Practical inquiry in secondary science education

24 April 2024

This report provides a synthesis and assessment of research concerning beneficial effects of practical inquiry on secondary school students.


This study examines research into the benefits to students of engaging in practical inquiry within formal and non-formal learning environments. It focuses particularly on evidence relating to the development of scientific knowledge and understanding; enjoyment of and motivation to study science; development of scientific skills and skills for employment, understanding of the culture that pervades professional practice of science, and effect on career aspirations.


What is practical inquiry?

Practical inquiry describes investigative ‘hands on’ activities that relate to practical work in science that takes place within or outside classrooms. Practical inquiry may be ‘closed’ or ‘open’ to varying extents. At one end of the spectrum ‘closed’ practical inquiry involves students undertaking a practical investigation chosen by the teacher and following given methods and a sequence of steps to obtain the expected result. At the other end of the spectrum, ‘open’ practical inquiry involves students undertaking a practical problem of their choosing using methods and processes of their own making.

Why is practical inquiry important?

Practical inquiry is central to the practice of science. It is crucial for developing knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas. It also develops scientific skills (such as those required to use scientific equipment safely) and wider competencies (such as communication and collaboration) that are valuable in life and for work.

What does the report include?

The report considers research relating to the impact of practical inquiry on secondary school students with a view to informing science education policy. It covers international and UK research published, mainly, between 2005 and 2020. 

Where can I find out more about practical inquiry?

The Science Education Tracker, a survey of young people’s experiences of science education and their perceptions of science and their scientific career aspirations, includes a focus on issues such as the frequency and types of practical work young people experience.