Incorporating research seminar series into teaching and learning

Dr Louise Johnson, School of Biological Sciences
l.j.johnson@reading.ac.uk

Overview

4258In the School of Biological Studies a module, Seminars in Biology (BI3S78) was created, utilising the existing research seminar series within the School to structure assessment. The module is easily adaptable for other subject areas, and has proved very popular with students, and has aided in their development of academic and personal skills.

Objectives

  • Better utilise the School’s existing research seminar series.
  • Develop a number of students’ skills, including report writing, writing for different audiences, experimental design, literature searching, and referencing.

Context

The School of Biological Sciences had long held research seminars, with speakers conducting innovative research in the biological sciences being invited to deliver a seminar on their research. Despite these research seminars being an available resource for students to engage with new research in their field of study, and advertisement of the seminars within the school, attendance was disappointing, with many students failing to utilise such a valuable resource. Within the School of Chemistry, Pharmacy, and Food a Part Four module, Current Topics in Chemical Research, exists, having students attend research seminars and creating assessed reports upon these. This provided the inspiration for the creation of a similar module in the School of Biological Sciences.

Implementation

The School holds around 20 research seminars a year on current research in life sciences. On each seminar attended, students complete a Seminar Report Form with a summary of the seminar topic, three things they learned from the seminar, a comment on the quantitative methods used, references (one scientific review article and two primary research papers) for someone who wished to research the topic, and their justification for these sources. This ensures not only that students attend the research seminars, but also actively engage in note-taking during the seminar. Commenting on the quantitative methods used by the seminar speaker encourages students to reflect upon their own use of quantitative methods. By providing references for someone else to research the topic, students develop their skills in referencing and literature searching. The reports are marked on a pass/fail basis, and students must have achieved passes on at least 10 reports. This forms 20% of the module grade.

At the beginning of the module, students take an online test on statistics and experimental design, in order to develop their understanding of these subjects, as well as to highlight common mistakes. The test constitutes 10% of the module grade.

The first written assignment is to write a summary paragraph of between 200 and 300 words on a seminar, suitable for publication in the scientific journal Nature. The marking criteria for this are based upon the publication guidelines of Nature, as well as the usual University marking criteria. This develops the ability to convey the importance and context of research findings. This assignment constitutes 15% of the module grade.

The second written assignment is a 1500 word critical analysis of research presented in a seminar. This assignment encourages students to engage with the ideas, evidence and techniques presented in a chosen seminar. Students consider the strengths and weaknesses of the research, and suggest ways in which the research might be improved. This assignment constitutes 40% of the module grade. Students are not permitted to write their critical analysis on the research seminar on which they wrote their summary paragraph.

The final assignment is to write a 500 word news article suitable for inclusion in a popular science publication, for an audience of non-specialists, on one of the seminars. As with the critical analysis, students are not permitted to write their article on either research seminar on which they completed their summary paragraph or critical analysis. This assignment provides students with experience of writing for a non-specialist audience, promoting clarity of expression and an ability to select what areas of research will be of appeal to a broad audience.

Impact

Student feedback, both formal and informal, has demonstrated that the module is very popular. Students have reported that the assignments helped them develop skills that they were able to use in other areas of their study, and students have referenced the seminars in their examinations, suggesting that they engage well with the module and the seminar topics. Students make special reference to how attending the seminar series have helped them refine their own interests within life sciences, and some students have actually found PhD places as a result of their attendance of research seminars.

Reflections

Students find the module challenging, because it draws upon different skills to other modules within the School. Having students operate outside their academic comfort zone, however, is a valuable learning exercise, and there has been no desire to alter the course to any great extent, as student feedback does not justify this.

The greatest challenge involved in running this module is the varied topics upon which seminars may be held, as this requires markers of the reports to be specialists within the area. With the popularity of the module resulting in large student numbers, this can create a large workload for markers.

There is great value in running this module, as it develops a number of skills in students, including report writing, statistics, referencing, literature searching, writing for different audiences, and experimental design.

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