Making Abstract Concepts Concrete in IGCSE® Science

Science student in classroom

By Yao-Jin Choong

Yao-Jin Choong has been a teacher for over 13 years in schools in the UK and in Malaysia, currently teaching science in a Malaysian International School following the IGCSE® curriculum and is Head of Technology Learning.

As science teachers, we all have that one notorious topic that is hardest to teach, one that students struggle to understand, or misinterpret completely. Such topics often involve complex processes that are difficult to visualise, or on the face of it, have little relevance to students’ lives.

The key to making such concepts accessible, is to make them tangible: something they can see, touch, feel, or relate to.

Here are six strategies you could incorporate when teaching abstract concepts in order to make them more concrete:

1. Experiment!

The beauty of science is how the subject lends itself to being explored in a hands-on way. From dissections in Biology, to titrations in Chemistry, and experiments in Physics, practical investigations not only demonstrate scientific principles in a visual, observable way, they also develop a range of investigative and critical thinking skills.

While the recent school closures around the world may have scuppered plans for lab work, during online lessons, I still try, whenever possible, to get students to experiment with common items they can find around the home: they could derive natural pH indicators from plants such as red cabbage or blue pea flowers, or even extract DNA! After all, science is all around us!

2. Make the most of technology

If resources are limited, and practical work is not possible, the next best option is a digital simulation that demonstrates the concept, minus the mess and hazards of an actual lab investigation. There are some great sites for online experimental simulations, many of which are free to use: PhET | OLabs | The Physics Classroom | Experiments with Google.

3. Use manipulatives

Manipulatives are not just for maths! From cut-out shapes to understand enzyme kinetics, to seeds in containers to demonstrate bioaccumulation and biomagnification, the physical act of moving pieces about creates strong connections that solidifies previously intangible ideas.

4. Models and analogies

Analogies help link new concepts to a familiar scenario or previous knowledge, making the new idea easier to remember and understand.

For instance, electrical circuits can be imagined as a route, with the pizza shop as the cell, pizza delivery drivers as current, customers as components, and pizzas as energy. This analogy can be further expanded to explore the effects of thinner wires or resistors (narrower roads), series and parallel circuits, and more.

5. Role play

When I teach diffusion, students often find it hard to picture how the supposed random movement of particles can lead to a net movement. I like to demonstrate this by putting the class in one corner of an empty room, getting them to close their eyes, and then they slowly (and carefully!) start moving around. Amid the hilarity, they soon grasp the idea that the constant bumping and jostling will naturally result in them spreading out across the room. I can then expand on the idea by exploring the effects of temperature (faster movement), concentration (more students), etc.

A similar activity can be done to model the circulatory system, with the students as red blood cells moving along a path (blood vessels), picking up oxygen (in the form of a poker chip or playing card) from the lungs and depositing it when they reach body tissues.

6. Case studies

Case studies, whether a real-life current event, or a fictitious scenario, not only shows an abstract concept in action, it challenges students to apply their understanding and develop their reasoning skills in order to solve a problem. Furthermore, it illustrates just how the concept studied could impact their lives.

For instance, when teaching about nutrition, I like to get students to be a dietitian for the day. They receive files with information on different people, and have to identify each patient’s deficiency disease based on their symptoms and diet, then provide dietary recommendations that fit their lifestyle.

Introducing abstract concepts in a concrete way makes the intangible tangible, relatable, and memorable. Concrete learning helps learners develop a deep and sustainable understanding of complex ideas and processes.

Explore the range of IGCSE® Science resources by visiting the Cambridge IGCSE® & O Level Complete Science webpage, where you can find out more about the resources available, explore sample pages and request digital inspection copies.