Do students learn physics through practical work?

Filling the pail

One of the intriguing features of the most recent round of PISA results was that practical work seemed to be negatively associated with science understanding. As with all PISA findings, it is not easy to point to a cause and effect relationship but it should at least make us pause.

This week, an open-access study on the effectiveness of practical work was released by a group of physics professors from the U.S. They analysed an interesting data set. Students at three American colleges who were enrolled in a physics course were given the option of attending practical sessions. Some attended these sessions and some did not.

There were systematic differences between the students who chose to attend. They tended to be higher achieving and this is probably linked to the fact that some later engineering courses required attendance. So the researchers completed an analysis that attempted to adjust for this…

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