Practical assessment


Many of the biologists interviewed teach courses in which practical work is considered an integral part of students' experience in the discipline. For instance, an academic teaching second year Marine and Terrestrial Animal Diversity writes,

It was my opinion that the practical component of the topic was essential for providing the students with hands-on exposure to a wide diversity of animal specimens, to illustrate key concepts that complemented the theory in lectures and to develop basic practical skills in zoology, such as use the of microscopes, dichotomous keys and field guides, scientific drawing, cladistics, sorting and species identification. [Example: Benkendorff 2]

When employers of biology graduates were asked what advice they would give to undergraduate science students who were wanting to become more employable by the time they graduated, the responses indicated the importance that employers place on practical skills:
        gain work experience in a laboratory
            become a summer student on a field project
                work on a cadetship
                        offer to work a few hours a week in a laboratory in your field of interest

Practical skills associated with the biological sciences

The particular skills and competencies developed through practical learning in the biological sciences are as varied and nuanced as the courses themselves. The following categories do, however, encompass the more common skills.

  • Observation - including: the accurate recording of observations (eg biological drawings; field notes); spatial and temporal interpretation (eg three dimensional information based on a series of focal planes, as is necessary in microscopy; monitoring change in animal behaviour over time); and pattern recognition (eg developing an effective 'search image' when screening biological assays).
  • Use of equipment - including: field equipment; laboratory equipment; clinical equipment; microscopes; and discipline-specific software tools (eg performing BLAST searches of DNA sequence).
  • Data collection techniques - including: sampling tools and strategies; and manipulation of material (eg sectioning of biological material; animal dissection).
  • Management of living material - including: animal husbandry, handling and breeding; plant propagation and collection; and working with microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi.
  • Occupational health and safety - including: handling biological organisms; appropriate handling and storage of chemicals; and equipment safety.
  • Experimental design - including: selection of the appropriate data collection method. Note that experimental design might be better considered a 'research skill' - the distinction is not absolute.

These practical skills may be developed through workplace experience, practical classes (eg fieldwork and laboratory-based classes), clinical placements, or research projects of various kinds.

The assessment of practical skills often involves the testing of competencies - that is, where a 'satisfactory' performance is essential in terms of safety and/or the successful completion of a particular task. Practical assessment in some situations is critical - the clinical setting is an obvious example. Binary grading - satisfactory/unsatisfactory - is commonly used for this reason.


The assessment of practical skills and competencies is of two broad types: direct assessment, where either the demonstration of the skills themselves are the object of assessment; and what we are calling 'indirect' assessment, where a students' level of a practical skill has a bearing on a related, assessed activity (such as a research report or a written practical test).

Direct assessment

The most common direct approach to the assessment of practical skills involves observations by persons skilled in the field - skilled clinicians in the case of clinical placements or employers in the case of work placements. For example:

Students taking courses that lead to a profession, such as physiotherapy, undertake periods of clinical practice in hospitals or clinical practices. Both the academic staff member and the clinical supervisor generally play a role in assessment of students' clinical work. The assessment may be based on a set of competencies approved by an accrediting agency.

An example of a student's work placement, based on volunteer work, was described to us by an academic teaching environmental science:
The [student] placement is generally volunteer work and many students choose placements in the field, but the option of office work is available. Students gain 10 per cent of their mark via a tick box form completed by their supervisor, but are also required to complete various other assignments.
[Example: Cooke 2]

Observations may also be used in a class setting. For example, during a practical class staff move around the room and assesses students' technique while engaged in various activities e.g. precision in using laboratory equipment, microscope use, drawings or dissection.

Reports can also provide direct evidence of students skills in recording observations. The assessment, commonly by practical class demonstrators, of biological drawings and written descriptions of observations is an obvious examples [Example: Benkendorff 1; Benkendorff 2]

Reflective journals may also be used for assessment. This is a particularly useful approach for when students are engaged in a practical activity over an extended period, such as industry or hospital placements, or extended fieldwork trips.

While becoming less common due to environmental considerations, collections of biological materials remain valued feature of some courses.

[in] my mycology unit ... you went out and collected all different types of fungi, presented, like handed in the actual specimen and then wrote about them, and those sort of things were so much fun because you actually got out into the field then you got to apply a bit of that knowledge in a written section, but just, yeah, we loved going out and collecting stuff. It was so much fun. [postgrad student]

[Example: Quinnell 2]

Indirect assessment

Written reports
One of the most common forms of assessment for practical classes or field trips involves a written report. Typically such reports involve the analysis and reporting of data collected or observations made during the class. While the actual practical skills involved in the data gathering are not, therefore, directly assessed, they often have a bearing on the quality of the report.

Many students spoke very positively about the value of fieldwork in motivating them and giving the theoretical aspects of their study more meaning and relevance.
[Examples: Cooke 1; Cooke 3; Kleindorfer; Postgrads 2; Taylor 4; Wilson 2]

Laboratory classes
Many academics see the writing of a laboratory report as an important generic skill for a biology student; a precursor for learning the conventions of writing a scientific paper.

