Perspectives of Hands-On
David L. Haury and Peter
2. What are the benefits of hands-on learning?
How do I justify a hands-on approach?
Teachers who embrace hands-on learning in science seem to recognize
certain desirable outcomes and endorse student-centered instructional approaches.
Research has confirmed many of the seemingly intuitive benefits of hands-on
learning and has also documented a variety of unanticipated benefits. But
what effects of hands-on learning are seen by advocates as most important
- Students in a hands-on science program will remember the material better,
feel a sense of accomplishment when the task is completed, and be able
to transfer that experience easier to other learning situations. When more
than one method of learning is accessed as in hands-on learning, the information
has a better chance of being stored in the memory for useful retrieval.
Students who have difficulty in the learning arena for reasons of ESL barriers,
auditory deficiencies, or behavioral interference can be found to be on
task more often because they are part of the learning process and
not just spectators.
- Justifying why I would use hands-on science is based on all the research
and methods studies that are current. They support the notion of multi-faceted
bombardment of information and experiences so that the retention level
is improved. Students who are involved in labs and activities are empowered
in their own learning process. Mary Wieser, French Prairie Middle School,
- The benefits of hands-on-learning in my school revolves around those
children who are either not as academically "talented" or have
not shown "interest" in school. This method tends to stimulate
these type [of] students into participating and eventually absorbing information
that I believe they would not get from "normal" show-me -
tell-me methods. Marv Hougland, seventh and eighth grade teacher,
Clearview School, Lorain, OH
- The single most important benefit to me is that although it requires
a great deal of preparation time, once a system is developed, hands-on
teaching makes teaching fun. If the kids are learning and having fun doing
it, then I am having fun at my job, and I am a happier person overall.
Jeff G. Brodie, fifth and sixth grade teacher, East Side Elementary,
- I hear and I forget
I see and I remember
I do and I understand
- Chinese Proverb
Although these words may not be the exact translation, they underscore
the need for a hands-on approach to science teaching. Without this approach
students must rely on memory and abstract thought, two methods which restrict
learning in most students. By actually doing and experiencing science,
students develop their critical thinking skills as well as discover scientific
concepts. This self discovery stays with students throughout their lifetimes
while memory fades. Carol J. Stadum, The Planetary Society (producers
of Marslink teaching packets), Pasadena, CA
- If students are not doing hands-on science, they are not doing science.
Science is a process and if students are not actively engaged in the process,
they are not doing science. Most science classes in elementary school teach
the vocabulary of science and nothing else.
Study after study has shown the value of hands-on learning. Students
are motivated, they learn more, even their reading skills improve. How
can you justify not doing hands-on science? Edwin, J.C. Sobey, National
Invention Center, Akron, OH
- Learning by well-planned activities and experiences in a well engineered
program is a quality instructional approach. It:
- causes students to rely on the evidence instead of upon authority (encyclopedia,
minister, doctor, text, teacher, parent). Most students live in an authoritarian
world with little or no opportunity to practice decision-making because
nearly everyone tells students what to do and when to do it. We continually
graduate students who do not yet have the ability to set up a simple experiment
with controlled variables, collect and interpret evidence, or make correct
interpretations based upon that evidence.
- provides students with a similar set of experiences so everyone can
participate in discussions on a level playing field regardless of their
socio-economic status. In this way, special benefits are not awarded to
those who, by virtue of their wealth or background, have a greater number
of experiences under their belts.
- forces student thinking by requiring interpretation of the observed
events, rather than memorization of correct responses.
- messages the learner that they, as well as the instructor, can interpret
data, and that various interpretations are possible and often probable.
When a text or teacher tells students that plants need light to grow (an
untruth) students simply memorize this without question and are hampered
by the falsehood for a lifetime. However, when a student personally germinates
seeds in the dark and finds that they grow taller than seeds grown in the
light, it has irrefutable evidence from a personal experience that plants
do not need light to grow. Because he now has evidence that light inhibits
growth (which it does) he now has a chance of figuring out why plants in
a house grow toward the light (cell growth of the lighted side of the stem
is repressed while the unlighted side grows more, thus causing the stem
to grow in such a manner as to aim the upper part of the plant toward the
light which is necessary for growth after the stored food energy is used
up.) This information seldom comes from K-6 texts or teachers , yet is
a logical interpretation by 10 year old students if they conduct the
- encourages questioning of the observed events and the resulting data.
When students carry out their own experiments, they become very familiar
with the events and the variables involved.
- promotes cause and effect thinking.
- reduces dependence upon authority. Practical experiences in generating
hypotheses and planning experiments now, will make the students more independent
later when they no longer have authorities standing by at every turn of
their lives. Robert C. Knott, Ed.D. Science Curriculum Improvement Study
3, University of California, Berkeley
- The importance of providing children with direct experiences with materials,
objects, and phenomena is supported by experience and understanding of
how learning takes place. While information can be remembered if taught
through books and lectures, true understanding and the ability to use knowledge
in new situations requires learning in which children study concepts in-depth,
and over time and learning that is founded in direct experience. Therefore,
the justification for hands-on learning is that it allows students to build
understanding that is functional and to develop the ability to inquire
themselves, in other words, to become independent learners. Karen Worth,
Education Development Center, Inc. (Developers of Insights: A 1), Newton,
Notes from the literature
- "Hands-on and learning by experience are powerful ideas, and we
know that engaging students actively and thoughtfully in their studies
pays off in better learning (Rutherford, 1993, p. 5).
- Recipe for a Science Lesson
Option 1: Find a puddle and photograph it. Show the photograph
to a seven-year-old child. Have her read about puddles. Later, ask her
to talk about the puddle.
Option 2: Find a puddle. Add one seven-year-old child. Mix thoroughly.
Stomp, splash, and swish. Float leaves on it. Drop pebbles into it and
count the ripples. Measure the depth, width, and length of it. Test the
pH. Look at a drop under a microscope. Measure 250 mL of puddle water and
boil it until the water is gone. Examine what is left in the container.
Estimate how long it will take for 250 mL of puddle water to evaporate.
Time it. Chart it. Now ask the child to talk about the puddle.
If you were a seven-year-old child, what option would stimulate you
to talk about the puddle? That's what hands-on science is all about - allowing
students to experience science fully" (Donivan, 1993, p. 29).
- Piaget stressed the importance of learning by doing, especially in
science. According to Piaget, "a sufficient experimental training
was believed to have been provided as long as the student had been introduced
to the results of past experiments or had been allowed to watch demonstration
experiments conducted by his teacher, as though it were possible to sit
in rows on a wharf and learn to swim merely by watching grown-up swimmers
in the water. It is true that this form of instruction by lecture and demonstration
has often been supplemented by laboratory work by the students, but the
repetition of past experiments is still a long way from being the best
way of exciting the spirit of invention, and even of training students
in the necessity for checking for verification" (1986, p. 705).
- "Piaget's research clearly mandates that the learning environment
should be rich in physical experiences. Involvement, he states, is the
key to intellectual development, and for the elementary school child this
includes direct physical manipulation of objects" (McAnarney, 1978,
- Bruner also stressed learning by doing. "The school boy learning
physics is a physicist, and it is easier for him to learn physics behaving
like a physicist than doing something else" (Bruner, 1960, p. 14).
Bruner states, "Of only one thing I am convinced. I have never seen
anybody improve in the art and technique of inquiry by any means other
than engaging in inquiry" (1961, p. 31). Bruner points out the quick
rate of change in our world and says, "the principal emphasis in education
should be placed on skills - skills in handling, in seeing, and imaging,
and in symbolic operations" (Bruner, 1983, p. 138).
- A hands-on approach is also advocated by some people who advocate a
constructivist approach to science teaching. "Learning is defined
as the construction of knowledge as sensory data are given meaning in terms
of prior knowledge. Learning always is an interpretive process and always
involves construction of knowledge.... Constructivism implies that students
require opportunities to experience what they are to learn in a direct
way and time to think and make sense of what they are learning. Laboratory
activities appeal as a way of allowing students to learn with understanding
and, at the same time, engage in a process of constructing knowledge by
doing science" (Tobin, 1990, p. 404-405).
