As an inspector, Stuart Sherman has seen many practical classes. He explains why less can be more when planning your session

A large, red 'reduce speed' sign beside a road

Source: Rob Bayer /

Over the years, as an inspector, I have observed hundreds of practical chemistry lessons. Many follow a similar pattern. They follow an informal, unwritten lesson plan I used myself 30 years ago that is still doing the rounds today.

These lessons go something like this. Pupils gather around the front desk for a quick demo of the experiment. There’s talk about what pupils could vary and how to make it a fair test. The choice of variables is then restricted to a tightly specified recipe. The teacher prompts students to get a table ready for results.

Around the room, the teacher then repeats how to use the apparatus for most groups. They frequently remind students about safety and wearing goggles. Students get three or four readings then pack the kit away.

The teacher displays a results table complete with a few results. They ask the class what type of graph would be best, and tell pupils to draw a line graph. The teacher helps pupils scale axes and plot points, and reminds them to label axes. A bit of self- or peer-assessment about the features of a good graph might be injected here.

Finally, the teacher opens the windows to try to get rid of the smell, although the next class always cheerfully comments how much the room stinks. The teacher tries to squeeze in a plenary as the pupils are leaving. In any discussion about how the lesson went the teacher says they ran out of time and will be following up in more depth next lesson.

Slow down to speed up

During the lesson there has been plenty of rapid activity. Everyone, especially the teacher, was busy. But rapid activity risks superficial tasks and there’s a lack of time for pupils to digest the content, reflect and learn in enough depth before having to move on. Slowing down can increase the pace of learning.

On top of an appropriate pace, the right degree of challenge in lessons optimises pupils’ progress in various aspects of their learning. Providing challenge means pupils are given sufficient and appropriate stretch to their thinking, knowledge or skills. The level of challenge should account for where each pupil is now and not leave anyone behind.

It is crucial teachers explicitly monitor and evaluate how well their pupils are progressing in the short term and long term. They can then adjust teaching accordingly. Teachers should not wait for, or be surprised by, any evaluation of progress made by a visitor.

How to get pace and challenge right

Ensure your practical lessons have enough challenge and appropriate pace to get the most progress from your pupils:

  • Make sure your practical lessons have a clear purpose around honing a skill
  • Give an explicit example of a good outcome
  • Use the stretch and challenge inherent in the ‘working scientifically’ skills identified in the new GCSE specifications

Remember to:

  • Focus on the pace your pupils progress in their learning rather than the pace of your teaching
  • Take a step back so your pupils can develop as learners but don’t throw them into the deep end of independent learning
  • Slow down a bit to allow time for the pupils to respond in depth

With a formal hat on, I might well report on the lesson I first described like this: ‘Many pupils demonstrated reasonably proficient and safe practical skills of measuring and timing. Many pupils were able to draw a simple line graph of a few points, although a majority needed close guidance about the best way to represent the simple table of results. There were very few extended written explanations or evaluations in sufficient depth in pupils’ work. The teacher heavily directed, provided hints and moved the class on very quickly through a series of practical activities so that most pupils did not have sufficient time to think independently and deeply and so limited their progress in learning.’

After seeing a well-paced practical lesson with appropriate challenge, a report might then be more like this: ‘Virtually all pupils demonstrated proficient and safe practical skills. Most pupils were able to make a reasoned decision about the best way to represent an extended table of results and nearly all pupils could give extended oral or written explanations and evaluations of their practical work. The teacher had carefully planned frequent opportunities for pupils to discuss, think independently and deeply so that they all made strong progress.’