Science practical work
: exploring the interplay between teachers’ self-efficacy, pedagogical beliefs and classroom practice

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Practical work is a distinctive aspect of science education and most science teachers in England see it as an integral part of their classroom practice. However, research has highlighted the range of pedagogical approaches that can be adopted to orchestrate practical activities, with concern being raised about the effectiveness of practical work in developing pupils’ theoretical and procedural understanding. In addition, the 2016 changes to the GCSE science specifications in England have resulted in the exclusion of direct practical assessment, with assessment being performed through written responses to examination questions.

The aim of this study has been to explore how teachers view the purpose and usefulness of practical work as part of science learning for 11 to 13-year-old students as well as investigating how new assessment approaches at GCSE may be shaping the composition, emphasis and delivery of the Key Stage 3 curriculum in England. By using the two lenses of teachers’ pedagogical beliefs and teachers’ self-efficacy, my study has sought to extend current conceptualisations of the interplay between beliefs, self-efficacy and classroom practice to support a better understanding of practical-oriented science teaching. Drawing on Bandura’s (1986) social cognitive theory, a broadly interpretivist approach was adopted and the data was interrogated through an abductive research strategy.

Ten secondary science teachers, who taught in a range of schools in the South East and the Midlands of England, participated in the study. The evidence, drawn from questionnaire, semi-structured interview and lesson observation data, indicated there was a complex web of factors that interacted to inform the participant teachers’ choices of practical activities with their 11 to 13-year-old students (Year 7 and Year 8) within their own school contexts. The teachers expressed high self-efficacy for orchestrating structured practical work and used demonstrations or structured student activities regularly with Year 7 and Year 8 classes. They valued the role of such activities in preparing students in their journey towards GCSE examinations by addressing the purposes of: (1) teaching specific practical and enquiry skills; (2) supporting understanding of the scientific method and variable control; (3) teaching students how to follow instructions; and (4) helping them understand theory by confirming or applying concepts taught. However, when considering less structured practical work, such as guided enquiry or problem-solving tasks, their self-efficacy judgements were more tempered and they only selected these types of activities for a limited number of circumstances. Their beliefs about the value of broader learning outcomes associated with less structured approaches seemed to be ‘quietened’ in the face of exam preparation demands.

Whilst the teachers’ beliefs about the value of practical work in supporting exam preparation and their high self-efficacy for orchestrating structured student activities appeared to afford students regular opportunities of practical science lessons, it is concerning that the value of learning outcomes associated with less structured approaches appeared to be diminished within the prevailing policy context in England, with a commensurate tempering of the teachers’ self-efficacy for using such activities with their 11 to 13-year-old students. The implications from the findings lead to recommendations being made to policy makers, school leaders and professional development providers for supporting teachers in building a high self-efficacy for teaching with a balance of both structured and less structured practical work.
Date of Award1 Nov 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorChristine Harrison (Supervisor) & Melissa Glackin (Supervisor)

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