Teaching practical learning activities - guidance on specific areas

Small group of students looking at a 3D landscape contour map.Below, we consider some common learning activities that might be challenging to deliver in 20/21.

We know that there are many subjects/activities that we may not have covered below, but we will be updating this page regularly. If there is something you wish to see, or a specific challenge your department is working through, we can offer bespoke support: just email the Elevate team.

For more general guidance on planning for delivering practical learning activities, please see:

Teaching practical learning activities - key considerations

Using video in remote practical teaching

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Guidance and resources for specific learning activities

Laboratory teaching/Experiments

Questions of whether lab activity should take place on campus or digitally are likely to centre around the pedagogical purpose of the lab activity. Is it important for students to gain practical lab skills such as using equipment and using safe practices in a lab? A programme-level approach will help here: have students already demonstrated some of these learning outcomes within the course? Alternatively, is the focus more on factors such as acquiring knowledge, experiment design, or interpretation of data?

This table, adapted from Davies (2008) might help you to narrow down the purpose of your lab. Some possible digital alternatives are proposed in the final column:

Level of enquiry/autonomy Type of laboratory Aims Material Method Answer Possible online/off-campus alternatives
0 Demonstration Given Given Given Given Video (could be live-streamed but more likely recorded) - showing use of equipment, experiments in action, or safe working practices
1 Controlled exercise Given Given Given Open Virtual reality lab
Simple decision-making exercise (e.g. ask students to select the equipment they would use for an experiment, or investigation of broken equipment)
Critical commentary on a video of a lab experiment
2 Structured enquiry Given Given in part or whole Open in part or whole Open Interpretation of mock/existing data set using available and accessible software
Error analysis of lab measurement systems
More in-depth decision making exercises
Written submission of experiment/ procedure/ protocol design
Analyse and present results in a report
3 Open ended enquiry Given Open Open Open Written submission of experiment/ procedure/ protocol design
Case study of a real world problem
Analyse and present results in a report
4 Project Open Open Open Open Project adjusted to take account of equipment available to students digitally
Project conducted with supervision of a lab tech/demonstrator who acts ‘under direction’ from the student and reports back results

If you work with Graduate Teaching Assistants, Lab Demonstrators or Lab Technicians, consider their role in delivering these alternative learning and teaching opportunities.

Some helpful online open resources:

Example - MEE

Remote Practicals in the Time of Coronavirus - this preprint paper, co-authored by a number of colleagues in the Department of Multidisciplinary Engineering Education, shows the range of approaches that have been taken to providing remote labs. A key conclusion reached by the team is that “...positioning remote practicals as a valuable learning experience rather than a recording of the experiment is key to getting students to actually engage with and understand the experiment. Simulations, remote face to face sessions, quizzes, real and simulated data, gamification, and edited videos for students to collect data from all allow engagement at a higher level. This allowed the experiments to be more interactive than just using videos to show what was happening”.

Please contact Stephen Beck or Claire Johnson if you would like to hear more.

Andrew Garrard's 'Codifying An Approach To Remote Practicals' also contains some useful information, as does the MEE blog on Practical Engineering Education.

Andrew's Ten Tips for Blended Practicals offers examples and advice on moving to online and blended learning for disciplines which involve practice-based teaching.

Example - Archaeology

Lecturers in the Department of Archaeology have been coming up with creative ways for students to conduct experimental work in their own homes, including using chocolate as a replacement for bronze in a practical clay mould casting experiment.


Davies, C. 2008. Learning and Teaching in Laboratories. Higher Education Academy Engineering Subject Centre.


For subjects such as music and theatre studies, where students might be expected to regularly practice and perform, you might want to consider the following factors:

  • Practice (e.g. musical instruments, theatre performances)
    • Are students able to practice in their own residences?
    • Will students be able to access practice space and equipment (e.g. pianos) on campus? How will you make sure this is safe?
  • Venue
    • Where will performances take place?
    • Are you able to maintain social distancing measures in the venue?
  • Audience
    • Is an audience usually expected? 
    • What is the minimum audience needed in the room (e.g. assessors)?
    • If it is beneficial for other students to observe the performance, could this be recorded or streamed?
  • Size of performance group and social distancing measures
    • If performance usually takes place in a group, is it possible for students to achieve the learning objectives by performing individually instead?
    • If performing in a group is key to the learning, can you bring groups together in a socially distant way within the teaching space/venue? This may not realistically be possible.
    • Which ways could you bring groups together to perform virtually?

Possible alternative learning activities and assessments:

  • Recorded individual performances
    • To ensure parity, it might be practical to ask students to use basic equipment such as smartphones and laptops to record, and examine any assessment criteria or formative feedback so that lack of specialist equipment isn't a detriment to a students’ achievement.
  • Group online performances (more likely to be used in theatre than music).
  • Portfolios - e.g. speculative projects such as plans for productions or performances.
  • Narrated performances.
  • Adjustments of learning activities or assessments to acknowledge the constraints of the current situation - e.g. could you make the learning activity or assessment about the challenges of recording performances using home equipment, or the challenges of putting on an online play?
  • Critiques of other performances.
  • Written assessments - essays, blogs.
  • Vivas.
  • Provision of recorded backing tracks for performances.
  • Can you grade the preparation process and practice rather than the final performance?
  • Practice portfolio - snippets of video brought together in an online portfolio to show how a performance has improved over time and how challenges were overcome.
  • Outdoor, socially distanced performances.

