A summary and practical look at the EEF’s guide on ‘Improving Secondary Science’

A look in to what the EEF is suggesting and how it might look in ‘real life’ science lessons.

James Bullous
Mar 9 · 9 min read

As mentioned in my previous blogs, I am a big fan of the EEF guidance reports. In this blog, I wanted to give my summary of the new ‘Improving Secondary Science’ guidance and how it links to my experiences as a Lead Practitioner in a Secondary Science department. I will also attempt to link to any avaiable resources I feel useful. The guidance is available here.

The guidance is a 48 page report that provides a practical and achievable approach to improvement in science teaching and carries a strong theme of metacognition and self regulation throughout. I have previously produced a blog on metacognition here.

The guidance begins with an overview of the 7 steps to improve science. These are seen below.

EEF summary of methods to improve science

I will go through each of these recommendations now and how I think they can be applied to a science teaching or a science department.

Recommendation 1 – Preconceptions

Students misconceptions and preconceptions can be the biggest barrier to learning we come across as science teacher. Addressing and correcting misconceptions takes trust and time and many concepts need revisiting to ensure the misconception is fully corrected. These include such classics as “Letting the cold in” and “Air reacts with…”. These are often embedded by parents, peers and observations so are extremely hard to break. Some ways to overcome these preconceptions or misconceptions are:

  • Use hinge questions, such as multiple choice from AAAS Project 2061 or BEST (Best Evidnce Science Teaching), to identify misconceptions
  • Use small groups and class discussions to tease out misconceptions
  • Cause a cognitive conflict (by a student discovering or observing something that goes against their current way of thinking). This causes them to have to restructure their thoughts to accommodate the new evidence. An example is that gases can be compressed and therefore much have a vacuum between particles
  • Threshold concepts that once students have understand, allow them to see new interrelatedness and open up whole concepts are specifically vital to revisit and ensure misconceptions no longer exist

In my opinion, all of this comes back to subject knowledge. You need to had advanced subject knowledge in order to probe, question and unearth misconceptions effectively. Teachers should work together to identify common misconceptions, think of ways to address them and build these in to schemes of work.

Further reading:

Driver, R., Squires, A., Rushworth, P. and Wood-Robinson, V. (1994) Making sense of Secondary Science: Research Into Children’s Ideas, London: Routledge

Recommendation 2 – Self Regulation

There are three branches to self regulation, all of which form the foundations of metacognition. These are cognition (strategies), metacognition (effectiveness of strategies) and motivation (can they be bothered). I have discussed the issue of metacognition more in another blog. Please see this here.

In essence, metacognition and self regulation can be used in science in the following ways:

  • Lower attainers make more progress using explicit instructions and so this closes the gap (no reference available)
  • Teacher should model and frame own thinking and engage in metacognition discussion. This can include the #sciencestories (@drwilkinsonsci) or hinterland (@adamboxer1) and shows students a background or non-essential knowledge on which to build factual memory.
  • AFTER students have been explicitly taught consent, a good task is to apply that knowledge by designing an experiment too … is a great metacognitive task
  • Students need to have this model explicitly explained to allow them to use it and cycle through there think oricess based on the knowledge of themselves, the task and some strategies.

Metacognition is making the implicit, explicit.

Further reading:

Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning Guidance Report

Cambridge Assessment – Getting started with Meta-cognition

Recommendation 3 – Modelling

Good teachers use models all the time to provide a bridge between pupils’ current ideas and new understanding. This is done most effectively by inviting students to comment on and improve models and teachers can give them extra insights. This again relies on a sound subject knowledge.

The idea is that models are based on should be familiar to pupils, as otherwise this can confuse them further and lead to misconceptions. It is also important that pupils understand how models differs from the idea being taught and learn the underlying idea rather than the model

Think about the models that you are going to use before, during, and following lessons to reflect and ensure there effective use in teaching the concept. This refection is also to ensure that pupils avoid learning the model rather than the concept it is meant to explain. You can overcome this by explicitly directing pupils to the similarities and differences between the model and the concept.

Further reading:

Gilbert, J. K. and Justi, R. (2016) Modelling-based Teaching in Science Education, Switzerland: Springer International

Recommendation 4 – Memory and Cognition

Long-term memory can be considered asa ‘store of knowledge’. Working memory is where information that is being actively processed is held – it is where ‘thinking’ happens. Information in your long-term memory is stored in schemas: a schema is a pattern of thought that organises categories of information, and the links between them. Any task that exceeds the limit of the working memory will result in cognitive overload and this increases the possibility that the content may be misunderstood and not effectively encoded in the long-term memory. Worryingly, if cognitive overload occurs, anything new in that working memory is then lost…..forever!

