Science: putting it together

Writing the practical report

The presentation of practical work in secondary science has diversified over time; however, the dominant form is still the practical report.

The practical (prac) report largely follows a structure whereby students need to determine and write some, or all, of the following:

  • aim or hypothesis
  • method or procedure
  • observations or results
  • analysis or discussion
  • conclusion.

The scaffolding that was undertaken during the process of practical work should also be repeated in the writing up of practical work. To achieve this, explicit instruction about what and how students should be writing in each section is foundational.

Suggested techniques for each section are outlined below. Where relevant, links to strategies explained else are also present, demonstrating how the strategies in the toolkit can be used in a number of ways across a number of lessons.

Aim and hypothesis

The aim and hypothesis:

  • explain to the reader what the purpose of the experiment was.
  • often take a specific format. Using the following cloze structures will help students to write aims and hypotheses in the correct format.
AimTo _____ .To investigate the effect of salt on seed germination.
HypothesisIf _____, _____ .If increasing amounts of salt is sprinkled on seeds, fewer seeds will germinate.


Teachers can also use questioning and discussion techniques to ask students to predict what the outcome of a practical will be, create a hypothesis, and to ensure that students reflect back on this at the end of a practical.

Curriculum links for the above example: VCSSU094, VCSIS107, VCSIS134.

Method or procedure

The method or procedure describes the steps of the experiment. It is a procedural recount of the actions that a scientist performed to conduct an experiment. See the section Writing experimental methods.

Observations and results

The observations and results section lists what the scientist observed or measured during the experiment.

Students need to be explicitly taught how to construct tables to record data, and to draw diagrams and graphs to represent data in different ways.

One of the most common ways data is recorded in Science is in a table. Explicitly teaching students the various components of a scientific table, as well as modelling how to construct a table, will better equip them to independently construct tables.

  1. Through classroom discussion, identify the following:
    • independent variable
    • dependent variable
    • settings for independent variable
    • number of trials
  2. The teacher models to students the construction of a table, explicitly teaching where each component goes.

Example

Research question: Does salt affect the germination rate of radish seeds?

  • independent variable: salt concentration
  • dependent variable: number of seeds germinating
  • settings for independent variable: 4 (0%, 1%, 5% and 10% salt solution)
  • number of trials: 1, with counting every 3 days for 12 days
data table

Curriculum links for the above example: VCSSU094, VCSIS110, VCSIS137.

Other strategies to support students to represent data in different ways can be found in the section, Transforming data.

In addition, teachers can ask questions that require students to have their minds on a practical task. Rather than just following the procedural steps in order, ask students to consider why they are doing something. For example, if you are testing the impact of salt on seed germination, teachers might ask:

  • Why do we need to plant multiple seeds?
  • Why are we using different levels of salt concentration?
  • What data and observations are valuable to record? Why?

Curriculum links for the above example: VCSSU094, VCSIS109, VCSIS135, VCSIS136.

Analysis or discussion

In the analysis or discussion section, the results of the experiment are analysed. For example, patterns, causal relationships or errors may be identified and explained. These elements are written in the past tense because students describe what they have observed.

If students write generalisations, they should be encouraged to write in the present tense (e.g. metals expand when heated). Generalisations are written in the present tense because they describe a component of a law or theory, which occur every day.

Discussion and questioning can help students to make sense of their observations (Millar, 2010). Jointly constructing a discussion with the entire class is one way to support students to understand the literacy requirements of this section of the practical report.

  1. Write a discussion at the front of the class in collaboration with students.
  2. The teacher explicitly reminds students about the expectations of the discussion section.
  3. The teacher poses questions to encourage students to make links between what was observed and the scientific theory.
  4. The teacher identifies areas where evidence or data should be included in the discussion.

Curriculum links for the above example: VCSIS111, VCSIS112, VCSIS138, VCSIS139.

Another strategy to teach students how to write a strong discussion section is to use worked examples. Providing students with a selection of well written and poorly written examples, and explaining what is good and bad about each, should help them improve their writing.

Other strategies that might be adapted to support students’ writing of discussions include:

Conclusion

The conclusion provides a brief summary of the findings from the experiment and is written in the past tense.

Like the aim and hypothesis, an effective conclusion to an experiment can be written following a set format:

Restate purpose of experimentThe effect of salt on seed germination was investigated.
Summarise dataSalt concentration had a negative effect on seed germination of radishes. Salt concentrations over 10% prevent radish seeds from germinating.
State if hypothesis was supported or notThe results supported the hypothesis.


Curriculum links for the above example: VCSSU094, VCSIS111, VCSIS112, VCSIS138, VCSIS139.

References

Hart, C., Mulhall, P., Berry, A., Loughran, J., & Gunstone, R. (2000). What is the purpose of this experiment? Or can students learn something from doing experiments? Journal of Research in Science Teaching: The Official Journal of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, 37(7), 655-675.

Millar, R. (2009). Analysing practical activities to assess and improve effectiveness: The Practical Activity Analysis Inventory (PAAI). York: Centre for Innovation and Research in Science Education, University of York.