 list, which all together are worth 30% of the marks. AO3 is worth 10% and AO4 is worth 10%. So more than 20% of the GCSE marks are related to practical work.

AO1 and AO3 are to be assessed through examination papers. AO4 is to be assessed ‘directly’ by the teacher.

So my first question:

Are the objectives in that list important things for students to show they can do at the end of KS4?

If we want to develop assessments that assess what we think is important and should be accredited as part of a GCSE qualification, (rather than assess what is easy to set (and mark)) we need to think what the questions and tasks should look like.

More questions:

What sort of questions could legitimately asked in an exam that would address AO1 and AO3?

What sort of evidence of performance would be acceptable for those things described by AO4?

Alongside the consultation from DfE, Ofqual are also consulting on the GCSE reforms, there is a discussion of assessment of science practical skills on page 42. They are inviting views on the tensions between authentic assessment of practical skills (such as the first 4 bullets under AO4) and the validity of the assessment when teachers are under such pressure to give students maximum marks.

There is a discussion about assessment of practical work amongst physics teachers and others in the TalkPhysics forum . Are there similar discussions amongst chemistry teachers and biology teachers anywhere?

Amongst the suggestions from the TalkPhysics group:

  • include in the specification a list of the competencies that are expected e.g. take readings from a circuit with a voltmeter and ammeter, use a thermometer, measure pH …..
  • include in the specification a requirement for candidates to complete a list of core practicals, evidence of the activity could be, for example a table of results, or photo evidence. Evidence is supported by a signature that the student has done the work themselves.
  • remove investigations from the AO4 list, all the components are in AO3 – so doing the investigations will build up the skills, which are assessed in an exam and teachers don’t have to mark investigations

What do you think?

Discuss on Twitter using #ASEChat, alternatively, add your comments below to get the discussion going.

Here are some starter questions for the discussion:

  • do you support the idea of a list of required practicals in the specification that could be form the context for questions in written papers? if you do what practicals would you include?
  • do you support the retention of investigations to be marked by teachers? If you do, what sort of investigation is worthwhile? If not why not?
  • how could the sort of practical competencies as listed in AO4 be assessed? would you include specific competencies in the list or keep it generic? would it matter if everyone scored full marks?



  1. I think that a list of practicals that students should have carried out (or skills they should have developed) would be a useful list to have in a specification. However, I think you would also need another list of other practicals that could be done. That way the first list could be a more limited subset.
    Questions can be set in exams to assess understanding of practical skills.

    On AO4 I do think that we need to lose the reference to investigations. In primary we have managed to get the ideas from ‘it’s not fair’ included, and this should extend to secondary. Not all science is about investigations, and some recognition of this would be good.


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