How to Organize (Blended) Practicals?

What is a practical? How do you prepare a practical? How do you ensure that students get the most out of your practical? This Education Tip provides answers to these questions and focuses closely on your role as a supervisor of practicals.  

What is a Practical? 

  • a practical is an independent learning situation, in which students actively acquire or practise certain manual techniques and (cognitive) skills or practices. This practice preferably takes place individually or in small groups under intensive guidance. Action and interaction are at the centre of practicals; 
  • a practical is not a lecture in a smaller group, during which students listen to a one-sided story or watch a demonstration without personal involvement. Although this may be useful, this is not the purpose of a practical.   

How to Prepare a Practical? 

The quality of a practical depends on thorough preparation. 

Determine the intended compentecies in advance 

  • determine in advance what you want to achieve with your practical by considering the competencies on the course unit's course sheet. Limit the number of (sub)competencies per practical. Choosing competencies that form a coherent whole across a series of practicals promotes learning. Clearly communicate to the students the competencies you aim to achieve with the practical;
  • the level of difficulty must correspond to your objectives. In less complex practicals, students can follow a fixed procedure (so-called cookbook practicals); in the case of more complex practicals, it is possible to have various procedures and even different outcomes. Challenge students by providing enough information, but not all of it. 

Make clear agreements with other supervisors involved 

  • are there two or more supervisors to a practical? Coordinate the practical's preparation, process, teaching and learning activities, content, supervision and assessment;
  • if you are the supervisor of the practical but not the lecturer-in-charge, make sure you are familiar with the content of the lecture and coordinate properly with the lecturer-in-charge. Lectures and practicals should form an integrated whole; 

Carry out the practical yourself before the lecture 

Try out the practical yourself first. This way you can identify potential difficulties. By reasoning the way you expect students to reason, you get a better idea of the points at which students may ask questions, and/or you can ask questions yourself. 

Know your material and set it up in advance 

Be technically prepared by answering the following questions in advance:  

  • where to find the necessary material? Where to get more material? 
  • how to use the material as safely and efficiently as possible? 
  • how much material to provide for a specific group of students? Can students work with the same material? 
  • is everything in good working order? How to detect defects? How to replace items? 
  • how to adjust the practical when something goes wrong or if the material fails? 
  • are the first-aid kit, the fire extinguisher and other safety equipment available and within reach? 

How to Organize a Meaningful Practical? 

Make clear agreements 

The environment of a practical is not necessarily quiet and orderly: interaction is very important. Clear agreements are also important. Therefore, ask yourself: 

  • what attitude do you expect from the students? 
  • what are the disciplinary and security measures? 
  • is attendance mandatory? (Please note that you can only make attendance mandatory if the course sheet mentions a form of continuous assessment);  
  • how are students to address you?  
  • how are the students assessed? Are there certain deadlines? What are the assessment criteria? 
  • how will the students receive feedback? 
  • what are the students' channels for asking questions (e-mail or other online channels)? Cleary tell students how you expect them to communicate with you, and within which space of time you usually answer their e-mails, etc... . 

Align the practical with the theory  

  • align practice (the practical) and theory (lectures, course material): these elements must form an integrated whole for the student. During the practical, clearly refer to the theory as seen during class, and vice versa. Linking experiences (gained during a practical) to the theory is a cognitive processing activity that you should explicitly stimulate among your students;
  • during the practical, use the same terminology and the same learning materials (e.g. slides, photos, tables...) as during the lectures. Presenting modules in a different way will only confuse for students, unless the other approach has an explicit added value;   
  • plan the lectures and their accompanying practicals as closely together as possible. Use an annual planning. In case a practical is scheduled before the accompanying lecture, make sure that the students are able to master the theory autonomously by giving them e.g. a preparatory assignment. Ufora has several convenient tools for this purpose, such as combing a lecture with a test or quiz; 
  • contextualize the practical cleary within the course unit's learning content. Do not simply provide a link with the theory, but also with other practicals:
    • what has been discussed in the previous practical?   
    • what topics will be covered in later practicals? 

Make sure students have the appropriate prior knowledge 

If the practical is based on learning material that the students should already master, check whether or not the students effectively master it. If you asked them to prepare for the practical (e.g. reading an article, reviewing a chapter, ... ), check whether they have done so by asking specific questions about a particular topic or by asking a number of students to give a brief summary. Another way to assess the students' prior knowledge is organized a short test or quiz via Ufora. If you want to find out more about stimulating prior knowledge? Click here

Controling at the start, coaching towards the end 

Offer tailor-made coaching. In a first practical, provide guided exercises. Direct the students by giving them clear instructions, possibly with a detailed step-by-step plan. As the students’ confidence increases, you can be less directive and be more coaching instead, e.g. by giving less detailed instructions. This way you activate the students cognitively and stimulate their autonomy. 

Make sure there is sufficient action and interaction 

  • action is important during a practical. Address students and ask many (open-ended) questions. Avoid one-on-one conversations and involve as many students as possible; 
  • choose appropriate teaching and learning activities that promote interaction: e.g. buzz groups, jigsaws, think-pair-share or teamwork;
  • do not encourage action for action's sake, but only in the context of the objectives you want to achieve. When it comes to interaction, students need to know what they are doing, and why; 

in this video you can see how lecturers at Ghent University ensure action and interaction during their practicals. 

Log in with your UGent account on MS Stream to watch the video.

Walk around during the practical 

Walk around – a small tip with large effects: 

  • adopt an open body posture. It lowers the barrier for students to ask questions and for you to create a safe learning environment; 
  • walking around allows you to better follow the students' progress and enables you to intervene if something goes wrong. If this happens, be sure not to take control of the experiment or exercise yourself. Students appreciate help as long as they can find the solution themselves. An unexpected result? Let them speculate where things went wrong by asking specific questions. Students learn from making mistakes. 

Create an authentic learning environment 

  • if you work in an authentic learning environment, students will learn real-life applications (e.g. conducting an experiment in a laboratory, interviewing patients, accompanying a clinical session, setting up research or pleading a case); 
  • provide relevant, real-life illustration material. The familiarity stimulates personal involvement. With a variety of examples, students learn to look at a concept from different angles.

Provide a coherent whole

  • students should be able to complete all the tasks of the practical within the time that is provided; 
  • at the beginning of the lecture, indicate how long each task should last. That way, students can better determine their pace and estimate how much time they still have to finish their assignments. 

Are You the Perfect Supervisor of Practicals? 

With the help of the questionnaire for supervisors by Cannon and Newble, you can critically examine your own role as a supervisor of practicals. Answer the questions below as honestly as possible and adjust your practical where necessary: 

  • do you encourage active participation among the students? 
  • do you avoid that students spend most of their time on simply observing? 
  • are you positive about your teaching assignment and are you able to convey that positive attitude to your students? 
  • do you focus on skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving and other aspects of academic research? 
  • do you encourage the students to apply the theory from the lectures during practical exercises? 
  • are you able to recognize students who have difficulties understading certain concepts or mastering certain skills during the practical? 
  • do you provide different opportunities for the students to practise their skills? 
  • are you friendly, helpful and available to the students? 

Want to Know More? 

Séré, M.-G. (2002), Towards renewed research questions from the outcomes of the European project Labwork in Science Education. Sci. Ed., 86: 624–644. doi: 10.1002/sce.1004 

UGent Practices

Last modified Feb. 21, 2022, 4:27 p.m.