20 tips for training science teachers

Author: Sue Howarth
Published: 20/08/2020

Science teacher

1. ​​​​The ‘big ideas’ of science

  • Become familiar with the big ideas of and about science and how they distil scientific knowledge into just 14 big ideas.

  • Refer to the relevant big idea(s) in your lesson planning.

  • Share the big idea(s) associated with your lesson with your students, so that it helps them to see where the current lesson fits in with other lessons and topics.

  • Encourage students to think about the big ideas of and about science in discussions, assessments and in practical work. 

Going further: Read the introductory pages of the freely downloadable Principles and Big Ideas of Science Education by Wynne Harlen (2010).

2. The language of science – introducing new terminology

  • Introduce new terminology carefully and with explanations.

  • List new terms where students can refer to them.

  • Build on students’ prior knowledge by associating new terms with words that students may already be familiar with in everyday life. For example, ‘exothermic’ links to ‘exit’ as in going out, and ‘therm’ links to thermal, which students may know as warm clothing.

  • Break down multi-syllable words into their component parts to help with understanding. For instance, ‘cytology’ is made up from ‘cyt…’ meaning ‘cell’ and ‘…ology’ meaning ‘the study of’, hence cytology is the study of cells.

  • Consider getting students to create a ‘word wall’ or make word lists of vocabulary associated with particular topics.

Going further: Wikibooks has a number of pages about understanding scientific terminology, including particularly helpful pages on Greek and Latin roots of scientific terms.

3. Formative assessment in science

  • Use a number of formative assessments throughout the lesson, linked to your learning objectives.

  • Vary the formative assessments. For example:

    • question students

    • give them a quiz

    • use peer assessment and feedback

    • hold a discussion

    • ask students to label diagrams

    • make predictions

    • record measurements

    • draw graphs

    • present conclusions or

    • explain their observations.

  • Record information from your formative assessments so that you don’t forget it; this can be written, photographed or immediately fed back to students.

  • Do something with the information that you get from carrying out formative assessment activities, to help students see what they need to do to improve their knowledge, understanding or skills, i.e. to make progress.

Going further: Read the first and last chapters of Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam (2009).

4. Effective practical work in science

  • Decide which aspects you want students to focus on: planning, predicting, carrying out, measuring, observing, recording, concluding or evaluating. It is far less effective – and usually impossible in one lesson – to have students do every part of every piece of practical work every time.

  • Engage students so that they not only are involved in doing the practical work but are also involved in thinking about what they are doing. Evidence suggests that there is too much ‘hands-on’ and not enough ‘minds-on’ when students carry out practical work in science lessons.

  • Plan your group size carefully. Think about roles of students in different-sized groups and allow for flexibility in case you have absentees.

  • Space out the equipment and materials to avoid students having to queue.                

Going further: Read as much as you can of Enhancing Learning with Effective Practical Science 11–16 by Ian Abrahams and Michael J, Reiss (2016). The chapters include 72 lesson examples of effective practical work for Biology, Chemistry and Physics for students aged between 11 and 16.

5. Using models in science

  • Use models to simulate real-life conditions, processes or objects, when it is not possible to use the real thing easily in class, e.g. the phases of the Moon.

  • Ask students to evaluate the model, so that they are helped to see where it works well and where it has limitations. For example, ‘giant cuddly microbe’ models are great for showing different types and shapes of microbes but are not realistic in their use of colour or size.

  • Ask students to create their own models; this helps to make their thinking visible and allows insight into any misconceptions that they might have.

Going further: Read Hardman, M. (2017) ‘Models, matter and truth in doing and learning scienceSchool Science Review, 98 (365), 91–98.

6. Making the most of your lab space

  • If the benches or tables in your lab are moveable, think about whether they would work better in a different arrangement.

  • Consider where it is best to stand to talk to the class or to let them get on with work. These are not always the same places. Where you stand can send strong signals to students.

  • If possible, try to have ‘dry’ areas for writing and ‘wet’ areas for practical work.

