Ideas for keeping up students’ practical skills while schools are closed

A workbench with practical chemistry equipment on it

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Maintain students’ practical chemistry skills when teaching from home with these ideas and resources

Practical work is an essential element of chemistry teaching – and presents a particular challenge in the context of distance learning. Having advised against setting standard secondary school science activities for students to do at home, CLEAPSS has published a list of worthwhile primary-level activities that could be carried out safely. However, there are other ways to ensure that this part of the chemistry curriculum isn’t neglected when teaching remotely.

Practical work is an essential element of chemistry teaching – and presents a particular challenge in the context of distance learning. Having advised against setting standard secondary school science activities for students to do at home, CLEAPSS has published a list of worthwhile primary-level activities that could be carried out safely (bit.ly/3eF8ecA). However, there are other ways to ensure that this part of the chemistry curriculum isn’t neglected when teaching remotely.

Online demonstrations

The RSC offers a range of useful on-screen experiments and interactive simulations, as do places such as the Open Science Laboratory. Use these to teach students about key topics such as flame tests, titrations and acids and bases. The ACS also has a comprehensive list of other sources. Students can even use these to collect their own data and conduct investigations. For example, chemistry teacher David Paterson describes how he uses reaction kinetics on-screen simulations to this end in our ‘How I teach …’ series, and the article comes with a downloadable rates of reaction investigation and example data collection sheet ready to use with your students.

In addition, YouTube has a wealth of video demonstrations that students could watch. For example, Malmesbury School’s YouTube channel covers a range of required practicals at GCSE and A-level – and there are many more. Perhaps you could even challenge your students to find the best demo of a particular practical to share with the class.

Discover more about the practicalities of teaching experimental skills online in the Education in Chemistry article Practical science at a distance.

Online demonstrations

The RSC offers a range of useful on-screen experiments (rsc.li/2VSuHua) and interactive simulations (rsc.li/3eCy54F), as do places such as the Open Science Laboratory. Use these to teach students about key topics such as flame teststitrations and acids and bases. The ACS also has a comprehensive list of other sources (bit.ly/3cF79Qe).

In addition, YouTube has a wealth of video demonstrations that students could watch. For example, Malmesbury School’s YouTube channel ‘Malmesbury Education’ covers a range of required practicals at GCSE and A-level – and there are many more. Perhaps you could even challenge your students to find the best demo of a particular practical to share with the class.

Discover more about the practicalities of teaching experimental skills online in the Education in Chemistry article ‘Practical science at a distance’ (rsc.li/3cF7SAW).

Target planning and analysis skills 

Get students to research and plan their own experiments – they don’t necessarily have to conduct them, but the planning will reinforce a range of key skills necessary for practicals. Or, as mentioned above, you can use online simulations to collect data for analysis.

At the other end of the spectrum, give pupils sets of results to analyse in order to practise their data analysis and presentation skills, as well as drawing conclusions. Besides the copious RSC practical resourcesBronze CREST awards can be a great place to start. Many of the activities can be adapted to focus on planning, presenting data or drawing conclusions – and this approach could be applied to a range of practical experiments.

You can also use the resources from this article to improve students’ understanding of accuracy and reliability.

Read more about students planning their own practicals in the Education in Chemistry article Reinventing the chemistry practical.

Target planning and analysis skills 

Get students to research and plan their own experiments – they don’t necessarily have to conduct them, but the planning will reinforce a range of key skills necessary for practicals. At the other end of the spectrum, give pupils sets of results to analyse in order to practise their data analysis and presentation skills, as well as drawing conclusions. Besides the copious RSC practical resources (edu.rsc.org/resources/practical), Bronze CREST awards can be a great place to start. Many of the activities can be adapted to focus on planning, presenting data or drawing conclusions – and this approach could be applied to a range of practical experiments.

You can also use the resources from the article ‘Help students evaluate experiments’ to improve students’ understanding of accuracy and reliability (rsc.li/3czv3wi).

Read more about students planning their own practicals in the article ‘Reinventing the chemistry practical’ (rsc.li/3eCzmst).

Reinforce knowledge of practical procedures

Set students quizzes designed to boost their practical skills, such as these basic practical competencies and experimental skills quizzes (16–18). If you have signed up to Teach Chemistry, you can also access quizzes supporting key practical skills for chemistry on titrations, organic liquids and qualitative analysis (14–18). Another way to do this is to send your pupils diagrams from Chemix asking them to annotate them, or to draw the diagrams themselves before annotating.

Reinforce knowledge of practical procedures

Set students quizzes designed to boost their practical skills, such as these basic practical competencies (rsc.li/2VM2THx) and experimental skills (rsc.li/2VMlW4D) quizzes for ages 16–18. If you have signed up to the RSC’s free Teach Chemistry service, you can also access quizzes supporting key practical skills for chemistry on titrationsorganic liquids and qualitative analysis for ages 14–18 (rsc.li/3eHWaaa).

Join Teach Chemistry

If you or your school have not yet signed up to Teach Chemistry, it’s quick and easy: simply create a free account today. Gain full access to the curriculum explorer alongside numerous other benefits, such as 50% off online CPD.

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Use the opportunity for practical-based CPD

Supplement your practical teaching with some short further reading:

Share your knowledge

Have you found another way to support students’ practical skills remotely? Share your experience with other teachers in the comment section below.

Learning at home