- Educational research has shown many advantages of using hands- on science
programs. Bredderman (1982) reports the results of a meta-analysis of 15
years of research on activity-based science programs. This synthesis of
research was based on approximately 57 studies involving 13, 000 students
in 1, 000 classrooms. All of the studies involved comparing activity-based
programs (the Elementary Science Study, Science-A Process Approach, or
the Science Curriculum Improvement Study) with comparable classrooms using
a traditional or textbook approach to science teaching. A variety of student
performance measures were analyzed. The most dramatic differences were
found in science process skills where the students in activity-based programs
performed 20 percentile units higher than the comparison groups. The students
in these programs scored higher than the control groups in the following
measures (ranked from largest to smallest differences): creativity, attitude,
perception, logic development, language development, science content, and
mathematics. Students who were disadvantaged economically or academically
gained the most from the activity- based programs.
- Hands-on learning has been shown to increase learning and achievement
in science content (Bredderman, 1982; Brooks, 1988; Mattheis & Nakayama,
1988; Saunders & Shepardson, 1984).
- Research indicates that activity-based science can improve students'
attitudes toward science (Jaus, 1977; Kyle, Bonnstetter, Gadsden, &
Shymansky, 1988; Kyle, Bonnstetter, McCloskey, & Fults, 1985; Rowland,
1990). "There seems to be some evidence from exemplary programs that
even poorly taught hands-on science is more interesting to students than
the typical textbook based program" (Penick & Yager, 1993, p.
- Evidence clearly indicates that hands-on activities increase skill
proficiency in processes of science, especially laboratory skills and specific
science process skills, such as graphing and interpreting data (Mattheis
& Nakayama, 1988).
- Hands-on learning in science has been shown to help in the development
of language (Bredderman, 1982; Huff, 1971; Quinn & Kessler, 1976) and
reading (Bredderman, 1982; Morgan, Rachelson, & Lloyd, 1977; Willman,
1978). Morgan, Rachelson, and Lloyd (1977) concluded from their study that
"sciencing activities can make a positive contribution to the acquisition
of reading skills of first grade students. These activities can provide
the concrete experiences from which many reading skills are derived"
- Participation in science inquiry lessons facilitated development of
both classification and oral communication skills of bilingual Mexican-American
third grade students (Rodriguez & Bethel, 1983).
- From their analysis of educational research, Barufaldi and Swift (1977)
concluded that, "a definite trend emerges that science experience
enhances reading readiness skills and oral communication skills among children"
- Activity-centered classrooms encourage student creativity in problem
solving, promote student independence, and help low ability students overcome
initial handicaps (Shymansky & Penick, 1981).
- "Seen only as a laundry list of theorems in a workbook, science
can be a bore. But as a 'hands-on' adventure guided by a knowledgeable
teacher, it can sweep children up in the excitement of discovery. Taught
by the regular classroom teacher, it can illustrate the point that science
is for everyone - not just scientists" (William J. Bennett (as U.S.
Secretary of Education), 1986, p. 27).
There are a plethora of benefits that teachers and curriculum developers
adduce to hands-on learning to justify the approach in science. Benefits
for students are believed to include increased learning; increased motivation
to learn; increased enjoyment of learning; increased skill proficiency,
including communication skills; increased independent thinking and decision
making based on direct evidence and experiences; and increased perception
and creativity. Research supports many of these claims by providing evidence
that the learning of various skills, science content, and mathematics are
enhanced through hands-on science programs. Students in activity-based
programs have exhibited increases in creativity, positive attitudes toward
science, perception, logic development, communication skills, and reading
readiness. These benefits seem more than sufficient justification for promoting
hands-on learning. However, Jeff Brodie provided an important addition
- it makes science fun for both the student and teacher. Given the recent
concerns about science anxiety and avoidance, enjoyment of science learning
seems a worthy goal to be considered in choosing instructional approaches
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