Practical, open-ended and extended investigative projects in science

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


The purpose of this study is to report on teachers’ use of open-ended investigative work post-16. The Gatsby Good Practical science report identifies opportunities to carry out open-ended work as one of their ten benchmarks for good practical science, yet there is currently no requirement for students in England to have access to the opportunity to carry out such work, which means that such work is often pushed to the margins. This study aimed to find out why and how teachers use open- ended investigative work with students in order to identify ways in which it can be possible in schools in England.

Short questionnaires and extended semi-structured interviews were used to collect data. A total of seventeen teachers responded to the questionnaire and twelve teachers were interviewed. All teachers interviewed had been teaching for longer than 5 years and worked in schools or colleges rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted. Teachers were asked about enablers and barriers to the work, and the ways in which they negotiated these. Findings are presented as case studies in order to be relatable to other teachers. The case studies provide information about the project, who participates, intended and perceived learning outcomes, the role of the teacher, school support and advice for other teachers.

Open-ended investigative projects were characterised according to their degree of open-ness, i.e. what was provided to students from the following dimensions: problem and background, procedures, design or methodology, analysis and conclusions. Projects in which teachers provided all dimensions (confirmatory projects) were excluded from the report. Most teachers in the sample provided the theoretical context, with students able to make decisions about research design, analysis and conclusions. Ongoing or ad-hoc support was a feature of many projects, and whilst most projects were not assessed, they were often used to meet the Common Practical Assessment Criteria (CPAC) or made to ‘count’ in other ways. Most projects were carried out during class time, sometimes including collapsed days in the summer term. Five big themes were identified in terms of what teachers wanted students to learn: ‘real’ science, the state of the field, research design, iteration and data handling.

Enablers of open-ended investigative work in the curriculum include teacher experience and autonomy, technical support, support from senior leadership, laboratory space and equipment budget, examination specifications, and external support and recognition. Challenges in providing access for students to open-ended investigative projects include access to literature, laboratory space, expertise and equipment, numbers of students and technicians in relation to number of teachers. Teachers in the sample found ways to negotiate or to overcome these barriers, which are likely to be useful to teachers considering offering open-ended project work in the curriculum. Time remains an intractable issue for all teachers in the sample.

This report includes data only from teachers who were dedicated to providing open-ended investigative projects to their students; there may be additional barriers to doing this that affect the wider science teacher population. All of the teachers are based in schools or colleges rated outstanding or good by Ofsted, and many teach within their specialism. The conditions in other institutions may contribute to barriers to open-ended investigative projects and care must be taken to avoid widening educational inequalities in terms of access to open-ended investigative projects.

Whilst open-ended investigative projects can be integrated into the post-16 curriculum, where this is not a requirement of the specification, it tends to rely on work beyond timetabled hours from teachers. Several teachers in this sample found ways of making project work ‘count’, for example by relating it to the CPAC, linking to award schemes, offering as an alternative to other scheduled teaching and learning activities and encouraging students to write about their experiences on UCAS applications. Some teachers in this study believed that open-ended investigative work had a positive impact on attainment post-16, and there may be value in researching this claim because if evidence did support the claim, more teachers may be convinced to introduce project work, even if not required by specifications.

To increase the uptake of open-ended investigative project work at post-16, we recommend a range of actions. Exemplars of ‘making open-ended investigative projects count,’ could be made available to teachers, with attention to ways of minimising risk (particularly in chemistry projects), and teacher and technician time for project work through workload models and buy-out could be valued. Research investigating claims about the impact of open-ended investigative work on attainment would build a more convincing case to teachers who are currently reluctant to introduce open- ended project work. Assessment is an important driver for classroom practice, and a way to ensure that this happens is to change policy to require open-ended investigative work in post-16 examination specifications. However, where open-ended investigative work is to be included in specifications, care must be taken to avoid assessment methods that result in a formulaic approach to investigative project work.
Original languageEnglish
Commissioning bodyThe Gatsby Charitable Foundation
Number of pages39
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jun 2019

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