Dr John Brazier, Chemistry, Food and Pharmacy
The MPharm degree at the University of Reading has a diverse student cohort, in terms of both ethnicity and previous academic experience. During the most recent development of our programme, we have introduce a Part One assessment strategy that is focused on developing an independent learning approach.
- To use a formative assessment strategy to encourage independent learning.
- To use timetabling to ease the transition to higher education.
- To reduce students’ fixation on their grades, and encourage them to instead focus on feedback.
It was clear from Part Two results that our students were not progressing from Part One with the necessary knowledge and skill set to succeed on the MPharm course. The ability to pass Part One modules while underperforming in exams was identified as a key issue. The reliance of the students on standard information provided during lectures, and the inability to study outside of this standard information was impacting on students’ final grades.
When designing our programme, we introduced a requirement to not only pass each module at 40%, but also to pass each examination with a mark of at least 40%. It was felt that this would ensure that students in Part Two would be equipped with the basic knowledge to succeed, and allow them to concentrate on developing the higher level skills required for Parts Three and Four, rather than having to return to Part One material due to their lack of knowledge. The requirement to pass the examination with a mark of at least 40% was a challenge; therefore we developed a formative/diagnostic assessment strategy to support the students throughout the year. In order to ease the transition from further education to university level, we designed a timetable that initially required students to attend teaching sessions intensively for the first five weeks, but then reduced gradually over the following four weeks and terms. This would allow us to direct their learning during the first few weeks of term, and then allow time for them to develop their independence once familiar with university life. Diagnostic and formative assessment points were spaced throughout the two teaching terms, starting with in-class workshops and tutorials and online Blackboard tests. Towards the end of the Autumn term, the students were given an open book mock examination followed by an opportunity to mark their work with direction from an academic. This approach continued in the Spring term, and culminated in a full two-hour mock examination at the end of the Spring term which was marked and returned with feedback before the end of the term.
As suspected, the level of progression at first attempt was considerably lower than desired, with a high number of students failing the examined component. With resits, the number that failed to progress was much lower, and attrition rates for this cohort at Part Two substantially lower still. Forcing the students to gain a high baseline of knowledge and understanding in Part One piut them in a better position for Part Two, and the high pass rate at Part One resits showed the students must have developed some independent learning skills, as they did not have access to direct teaching between the period of the main exams and the resits.
The main issue now facing us is the high number of students failing to progress at first attempt. We believe this is due to a combination of poor attendance and engagement from the Part One students, along with a lack of understanding about developing independent study skills. Although we expect students to develop independence with their learning, it is clear that some do not understand what this means, or how to approach their studies. Once the students pass Part One they continue to do well at Parts Two and Three, but we need to address the issues with progression at Part One.
In order to improve our pass rate at Part One, we plan to develop a more robust process to identify and support students who are failing to engage with the course. This will be through comprehensive attendance monitoring and follow up by personal tutors, along with clear communication about expectations and independence. Students will initially get guidance on what they should have covered during timetabled teaching sessions, along with suggested independent work. As the year progresses, this guidance will become less detailed in order to further promote independence.