Ways to reduce cognitive load:

  • Plan lesson sequences so that any necessary background knowledge is covered in advance. This could include the none essential ‘story telling’ (hinterland and #sciencestories) to set foundations for new knowledge.
  • Avoid split attention by ensuring pupils do not need to refer to multiple sources to complete a task. This is seen in diagrams and often in textbooks. I am a big visualiser user and when drawing diagrams or presenting information, the more combined the better. I.e. in the diagram of a heart below, a) lowers the cognitive load for effectively then b). There has been some excellent work on this for visual practicals and I will link that in the next recommendation.
  • Use worked examples or partially solved examples that take pupils through each step of a process. Basically, work metacognitively to build memory sequentially. This will involve Breaking down tasks so that pupils tackle it step-by-step, writing down what they know at each step, before tackling the next step
  • Ensure pupils commit important and frequently used pieces of information to their long-term memory. Retrieval practice involves retrieving something you have learnt in the past and bringing it back to mind.

The more you know, the less you have to remember

Further reading:

Learning Scientists website

Recommendation 5 – Practical Work

In my experience, the worst done part of science teaching the with potential to be the best.

Practical science is an excellent tool to engage pupils but it is important to be clear about your purpose for choosing a particular activity. It is far to often done for the soul purpose of engaging and not focused man the purpose or learning.

I don’t need to lecture this audience as the the advantage of practical work in developing specific skills such as measurement and observation, that may be useful in future study or employment. In addition to this it is great for developing higher level skills and attributes such as communication, teamwork and perseverance. This only works if students are ‘minds on’ as well as ‘hands on’.

I feel the main limit to the effectiveness of practicals lie in he cognitive overload that can very easily occur. How often have we heard “I don’t know what I am doing” or “what do I do next sir?”. To combat this, I use two techniques.

  1. I use graphical organisers to allow students to plan and understand the how and why of practical. I have previously written a blog about these that can be found here
  1. Visual practicals. These are an excellent. resource I have seen provided by @adamboxer1 (here) and @dave2004b (here). These are an excellent combination of practical skills and cognitive load theory to ensure students gain the most from practicals.

Further reading:

Holman, J. (2017) Good Practical Science, London: Gatsby Foundation.39

Recommendation 6 – Language of Science

We must become competent in the language of science to excel and this is not additional, it is part of essential teaching and learning. This can be done by showing the links between words is an efficient way of teaching vocabulary and aids understanding. I often use etymology to share the meaning of words or parts of words to link to learning. Recently, for example, when students were asking why the anode and the cathode change charge in cells I was able to explain the meaning of an- (up) and cath- (down) and -ode (path) this simply explains the route of the electrons.

Focus on keywords in topics and ensure students understand these words. We also news to consider words that have different meaning in science then everyday language (i.e. field, valid, random, variable, continuous) and highlight these explicitly to students. Once a word has been introduced, get students to use it in different sentences or tasks

Further reading:

Wellington, J. and Osborne, J. (2001) Language and literacy in science education (2011 ed.), Buckingham, Philadelphia: Open University Pressurised

Recommendation 7 – Feedback (NOT MARKING)

Feedback should help pupils develop as learners, not just improve performance on a specific task (promote deeper thinking) this can be achieved through the use of higher order Blooms words, such as why, justify, evaluate and synthesise.

It have been found over and over that m performance improves when feedback is in the form of constructive comments, and most importantly, this does NOT ALWAYS HAVE TO BE WRITTEN FEEDBACK IN A MARKING POLICY. Feedback is most effective when pupils know how to respond to it and are given time to do so

Effective feedback requires knowledge of where students are currently at. This can be achieved my assessments but also by low stakes testing and AfL such as retrieval roulettes, quzzing or Kahoot!.

Avoid marks only feedback as can lead to demotivation in low attainers and complacency in high attainers. Feedback should be comment based and off support and praise, I.e. ‘You understand about homeostasis, but try to find some examples from plants as well as animals’

Importantly, feedback could be whole class based on a number of misconceptions and is best as a question rather then an instruction. I.e. compare ‘Add notes on seed dispersal’ with ‘Can you suggest how the plant might disperse its seeds? Could this be an advantage?’ It’s should also make connections with prior performance, or to pupils’ success or failure on another part of the task.

Feedback should provide concrete suggestions for improvement through a teachers understanding of a pupils of prior knowledge and is next delivered verbally.

Further reading:

Black, P. and Harrison, C. (2004) Science Inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the Science Classroom, London: NfER Nelson.62

Thanks for taking the time to read this. Please leave any comments or feedback @DrB_SciTeacher. My hope is this leads to constructive and beneficial conversations that better the education of all students.

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