  • Think about lighting. Do you need blinds down or up, and lights on or off?

Going further: Most schools in the UK have membership of the safety body CLEAPSS. If you get the chance to have input into the design of new school science facilities, consider CLEAPSS’ guidance on designing and planning laboratories.

7. Making the most of your mentor

  • Always remember that your mentor will have many other commitments, so be well prepared for your meetings, with paperwork to hand and in order.

  • Be punctual for meetings, but also be flexible if times have to be changed.

  • Make sure that you ask about any feedback that is not clear.

  • Listen carefully and act on advice given; feed back at your next meeting about how it went.

  • Explain any problems to your mentor politely and clearly.

  • If you feel you are not being given adequate support, speak to the person in school who is responsible for trainee/newly qualified teachers and/or any university support staff.

Going further: Dip into How to be a Brilliant Trainee Teacher by Trevor Wright (2017).

8. Time management

  • Prepare for the demands of science teaching as much as you can in advance. Training to teach and teaching itself are demanding roles; they require you to engage with education theory (often at Masters level), perhaps write assignments, become familiar with all the sciences (possibly beyond what you learned at school or in your degree) and at the same time learn the many skills of teaching.

  • Have a good support network organised so that you can use your time effectively; shopping, cooking, childcare and parent care may need careful forward planning.

  • Know when and where you work best and use these times and places to do your most creative thinking.

  • Do not ‘reinvent the wheel’. If resources are already available, don’t create your own, but adapt existing ones.

  • Wear a watch (better than checking your phone, which might be misinterpreted) or have a clock visible so that you track time during lessons. Be flexible but aim to stick to your planned lesson. Cut out a middle section if you have to, rather than skip the important plenary.

Going further: Download the free Science Teacher SOS from The Association for Science Education (2018). This document is for new and established teachers and provides ways to analyse your work–life balance, along with suggestions about how to make positive changes.

9. Dealing with imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern that affects high achievers, including teachers. It makes competent and capable people doubt their accomplishments and fear that they may be unmasked as frauds. An estimated 70% of people experience these feelings at some point: see ‘The Impostor Phenomenon’ by Jaruwan Sakulku. If you feel like this, then:

  • don’t attribute successes to external factors (an easy class, luck that an experiment worked) but take credit yourself

  • try to avoid perfectionism; meeting only 99% of your goals may still make you feel like a failure

  • accept that you can’t know everything (physicists teaching biology; chemists teaching physics, etc.), so admit when you don’t know something; a class may respect you more for this

  • ask for help when you need it; more experienced colleagues in your department may be pleased to be asked and seeking help does not mean that you are a fraud or a failure

  • learn to value constructive criticism and apply it to your teaching, not to yourself.

Going further: Education Support is a UK charity providing mental health and wellbeing support services to all staff working in education. They have a free and confidential helpline, 08000 562 561, run by trained counsellors, 365 days per year. Note that @EdSupport say that their helpline is there for conversations and not just for crises.

10. The ‘impossible’ science class

  • If you really have the worst class in the school, it is worth discussing your concerns with your head of department. It isn’t in your best interests, or the interests of the students, for an inexperienced teacher to work with a group that may cause experienced teachers difficulty.

  • Use your school’s rewards and sanctions effectively. It is not weak to issue sanctions, though a more positive atmosphere is created if you can give more rewards than sanctions.

  • Consider introducing incentives for practical work – allow students who behave positively to carry out practical work.

  • Utilise your teaching colleagues by asking your mentor, teaching assistant and/or other colleagues to help; perhaps try some co-teaching.

  • Have clearly defined student expectations visible so that you do not have to repeat them.

  • Give positive directions, stating what you want students to do, rather than what you don’t want them to do.

  • Learn names quickly and use them.

  • Keep parents or carers informed of concerns or issues.

Going further: Read any of the books by Bill Rogers about dealing with behaviour, e.g. Classroom Behaviour: A Practical Guide to Effective Teaching, Behaviour Management and Colleague Support (2015).

Download all 20 tips for training teachers

Sue Howarth