Useful resources:

Clinical teaching

In clinical subjects it is often vital that students gain clinical experience working directly with service users or patients.

Points to consider:

  • What is the context in which your students are undertaking clinical learning activity?
    • If it is within a service, is that service currently running?
    • If so, does the service have capability/capacity for students to continue working within them, in a safe manner - e.g. through online video appointments/consultations?
    • If not, are there any alternatives?
  • Is your course accredited? What advice does your accrediting body have?
  • Do students have portfolios to complete? Can these be reviewed - e.g. to allow the students to demonstrate some requirements in a different way?
  • Do all requirements need to be met through face to face activity? Can any be replaced by online alternatives, or models?


Medicine and dentistry have been trialling the use of online decision making scenarios with students and feedback has been excellent. The resources are created in Xerte and there is a template available to help you get started quickly - please contact the digital learning team to request support if you would like to set up something similar.

Fiona Gilchrist and Robin Morgan have created examples that you can try out (warning: contain bloody images and videos/images of medical procedures). Both of the links below link to Xerte, which you require a username and password for. 

An example about dental trauma

An example about meningitis

Lecturers in the Department of Archaeology have been coming up with creative ways for students to conduct experimental work in their own homes, including using chocolate as a replacement for bronze in a practical clay mould casting experiment.


Field trips can take different formats and have different learning outcomes. Some of these will be orientated towards conducting experiments in the field, whereas others will be based around visiting locations that themselves are the object of study. Lengths of visits and the types of locations will also vary - from multi-week field schools abroad, to afternoon site visits in the local area.

The University has produced specific guidance on UK fieldwork in learning and teaching which you must refer to if planning fieldwork for the coming academic year:

Fieldwork in learning and teaching

Points to consider

  • Will the location of your planned trip be accessible at the time you need to go?
    • You might not know this right now, but when is the latest you will need to make a decision on this?
  • If the field trip was abroad, are any travel restrictions in place in your destination area? Are quarantining measures still likely to be in place on return to the UK?
    • If you decide to cancel your field trip abroad, is it possible to replace it with a similar experience in the UK (depending on national circumstances and social distancing measures in place)?
  • If the site is local, could students visit it individually or in small groups (following social distancing guidelines) instead of in a large group? Could you provide resources to help them on their visit (e.g. an audio guide or worksheets?)
  • If you can access the site but it is likely that students won’t be able to, could you record videos or make resources at the site to support learning?
  • If a field visit is not possible for staff or students, review the learning outcomes of the trip/module/programme. Can these be achieved through alternative means online?
    • If the purpose of the field visit was to interact with people (e.g. human geography), could you conduct interviews etc online?
    • It might be worth checking if there are virtual tours of your location available online (e.g. museums, historical sites, geographical locations, video walking tours). Google has put together virtual tours from over 2000 museums, exhibitions and archives in its Art and Culture site.
  • Could you adapt research questions and activities so that students could use their local area as a ‘field’ in some way?


The Department of Geography ran a virtual field trip to Tanzania in the spring semester, with students quickly adapting research questions to the constraints.

The Department of Archaeology has been using story maps, which places multimedia resources such as photographs and videos on map data, to provide students with a virtual site visit. 360 degree photographic images have been added using Roundme so that students can get a full sense of the placement of features in the landscape.

Screenshot of a storymap from the Dept of Archeology

The Department of Education has also used 360 degree photographs to provide a virtual tour of a nursery

Here’s another 360 degree photograph produced by the Digital Learning Team of Samuel Fox House.

Drawing and handwriting

There may be scope in your teaching to include handwritten graphics, from both a teaching and a student perspective. Some situations in which you may consider using handwritten graphics include:

  • Annotating slides or documents to aid with explanations, by drawing attention to areas of interest or illustrating with a diagram.
  • Writing mathematical notation quickly and easily, allowing for solutions of problems to flow naturally.
  • Lettering for use with certain languages and scripts.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Do you have the equipment necessary to allow you to handwrite? The simplest set-up would be a camera and a pen and paper, but drawing directly on the computer can be achieved with a tablet/iPad.
  • There may be access issues for students who do not have the appropriate equipment for handwriting, whether it be access to a graphics tablet, a phone or a camera. Are there alternative arrangements that can be made so that the teaching is inclusive of all students?
  • If you are planning to handwrite whilst live-streaming (such as during synchronous lectures or tutorials), are you comfortable with the necessary software? Have you experimented with software and does it fit your needs best?
  • If you don’t have access to equipment to handwrite, are there alternatives, such as typesetting software, which can be used to disseminate effectively?

The Digital Learning team have produced some in-depth guidance on capturing hand-drawn graphics and writing:

Capturing hand-drawn graphics and writing

Other useful resources: