Impact of Covid-19 on practical skills: are all students in the same boat?

By Katy Finch
Published 21 Jan 2022

AQA research project lead Katy Finch has been exploring A-level students’ experiences of practical science at home and school during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As we all know, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused some of the most severe disruption to global education in history. It’s now nearly two years since schools in the UK were forced to close and students had to continue their learning from home.

When learning moved online, different approaches to delivering lessons were taken at school, subject and teacher level. However, it seems that some subjects may have fared better than others. Those requiring practical, hands-on learning appeared to have a greater number of obstacles to overcome, whether online or in a socially distanced classroom setting.

Our curriculum colleagues at AQA were aware of these potential barriers and were keen to have a better understanding of students’ experiences of practical science during the pandemic and any potential impact on their confidence, skills and next steps. This was also an area of interest for some of our contacts working in higher education, as they tried to prepare for incoming cohorts of new students who were likely to have experienced high levels of disruption during their A-level studies.

Exploring students’ experiences

Following discussions with academic researchers at Durham University and the University of Liverpool, we set up a collaborative project to explore the topic further. AQA led on the first phase of this work by gathering the views of students. In summer 2021, we invited 18 students (from eight different schools and colleges) who’d recently completed their A-levels to share their experiences with us in a series of online focus groups.

We identified the following research questions:

  • What experiences have A-level science students had of practical science during the Covid-19 school closures, specifically in relation to the different skill areas within practical work?
  • To what extent have the Covid-19 school closures impacted A-level science students transitioning to higher education?

What did students say?

While some students felt that everyone sitting exams was ‘in the same boat’ in terms of disruption to learning, our data suggests that across different centres and subjects there has been a range of educational experiences during the pandemic. For example, the way social distancing was implemented between classrooms and schools varied, which meant that some students were more affected than others. Overall, however, students felt it was their ‘hands-on’ manipulative skills that had suffered the most during Covid-19.

“When we went back to school, I don’t think we did much in the way of practicals … I think we were shown a few at the front but for a lot of them, there just wasn’t the equipment or space.”

However, many students spoke about how they had developed other kinds of skills, such as referencing, sourcing information and using software.

“I think sourcing and referencing was a big benefit. I don’t think I would have been as confident with sourcing the websites that I used and making sure that I referred to them in my analysis, which I think are key transferable skills.”

As a result of studying in lockdown, the students felt more confident in their ability to work independently and better prepared for university-style learning.

“I’ve had to motivate myself so much this year because of the online learning. I think it won’t be as hard to transition maybe to university-style learning.”

What next?

The findings are currently underpinning the second phase of the research collaboration, led by Durham University and the University of Liverpool, which involves creating a skills audit for first-year undergraduate science students. We hope that by sharing the insights from this second phase, we can help higher education institutions to ensure a smoother transition for their incoming students now and in future years.

It’s clear that teachers explored different approaches to help their students complete practical work, despite the barriers experienced at the time, and that they worked hard to adhere to the regulatory requirements. We plan to use our research to support teachers as they try to make up for lost teaching time and rebuild their students’ confidence around key knowledge and skills areas.

The last two years of disruption mean that future A-level students and those going on to further education and training may need ongoing support to acquire manipulative skills, as it appears these have often been underdeveloped during the pandemic. On the plus side, the opportunity to work independently may have helped prepare A-level students for higher education study. Teachers could continue to promote this way of working in the future.

If you’d like to find out more about the research, this short visual report summarises highlights from the research and presents more direct quotes from the students.

The research was also presented to the Institute of Physics HE Networks Meeting 2021 and the STEM Post-16 Remote National Science Network.



Dr Katy Finch

Dr Katy Finch

Lead Researcher

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