Developing independent learners – a first year skills module

Professor Elizabeth Page, Chemistry, Food and Pharmacy
e.m.page@reading.ac.uk

Overview

A series of skills based modules running through the three years of the BSc and MChem Chemistry programmes has been developed. The aim is to promote independent learning and the development of academic and employability skills through subject specific material and activities. This entry describes the Part One module which would be readily transferable to many cognate disciplines.

Objectives

  • To support students in developing independent learning skills as they make the transition from school to university.
  • To introduce students to open and closed types of problems and help them develop strategies for tackling them.
  • To support students in developing time management, organisation, communication, team working and other transferable academic and professional skills.
  • To encourage students to self-assess their personal transferable skills and articulate them.

Context

The main drivers for the development of the series of skills-focussed modules were:

  • To break the cycle of ‘learning for the examination’ that is practised widely in schools and colleges to enhance exam results and league table position.
  • To provide “greater and more sustainable variety in modes of study to meet the changing demands of industry and students”, as recommended in the South East Universities Biopharma Skills Consortium Project.

Implementation

An initial survey was carried out of Part One students across the Faculty of Life Sciences to determine their biggest perceived differences between study at school or college and university. The greatest changes reported were the increased requirement for self-motivation and independent study required at higher education, coupled with a decrease in clarity of course and assessment requirements.

A small group of staff from different branches of the subject (Chemistry) discussed the desirable learning outcomes of the module and planned activities through which to achieve these outcomes.

One key aim of the module was to introduce students to the idea that there is sometimes no right or wrong answer but it is the route to solving a problem that is important. We were keen to ensure that the module addressed areas of the Chemistry curriculum that were both unfamiliar and challenging so that students were forced to read around the subject in order to understand the key concepts. In this way we believed that they would be better prepared to master the material when they subsequently met it in later modules. We therefore adopted a problem-based learning approach in which a series of chemical challenges were designed.

The module starts with an open-ended problem requiring little subject knowledge apart from basic scientific ideas. In groups students are required to find reasonable answers to problems such as ‘how much radioactivity is there in a banana?’ or ‘how much hydrogen would it take to supply the nation with cups of tea for a day?’. Students can use any assumptions or sources to solve the problem and have to justify their answers in a group presentation the following week. Subsequent problems were designed in the three main branches of chemistry and each challenge was designed to encourage students to develop different skills. For example, to develop numeracy skills students are required to justify the use of a major research platform to a government minister and calculate the number of molecules that can fit into a matchbox to give an idea of the size of a molecule to a non-scientist. Three of the challenges are carried out in groups and the same group members are retained through the year. We have been fortunate to welcome colleagues from Study Support to help our students with team working skills and our link librarian to explain the use of library resources and reliable sources from data base searching.

Impact

The module was first delivered in 2011 and feedback was very positive. A key feature of the module is that it helps students recognise their strengths and reflect on transferable skills to better articulate them in interviews and on application forms. Students reported that the module has helped them answer interview questions such as ‘How have you overcome problems in a group where one member has not contributed as expected?’ and ‘Give examples of a problem you have struggled to solve and how you succeeded’. The team based approach provides new students with a small group who they quickly get to know and so establishes friendships. Following the success of the Part One module we decided to design the Part Two module to align with our career management course and again use team working as the vehicle for achieving the learning outcomes.

Reflections

The success of the module rests upon a number of factors. Engagement of staff from across the department ensures ‘buy-in’. Six academic staff were initially involved with designing and delivering the module. In addition we were fortunate to have a project officer who did much of the preparation for the module and set up groups and Wikis on the Blackboard site.

Teams are composed of students of mixed gender, ethnicity and ability, based on information on RISIS available from their UCAS applications. Most teams work well with the usual problems encountered in team working. Peer evaluation is used to secure student feedback, and a scaling factor for each team member derived which is applied to the group mark for each activity.

The first challenge is formatively assessed and students given feedback within one week. Students receive detailed feedback on subsequent summative assessments.

Follow up

In 2014 we expanded the module to 20 credits and simultaneously increased the contact time and introduced IT skills. The original challenges are still used although there is plenty of scope for developing new problems. In order to support our students applying for placements in industry we conclude the module in the spring term with a personal analysis of skills developed, which can be integrated into applications and CVs for placements. The module structure would be easily transferable to other disciplines. The team responsible for the module were awarded a University Collaborative Award in 2012. Staff involved with the module are: Dr John McKendrick, Dr Andy Russell, Dr David Nutt, Professor Matthew Almond, Dr Joanne Elliott, and Mrs Sally Wade.

Links

This entry was posted in Employability, Research and Enquiry, School of Chemistry, Food and Pharmacy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *