Skills and self-belief after disrupted learning: exploring students’ perspectives

By Katy Finch
Published 15 Jan 2024

Our researchers partnered with two universities to help identify the needs of undergraduate science students following disrupted practical work during Covid-19.

Concerns about lost learning during the Covid-19 lockdowns continue to make headlines and it’s likely the impacts will reverberate for years to come. Some subjects lent themselves more easily to online teaching than others, but those that normally have a significant ‘hands-on’ element, such as science, presented specific challenges.

We partnered with Durham University and the University of Liverpool to explore A-level students’ experiences of practical science at home and school during this time of disruption. A-level sciences have a practical endorsement, whereby teachers normally assess students’ abilities over at least 12 practicals. The regulatory guidance around this endorsement was amended during the Covid-19 pandemic.1

In July 2021, we led focus groups with 18 A-level students in England who were set to pursue science at university.2 As these students were in Year 12 in 2020, they’d experienced around six months of ‘normal’ science classes prior to the March 2020 school closures. We clarified to the students that we considered practical science to include:

  • manipulative (hands-on) skills – setting up and using equipment, taking measurements, making observations
  • procedural skills – working safely in the laboratory, following a method, choosing suitable equipment
  • scientific enquiry skills – planning an experiment, analysing data, drawing conclusions, identifying variables
  • soft skills – using software such as Excel to plot graphs and present data, writing lab reports, researching, referencing
  • transferable skills – organisation, communication, time management.

The focus group data generated four main themes: variation in student experience; a gap in manipulative skills; improved scientific enquiry and soft skills; positive perceptions of transitioning to higher education (HE). The outcomes of this first phase of the research are described in an earlier blog, posted in January 2022.

Our partners at Durham and Liverpool led the second phase of the research, carrying out a survey with 275 students about to start the first year of their Biosciences/Life Sciences, Chemistry, Physics or Natural Sciences degree courses in autumn 2021. It was hoped that the results of the survey would help the universities to identify how they could tailor their curriculum and teaching to cater for any changes in the skill set of these students.

The survey addressed three important research questions:

  • What was students’ experience of practical work in their post-16 studies during the Covid-19 pandemic?
  • How confident did students feel in relation to key science practical skills at the start of their degree?
  • How prepared did students feel in relation to different areas of practical skills at the start of their degree?

Experience of practical work

Almost all students reported that they’d had the opportunity to undertake practical work as part of their A-level studies; however, there were differences in whether they’d completed the full theoretical and practical specification of their courses, as well as differences in the frequency and timing of opportunities to undertake practical work. While most students had had the opportunity to devise their own practical procedures, a proportion of students reported that they hadn’t. There was also a mixed picture as to whether students had had the opportunity to carry out an extended independent practical investigation spanning more than one lesson.

Percentage of students who’d had the opportunity to design their own experiments (from survey data)













Impact on self-belief

The survey findings showed that, unsurprisingly, the students felt most confident in the skills that they’d undertaken most often during their A-level studies (see table below). However, in contrast to this, the students reported feeling most prepared in relation to transferable and procedural skills, such as time management and choosing appropriate equipment.

One possible reason for these apparent contradictions in student responses may be due to the impact of Covid-19 on students’ self-efficacy beliefs. Although students may have experienced practical work, their belief in their own ability and preparedness for future study may be less developed due to the impact of the pandemic. This must be a key consideration for universities when planning for students’ transition to HE.

Examples of skills students felt most confident in (from survey data)




Perform basic mathematical calculations

Measure the mass of a compound using a mass balance

Use a stopwatch for timing

Safely use a Bunsen burner to sterilise equipment

Set up glassware using a boss head clamp and clamp stand

Use a digital instrument to measure mass

Confidence about manipulative skills

Some focus group participants felt they hadn’t had the opportunity to develop manipulative skills at all during home learning. However, the survey data showed that the practical skills that the highest percentage of students reported undertaking ‘by themselves more than once’ during their A-level studies were predominantly manipulative skills.

A closer look at the survey results showed that certain skills (eg using a Bunsen burner) had been carried out multiple times, but this was probably prior to the school closures. Students were able to draw on past manipulative skills experience, so they were likely more prepared than they thought.

Experience of scientific enquiry and soft skills

Interestingly, most students in the focus groups felt that lockdown enabled them to improve other kinds of skills, such as referencing, sourcing information and using software. The majority of those we spoke with were also fairly confident in their evaluation and analysis skills. However, this finding was not necessarily corroborated by the survey data.

Uncertainty about preparedness for university study

Overall, the focus group students felt more able to work independently and subsequently felt better prepared for university study. This general preparedness was replicated in the survey data. However, when asked specifically about working independently in university laboratory settings, only 17% of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they felt prepared, suggesting student self-efficacy in laboratory-based skills may need to be a focus for HE providers.

Guidance and support

In terms of next steps, our university partners aim to continue this work with future incoming students, ensuring they are supported to grow in confidence and skills.

Our Curriculum team at AQA are responding to these findings by developing some extra guidance and support for teachers teaching practical skills in both our GCSE and A-level science specifications:

  • ‘Focus on success’ packs for A-level sciences. These resources will follow a similar format to the GCSE science packs and will include training activities to support readiness to answer practical science assessment.
  • During The Big Experiment week, we launched our ‘Practicals with a twist’ video series. These videos are aimed at helping teachers to build confidence in delivering science practicals.
  • In early 2024, the team will run ‘Curriculum Connect’ events to support teachers in their delivery of the required practicals for the A-level CPAC endorsement.
  • The AQA Science Curriculum team will also be at the 2024 ASE conference to deliver further training on practical sciences, as well other aspects of science curriculum and assessment.

To find out more about the release of these materials and events, follow @Science_aqa.

1 Ofqual. (2020). Consultation decisions: Proposed changes to the assessment of GCSEs, AS and A levels in 2021; Ofqual. (2021). Consultation decisions: Proposed changes to the assessment of GCSEs, AS and A levels in 2022.

2 Eighteen students (from eight schools/colleges across England) who’d recently completed their A-levels took part in a series of five online focus groups.


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