We believe that it is essential that students are introduced to key generic attributes, such as writing skills, as part of the curriculum in first year, so that they appreciate their integral nature within the discipline. [academic]

One university provides support to help first year students write laboratory reports both online and in dedicated laboratory sessions [Examples: Taylor 1; Taylor 2] and another gives third years and postgraduates feedback on early drafts and access to staff through meetings and phone calls [Example: Wassens 1]. We spoke to one academic who says she identifies students who are having difficulty with the structure, writing and referencing of practical reports early in the semester and advises them to seek help from student services [Example: Cavanagh 1]. Another asks all her students to complete an online module to help them with report writing in week one of the semester [Example: West]. Yet another academic uses descriptive standards to guide students in their writing of scientific reports and their self-assessment of their reports [Example: Ross 3]. She also uses students' portfolios to assess the key learning outcomes of their practical classes [Example: Ross 4].

However for other universities, assessing laboratory reports for large first year class poses challenges in terms of staff time for grading and giving feedback [see also: Coping with resource constraints].

... we really haven't got the resources for a student to write a fully fledged practical report, hand it in and it'll be fully marked and annotated with satisfactory feedback. So we've had to look cunningly, if you like, at other strategies of assessing the prac that I believe are reasonable in terms of the outcomes that we expect of the student. [academic]

The laboratory reports described to us ranged from filling in a worksheet during the practical class to a full scale report handed in at a later stage. [Examples: Benkendorff 2, Taylor 1, Taylor 2]. One academic uses a novel approach: she asks students to create an 8-10 frame cartoon which tells a story of a group of invertebrate organisms investigated in practical classes [Example: Ross 2].

The marking of laboratory reports was often performed by demonstrators who were generally given special training and guidelines so that the reports were marked equitably [see also: Involving sessional staff].

The assessment of written reports is described in detail elsewhere [see also: Written assignments].

Practical examinations, tests and quizzes

Many forms of practical class testing were described to us: 

  • practical examinations [Example: Walker 1] - students may rotate around room from one test station to the next;
  • practical examination based on images [Example: Dow];
  • pre-lab work that was assessed [Example: Benkendorff 2];
  • pre-lab questions given out, then tested at start of practical class;
  • open book in practical testing [Example: Edwards];
  • multiple choice tests at the end of the practical session [Example: Mrongovius 2];
  • test calculations, graphing, application of formulae, statistical testing;
  • test experimental design;
  • weekly quiz (online or on paper); and
  • reflective questions completed by the students at the end of each practical and checked by demonstrators in the following week [Example: Ross 1].

Such practical tests are described in detail elsewhere, depending upon whether they are 'high-stakes', end of semester or end of unit tests [see also: Examinations], or in-semester tests which may or may not contribute to course grading [see also: Tests and quizzes].


Issues and strategies

Ensuring practical experiences and assessment tasks are authentic

The value of practical experience for students in the biological sciences has been emphasised. Yet ensuring that this experience is relevant to students interests and as authentic as possible remains a challenge. The use of real data, rather than mock results, is generally favoured as a means of ensuring that the experience of practical research is genuine - in all its 'messiness'. With biological material this can be challenging - matching organism life cycles to teaching timetables, for example! - but the benefits usually warrant the extra effort involved. Assessment tasks and the criteria used need to also reflect the priorities of practices in the discipline.
[Examples: Benkendorff 1; Cooke 1; Cooke 3; Dow; Hancock 1; Taylor 4]

Industry and clinical placements can clearly play an important role in authentic practical experience and assessment, although these pose challenges with securing sufficient places and with the approaches to assessment that are possible.
[Example: Cooke 2]

Practical assessments are resource intensive

General resource constraints, particularly for large classes, pose challenges for the design and coordination of practical classes and practical assessment. Approaches to the coordination of large teaching teams, including sessional staff, is discussed elsewhere [see also: Coping with resource constraints; Setting and monitoring standards; Involving sessional staff]. Specific examples and strategies were provided, relating to: time for classes and for grading [Examples: Benkendorff 2; Ross 4; West], consistency of grading [Example: Hancock 2], managing large practical classes [Examples: Mrongovius 2; Taylor 1; Taylor 2; Taylor 4], collecting lab books (is it always a student's work?) [Example: Thomson], reducing reliance on technical support [Example: Dow].


Generic skills

Not only does the assessment of practical work encourage students to develop useful physical, technical and experimental skills but it also encourages other generic skills that are valued by employers and useful for students' lifelong learning.

Examples of these generic skills are:

  • being well organised
  • keeping to timelines  i.e. meeting deadlines
  • have good written and oral communication skills
  • adhering to OH&S regulations

Authentic assessment

The assessment of practical work lends itself to 'real life' authentic tasks. Although some forms of assessment, such as online multiple choice questions, are used mainly in university settings, we found that many other assessment tasks, such as students' fieldwork reports, lab reports and clinical reports, were modelled on the kind of written work required at higher academic levels or in later employment. The skills tested were also those that could be expected to be necessary in students' later life as a biologist. For instance, one academic has developed an authentic exercise, run over three to four laboratory sessions in which students evaluate another group's work with clear and concise guidelines [Example: Hancock 1].

To reference material from this site, please use:

Harris, K-L., Krause, K., Gleeson, D., Peat, M., Taylor, C. & Garnett, R. (2007). Enhancing Assessment in the Biological Sciences: Ideas and resources for university educators. Available at: