Social justice – Leading attitudinal change in students

Stephanie Sharp, Lecturer, Institute of Education                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Year of activity: 2016/17


After exploring representations of ethnicity within the ‘reading for pleasure books’ in primary classrooms I proposed that a group of second year, undergraduate, trainee teachers would undertake a small scale research project to support their understanding of equality and diversity in the primary school setting.

This study led to an attitudinal change in the trainees’ approach to school resources, such as books, by becoming more critically aware of equality and diversity issues. They went on to be active in enhancing curriculum design for future cohorts.


  • To raise trainee teachers’ understanding of social justice to enable them to develop a more critical approach to resources available in primary school classrooms
  • To refine curriculum design by engaging with university guidelines to promote the trainees’ academic, personal and professional potential


The IoE and the Reading International Solidarity Centre (RISC) work collaboratively to support trainees in their understanding of diversity and equality. Modules build on these activities in order to provide them with an opportunity to refine their thinking to open a dialogue on issues of inequality and social justice.

During my time visiting schools I have come to recognise that there is a lack of diversity in the ‘reading for pleasure’ books offered to pupils and in our increasingly diverse society many children do not find themselves reflected on the cover of these books and so I worked with a focus group to challenge this assumption.


A convenience sample of six student volunteers, representing the majority female demographic of the course, made up a focus group. Firstly, students were introduced to Sara Ahmed’s writing on invisible whiteness in a diverse population, from a hegemonic position of privilege and power (2012). Secondly, using a census guide published by the Department for Education (2013), we examined the wide range of ethnicities currently present in UK classrooms. Thirdly, I randomly selected 50 children’s picture books to enable the trainees to identify the main protagonists by their ethnicity and then compared their findings to the census data.

The activity revealed that very few of the ethnicities listed on the census were represented in the children’s books, with a majority representation of white protagonists.  The trainees then repeated this activity (Blackledge, 2000) on their school work placements. The trainees followed the University’s ethical guidance and gained permission from each of the schools to carry out this investigation.


Outcomes confirmed the hypothesis that the majority of children were under-represented in the ‘reading for pleasure’ books in their classrooms.

The trainees presented their findings to their peers, which led to a deep discussion, where students questioned the content of their own personal reading as well as that provided in the classroom.

The trainees also requested that this practical activity should be undertaken by all trainees in their first year to inform their early understanding of social justice. This was an unexpected outcome for both the trainees and myself. They took ownership of their learning and recognised that, by being proactive, they were key in refining an aspect of curriculum design. They are proud of this achievement and of their attitudinal shift.


The certainty of evidence-based research gave the trainees the confidence to challenge provision in schools and while it must be acknowledged that teacher practitioners are working hard to ensure that they provide classrooms that are equitable and fair, there are still areas to address, however small. This research led to attitudinal change in the students and ensured that they understood, at a deep level, what social justice means. Without this process, the students would have assumed that the books provided for pupils in schools have been carefully selected with pupils at the heart of the choices made.

Follow up

In response to the request from the focus group, this book audit activity is now embedded as part of curriculum design. It has been organized as a school based task, to be repeated annually to support the teaching and learning that takes place with first year student teachers.


Ahmed, S. (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. London: Duke University Press.

Blackledge, A. (2000). Literacy, Power and Social Justice. London: Trentham Books Ltd.

Department for Education. (2013). Schools, pupils and their characteristics. Retrieved March 27, 2016 from

Development of the BARS blog

Dr Francoise Mazet, Biological Sciences
Year of activity: 2015/16


We developed BARS (Bioscience ARticles for Reading Students), a blog showcasing the written work of Part Three students from the School of Biological Sciences. The blog is managed by students working closely with academic staff. This project will increase students’ awareness and skills that are applicable to all areas of scientific writing.


  • To establish a student-led scientific blog.
  • To increase the public profile and dissemination of student coursework.
  • To provide the opportunity for students to apply their academic skills in a professional context.
  • To develop an alternative resource for teaching and outreach.


BARS is the extension of the module Seminars in Biology (BI3S78) which aims to introduce students to research seminars and scientific writing. The aim was to introduce an extra-curricular aspect that would give a ‘real world’ aspect to the coursework.


The BARS blog was launched on the University of Reading server in April 2016 after initial discussions with the lead student. A small committee made up of students and staff was established to shortlist written work from the Seminars in Biology module using a set of guidelines (scientific accuracy, relevance, interest and style of writing. The blog was advertised through the Seminars in Biology module, social media (Twitter and Facebook) and the Reading University Biological Sciences Society (RUBSS).


Although the publication of the work only started in late April, the students were aware of the possibility for their work to be selected and published since early January. We noticed many students were more engaged and communicating more with the staff regarding the assignments.

The blog is being advertised to this year’s students as having examples of high quality scientific writing from their peers and we hope to see a continuing interest from the students to write with a wider audience in mind.


Departing from a purely academic exercise for the assignments seems to have enhanced the students’ engagement with the research seminars, however we think the blog would have been more successful had the project been available at the beginning of the academic year. As it was, it did not begin before the middle of the Spring term and thus limited the opportunity for students to engage. With this in mind, any future modifications to or advertising of the blog will be started in the first week of the Autumn term. We also plan on advertising the blog more widely to staff who in turn could consider integrating the blog with their modules.

Follow up

Changes to the learning outcomes of the Seminars in Biology module will be integrated this year, and should increase the scope and diversity of the written material. We also aim to widen student participation to include other year groups, modules and programmes, and eventually students and staff from other Life Science schools.


BARS blog

Connecting with the Curriculum Framework in student participation at academic conferences

Dr Madeleine Davies and Dr Bethany Layne, School of Literature and Languages


This entry offers a model of the way in which the aims embedded in the Curriculum Framework can be articulated via student engagement with research-led activity. Here we discuss the Framework-related teaching and learning benefits of involving our students centrally in the ‘Postmodernist Biofictions’ conference, held by the Department of English Literature on 25th March 2017. The term refers to the literary genre where ‘biography’ and ‘fiction’ connect; it is ‘postmodernist’ in its interrogation of the relationship between the two and in its troubling of the fact/fiction distinction.


  • To involve University of Reading undergraduate and postgraduate students in professional academic conversations emerging from teaching and learning within the curriculum.
  • To engage with the Curriculum Framework and to produce a coherent narrative in relation to it.
  • To enhance students’ experience and employability.


At the heart of the Curriculum Framework lie emphases on equipping students with a mastery of the discipline, skills in research and enquiry, personal effectiveness/self-awareness, and global engagement/multi-cultural awareness. Connected to these values are the terms that inform and produce them: ‘innovative’, ‘authentic’, ‘challenging’, ‘collaborative’, ‘inspiring’ and ‘coherent’. Finally, identifying the principles informing an engagement with 21st Century society and thought are the terms, ‘diverse and inclusive’, ‘research based’, ‘contextual’, ‘discipline based’, and ‘global’.

In organising and hosting a one-day conference in the Department of English Literature, ‘Postmodernist Biofiction’, Dr Bethany Layne and I made an early decision to connect with, and to articulate, the values of the Curriculum Framework at every level of the project. The conference developed from our work on our research-led Part Three modules and it was initiated in order to include our students in professional academic conversations and thus to extend their discipline-based expertise.


To connect with the Curriculum Framework, Dr Layne and I involved our students in the organisation and proceedings of the conference. We recognised that the experience of working with us on event organisation, and participating in professional research activity, would provide valuable material for their CVs in ways that would enhance their employability.

Eight undergraduate students worked with us; they took photographs, managed the digital equipment, publicised the event, and oversaw logistical detail. In terms of the Curriculum Framework, we had confirmed our commitment to student employability, student engagement, and to the development of our students’ research skills and professional skill-sets.

Three of our Part Three students agreed to take part in a student panel at the conference and we were delighted to see that our keynote delegates, including Professor David Lodge, Professor Susan Sellers, and Professor Maggie Gee expressed a keen desire to hear their papers.

The students’ involvement was a tribute to their personal confidence (developed via the ‘double helix’ pedagogic model), and it also demonstrated their critical engagement with the material they had studied with us.

It was clear at the Conference that our undergraduates (some still at Part Two) felt a strong sense of belonging at the University. They were proud of the work of their peer group and proud of their identity as University of Reading students. Even at the end of their second year with us, our students were eager to work with us as colleagues and mentors rather than as ‘teachers’.

Our collaborative values were demonstrated by the Vice-Chancellor’s attendance at the afternoon sessions of the Conference. Sir David Bell chatted with our students and expressed a keen interest in them and their work, and his support of Dr Layne and I, spoke to our leadership’s commitment to collaborative knowledge sharing and to the development of productive, inclusive relationships.


We received excellent feedback from delegates following the event and there was a lively Twitter feed throughout the day expressing glowing appreciation. Our students were particularly grateful to us for including them in the conference.

The conference proceedings will be published in Postmodernist Biofiction (an edited collection with Cambridge Scholars) and our experience with student engagement in research-led activity will form the basis of a pedagogic publication. We are also expecting our student delegates’ performance in Finals to be significantly enhanced by their participation in the conference.

Delegates from competing universities commented enviously on the collegiate atmosphere between University of Reading staff and students, and also on the sophisticated critical work showcased by our student panellists. The reputation of the University of Reading was enhanced in every respect by the event.


The Curriculum Framework expresses our professional values and pedagogic principles. Our commitment as academics to subject expertise and to the development of critically and culturally nuanced students is precisely what informs the Curriculum Framework. Engaging our students in this mission appears to be the difficult task.

However, our experience with the ‘Postmodernist Biofictions’ conference suggests that our students are eager for us to connect with them. When we reach out, they respond in ways that identify preconceptions about student disengagement as lazy and entirely misplaced.

What is important to understand about the Curriculum Framework is that colleagues around the University are already engaged in precisely the kind of work expressed in the Curriculum Framework’s values. Our challenge lies in moving the aims of the Curriculum Framework to the core of our activity and in expressing its principles in coherent narratives.

In the Department of English Literature, the values of the Curriculum Framework are being articulated through initiatives that not only locate the student experience at the heart of our research-led teaching, but that actively demonstrate it.

Follow up

Our undergraduate and postgraduate students have asked for more research events of the ‘Postmodernist Biofictions’ kind, and more opportunities for event organisation and participation.

We will move forward with the Curriculum Framework in additional projects including Focus Groups convened to involve our students in the diversification of assessment models and in a review of our provision. We will also centrally involve them fully in the organisation of forthcoming events including a visit and talk by Jess Phillips MP in June, and the Virginia Woolf International Conference in June/July.

Improving student engagement with resources using online Reading Lists

Students engagement with recommended academic resources is key to developing a deeper understanding of their discipline and, ultimately, a more satisfying and stimulating educational environment. Seamless access to resources cited on reading lists has been much improved over the last 14 months with further investment in Library e-resources and the implementation of the Talis Aspire Reading Lists system across the University. But access to resources does not necessarily equate to improved engagement with them. So how can we improve student engagement with scholarly resources? Additional functionality within Talis Aspire lists may offer solutions for both students and staff.

We now have over 2,200 lists on the system from 2015-16 and 2016-17, representing 1,400+ modules taught across the University. Over 128,750 items have been linked to these lists (79,000 of which are cited on published lists). With such a vast amount of materials recommended to students, learning how to manage academic reading, develop effective note taking and time management techniques are key to effectively and meaningfully engaging with a wide range of resources to support their studies.

Making use of the additional functionality offered by Talis Aspire offers students the opportunity to:  Additional list functionality

  • prioritise reading order (by sorting items by ‘importance’, where they have been marked up as ‘essential’, ‘recommended’ or ‘further’ reading by the module convenor/list publisher)
  • allocate a ‘read status’ to items (e.g. ‘Have read’, ‘Will read’, ‘Reading now’, ‘Won’t read’)
  • make notes – accessible only to them  – on the resources they have read (see screenshot, right)

Encouraging your students to use their reading lists in this way will not only encourage the development of key study skills but will also enable tutors to address any issues or concerns arising at point of need, via the dashboard facility.

The dashboard provides academic staff with an overview of student ‘read statuses’, the number of notes made against each resource and provides a summary of page views (number of times your list has been viewed in total), number of ‘clicks’ (number of times a students has clicked through to an item on the list), number of annotations (what read statuses have been used or notes made (though the content of these notes remains accessible only to the note maker).

The advantages of this are:

  • tutors can see at a glance which resources have been viewed most frequently on the list
  • potential issues relating to resources marked as ‘won’t read’ or those infrequently viewed can be addressed at point of need, e.g. if a resource needs further explanation this could be incorporated into the next seminar/meeting with your students Dashboard for staff

Screencasts are currently in development for both students and staff to assist with using these additional functions.

If students are encouraged by their tutors to make greater use of this additional functionality, the analytics which can then be drawn from this activity will help inform the way certain resources are presented within your modules and, it is hoped, encourage students to engage further with the cited resources, whilst developing key study skills.

Study Advice have produced a guide on managing academic reading and effective note taking, which can also be promoted to students to help develop these skills.

For further information about all aspects of the implementation of Reading Lists, please email Kerry Webb, Talis implementation project manager.

LW2RPP – Research Placement Project

Dr. Stavroula Karapapa, Law


Research Placement Project (LW2RPP) is a module developed within the School of Law that aims to provide Part Two students with a hands-on experience of the academic research process, from the design of a project and research question through to the production of a research output. It is an optional module that combines individual student research, lectures and seminars.


  • To provide students with a hands-on experience of the academic research process, from the design of a project and research question through to the production of a research output.
  • To provide a forum for the development of key research skills relating to the capacity to generate original knowledge.
  • To provide a forum for the development of key skills relating to the presentation of ideas in written form.
  • To give the opportunity to obtain an in-depth understanding of a specific applied topic of legal study.


The module was initially developed as an alternative to Legal Writing Credit (LW2LWC) with a view to offer more optional modules to Law students at Part Two.


The module has a unique learning design in that it introduces law students to semi-guided legal research through lectures, seminars and independent student learning. The lectures introduce students to research methods. Seminars are lead by experts in a particular area that have a strong interest in a specific topic because they currently carry out research on it. We have had a variety of topics offered throughout the four years that the module runs, spanning international law, criminal law, company law, media law, family law etc. Students are given the option to choose their group at the beginning of the academic year and to work on topics related to a specific research area.

During the module, students receive formative feedback on two occasions, as they are required to present a piece of preparatory work, such as a literature review or draft bibliography, in their second and third project supervision sessions, with these pieces forming the basis for discussion with their supervisor and with peers. Students are therefore able to use this formative feedback to direct their final output, an assessed essay of 10 pages.


The objectives of the activity have been met. Students have been acquainted with a particular research area and they have developed skills and some experience on legal research writing. Having colleagues deliver seminars on their current areas of research is valuable, as it showcases the wide variety of research in Law that takes place within the School and the subject more generally, and students respond well to this element of the module. The outputs that students produce have generally been of a good quality, and have demonstrated an ability to use appropriate methodologies to conduct and utilise independent research. Involvement in a research project of this nature at Part Two has been valuable for students to develop skills which they then continue to utilise at Part Three, particularly in their dissertation.


The main force behind the success of the module is the contribution of the various colleagues that volunteer every year to offer some classes and group supervision to Part Two students.

Classics Special Options: research-led teaching

Dr Katherine Harloe, School of Humanities


11671All options in Classics Special Options (CLMSO) are research-led and arise directly from current research projects of academic staff. Students greatly enjoy learning about topics of current research within the subject, and members of staff report that they find teaching on their specialised topics of research interest very rewarding.


  • Utilise current research within the Department of Classics to offer students topics that are at the forefront of research within the topic.
  • Introduce postgraduate taught students to advanced research in Classics on two topics.
  • Provide students with access to primary and unpublished materials in order to allow them to engage with research modelling to develop their views.


CLMSO is a well-established element of postgraduate taught provision within the Department of Classics at the University of Reading, and complements similar research-led optional modules offered at undergraduate level. Providing the module means that the current research of staff within the Department of Classics can have a direct and identifiable link to their teaching.


Members of staff are asked to offer two research topics, with the understanding that only one of these will be run in relation to demand. Staff create a description of their topic and a preliminary bibliography, and these are used to advertise their topic. In order to ensure balance across the Department of Classics, the Department Director of Taught Postgraduate Learning is responsible for approving the options that staff offer. As a result, a diverse profile of topics across the research interests of the Department can be guaranteed.

Students enrolled on CLMSO will do two topics: for each they select a first and second choice. Generally it is attempted to avoid situations in which only one student will be taking a topic, but on occasion it is necessary to do so. In such situations, the contact hours are able to be run in a manner more akin to dissertation supervision, with the student able to gain directed feedback as they write their extended essay.

The seminars of CLMSO, which are run in the Spring Term, begin with a setting-up meeting, allowing the staff to meet all the students, if they have not done so already, to ascertain the expectations of the students, and to set the learning outcomes from the topic. With small group sizes, it is possible for staff to tailor the teaching of their topic so that it meets the expectations of the students, while still ensuring that the learning outcomes are met.

For assessment in each topic, students produce an extended 4000 word essay. This is then marked and returned to the students with detailed feedback. The feedback that students receive at this stage is valuable for students’ work on their dissertations.


The module is consistently enjoyed by students, who have expressed, through formal and informal feedback channels, their appreciation for being able to study topics that represent the forefront of research being conducted in the subject area.  Staff also report that it is rewarding to teach topics related to their current research.


Staff often report that they find being able to offer a specific topic in which they have research interests an enjoyable aspect of postgraduate teaching, and particularly value being able to tailor the delivery of their topics to the needs of a small group. By presenting their current research, staff are able to benefit from the activity of structuring and clarifying their research in such a way that allows the topic to be taught.

Students benefit from the increased proximity to the process of research that they are able to gain, offering them access to primary or unpublished materials, and an insight into the process of conducting research. This insight is particularly beneficial to students who are considering moving to postgraduate research after completing their Master’s degree. As the module is taught at postgraduate level staff are able to incorporate more advanced content than is possible at undergraduate level, including trialling material intended for publication and therefore enabling students to observe the link between research and outputs.

The module is workable within the Department of Classics at taught postgraduate level, as there is more scope for flexibility, given the smaller cohort sizes. As a result, while this module design may be replicable within other subject areas with small cohort sizes, it may be more difficult to reproduce in subjects with larger cohort sizes.

As it is not necessary to list the specific options that are on offer each year, the module is easy to administer, as only minor adjustments need to be made to the module description each year.

The principal difficulty of the module has been student disappointment if they are not able to get their first choices of topics. As a result, it has been necessary to reinforce to students that the topics from which they chose are not guaranteed to run, if there is not sufficient demand. In previous years, there were issues whereby students were not sufficiently made aware of the learning outcomes for certain topics. In subsequent years, staff have been asked to set and adhere to clear learning outcomes, with students made aware of these.

Constructing research methods and statistics teaching

Dr Lotte Meteyard, School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences


Statistics teaching to Speech and Language Therapists within the Department of Clinical Language Sciences was redesigned in response to module evaluations. Whereas students had previously reported anxiety about statistics and struggled to appreciate the relevance of statistics to their practice, the introduction of formative learning activities which integrated statistics teaching with other module content produced a reduction in anxiety about statistics, a benefit to students’ grades, and an increase in student module satisfaction with their statistics training.


  • Increase the opportunities for students to consolidate and revisit knowledge of key concepts.
  • Make explicit links within and across the teaching content to clinical practice.
  • Provide learning activities, outcomes and objectives that are clear to students.


The Research Proposal (PL3RPR) module is compulsory for all Part Three undergraduate and taught postgraduate students within the Department of Clinical Language Sciences. The module provides research methods and statistics teaching, and during the module students plan a research module and complete an ethics application, with these being used for their dissertations. Feedback, however, revealed that students found the statistics lectures confusing and poorly related to other module content. Having teaching provided by a number of staff members contributed to the module having a fragmentary nature.


In order to increase the opportunities for students to consolidate and revisit knowledge of key concepts, technology, multiple practice and collaboration were focused on in order to create frequent, meaningful activities for students to complete. Lecture handouts were provided separate from the lecture slides in order to encourage engagement during lectures, and practical activities were used to teach basic quantitative concepts and research design. During activities, analyses of data was completed as a class, and formative exercises were set each week, involving a short reading and answering focused questions on that reading. These assessments were revisited at the start of each lecture in order to feedback and discuss answers to questions. In labs, written instructions were replaced with short videos demonstrating how to complete particular procedures. Worksheets required students to write out results and answer questions about the interpretation of data. The answers to these worksheets were made available on Blackboard Learn after the end of each lab class. For each week of statistics teaching an online multiple choice questionnaire was provided, offering students optional online practice in preparation for the statistics class test. Students were encouraged to have the statistical analysis software PASW or SPSS installed on their home devices to allow them to practice away from lectures.

To make explicit links within and across the teaching content and to clinical practice, the content of the module was restructured so that students were introduced to a particular concept, with this concept then being revisited in later activities. In order to build explicit links with clinical practice students were asked to identify why research skills are important for clinical work, to complete formative assessments that involved reading chapters on healthcare research or journal articles from speech therapy research. Key readings were taken from ‘real world’ sources, such as the magazine of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapy or the NHS. Reflection was encouraged through formative assignments which were discussed in the following week’s lecture. These required student to identify why healthcare research is critical to practice, critique a randomised controlled trial, and identify research designs and statistical tests in clinically relevant journal articles.

To provide learning activities, outcomes and assessment tasks that are aligned and clear to students, the learning outcomes of the module were rewritten and linked directly to the summative assessments. Three summative assessments were themselves changed so that students prepared a research proposal poster, an ethics application and a statistics class test. The research proposal poster was introduced to give practice at a professional skill and reduce the duplication of content between making the proposal and the ethics application. By making the ethics application a summative assessment, students would be assessed on something directly relevant to the completion of their project, while only minimal staff input would be required for the document to be submitted to the School ethics committee. The weighting of each piece of assessment was changed so that they contributed more evenly to the overall module mark. Learning activities were designed to support students in accessing and evaluating literature, generating research designs and statistical analyses. By providing research proposal and ethics application examples, and templates for their own on Blackboard Learn alongside detailed guidelines for completing coursework, student were encouraged to seek out supporting material independently.


Students on the module completed a statistical knowledge multiple choice questionnaire during the first week of the module and again after completing their statistics class test. They also completed the Statistical Anxiety Scale before beginning the module, and again at the end of the module. Results demonstrated that statistical knowledge increased, with students’ median score going from 11/20 before the course (with a range between 5-14) to 15/20 after the course (with a range between 8 and 19). There was also a reduction in anxiety about statistics. Results also demonstrated that there was a significant positive correlation between the number of formative multiple choice questionnaires a student completed and their final score on the statistics class test. Median marks in the class test and research proposal both improved from the previous year, with no students failing the statistics class test. Student module satisfaction also increased.


Situating the statistics and research methods teaching in practical activities and in the context of students’ professional learning was one of the most powerful changes made to the module: students responded positively to practical activities used to demonstrate statistical concepts. While full participation could not be guaranteed, enough students completed tasks to allow discussion and review of these at the beginning of each lecture.

By using technology for students to practice skills away from the classroom, students were able to increase their knowledge of statistics after the course. It was particularly gratifying to see the correlation between the number of multiple choice questionnaires completed on Blackboard Learn and the attainment of students during the statistics class test.

Having resources external to the classes available, the module convenor could be assured that students could have sufficient time and experience with concepts and software.

Take-home exam

Stuart Lakin, Law


In a Part Two Law module, Public Law (LW2PL2), we have moved away from the conventional exam to a take-home exam. We publish the exam paper on Blackboard at an arranged date and time. We give the students approximately 48 hours to complete and submit their answers electronically.

The impact has been entirely positive as compared to the old exam approach. Students prefer this format. The quality of their answers is markedly better. The results are better, and are consistently among the highest of all Part Two modules.


  • To ensure that work produced in the exams is presented to a professional standard.
  • To allow students the opportunity to provide greater intellectual depth in their answers, and allowing the ability for independent research to form part of the assessment.
  • To have students demonstrate time management, in order to allow them to effectively complete their take-home exam while revising for their other examinations.


We had three reasons for undertaking the activity:

First, we reasoned that LW2PL2 was better suited, pedagogically speaking, to the new format. The subject-matter is theoretical, and we assess by essay only (as opposed to by problem questions). We look for deep understanding of the issues rather than an ability mechanically to apply memorised rules. The take-home format encourages an independent research mindset.

Secondly, we thought it valuable to provide some variety in the way that Part Two students are assessed. The assessment across the Part Two modules had hitherto been by conventional exam only. Whatever the merits and demerits of the traditional exam, it can be refreshing for students to experience some other form of assessment.

Thirdly, we responded to the University call for alternative assessment. On pragmatic grounds, the take-home exam frees up room space and reduces complex timetabling requirements.


We prepared the first cohort of students by giving them a mock take-home exam in lieu of their usual non-assessed essay. We asked them to prepare an answer to a question as if they were preparing for the exam itself. We have continued this practice ever since.

In addition, I prepared a detailed explanation of our rationales and expectations for the take-home exam, and provided this to the students. This document exists to inform students of the benefits and the opportunities provided by the format, and also ensures that they fully appreciate the assessment criteria of the format. I talk through this document with the students throughout the year.


In short, the activity has been highly successful. I believe that colleagues are considering this format for their own modules. By having students word process their exam answers, a lot of the recognised disadvantages of handwritten answers (handwriting often being slow and uncomfortable, and producing results that are messy and poorly legible, as well as the anxiety caused by these disadvantages) can be avoided. It is also easier for students to structure their essays.

By having the take-home exam scheduled during the University exam period, it is important that students manage their time effectively in completing the exam. Students are made aware that the assumption when marking is that they will have spent approximately two hours answering each question: this allows them more time than a conventional exam, but also allows time for students to make space for other commitments they might have, such as revision for other exams.

Above all, we have found that the format is a better way of encouraging scholarly engagement with the module content. We emphasise in our rationales/expectations document that the format has an element of independent research.

The level of success of the activity was unexpected. The first cohort of students to do the take-home exam were nervous and rather distrustful of the activity. Happily, they passed their positive experience down to the next year’s cohort, and that pattern has continued ever since.


In my view, the take-home exam format treats students as independent thinkers in a way that the conventional exam does not. The emphasis is on the quality of argument and research rather than on memory skills and the ability to perform under pressure. Having said that, the new format does not entirely dispense with the latter types of skills – there is still a deadline, and students will still need to revise in advance.

There were admittedly risks involved in introducing this new format. LW2PL2 is an extremely important, compulsory module which counts towards the final degree. With hindsight, it may have been more prudent to experiment with this format in a Part One module. On the other hand, we put a great deal of thought into the format, and communicated well with the students. In these respects, we minimised the risks.

Follow up

The activity has remained largely the same as it began. We have experimented with changing the publication and submission times for the exam. We originally published the exam at midnight. This led to many students staying up all night to work on the paper. We now publish the exam at 9 am.

Final Year Group Based Research Projects

Professor Elizabeth Page and Dr Philippa Cranwell, Chemistry, Food and Pharmacy
Year of activity: 2015-16


Group-based research projects have been introduced into the BSc Chemistry programme for final year students. Small teams of students investigate different aspects of a research problem, each working on a separate strand. The results are combined and overall conclusions drawn. The team-based approach more closely resembles the nature of research in the chemical industry. The approach can be translated to many other disciplines.


  • To provide final year students with the opportunity for open-ended investigative laboratory research.
  • To work as a team to plan and design a suitable approach and experiments to explore the problem.
  • To carry out original research and collate and analyse results.
  • To draw conclusions and present the results both orally and as a dissertation.
  • To develop a variety of key transferable skills required for the workplace.


All accredited Chemistry programmes must contain individual independent investigative work, historically in the form of a final-year research project. Since the rapid expansion of chemistry undergraduate numbers, many departments have moved from laboratory-based projects to literature reviews or short, open-ended practical work. Group projects provide an alternative approach where undergraduates carry out a worthwhile chemical investigation, with the potential of yielding useful results within the restricted time, and with the limited resources available.


A Teaching and Learning Development Fund (TLDF) Grant in 2015 allowed us to appoint two undergraduate students to investigate some potential ideas for research projects over the summer of 2015. The students carried out initial trials into a series of research topics in the broad areas of inorganic, organic, physical and analytical chemistry. On the basis of these preliminary investigations a short briefing sheet was drawn up for each research question, to be used as a starting point for the teams.

Final year students on the BSc Chemistry and BSc Applied Chemistry (NUIST) programmes were invited to select areas of preference in chemistry for their final year project. Students were organised into teams of 3-5 students on the basis of project preferences and undertook two short (five week) projects, the first of which acted as a trial run to allow students to become familiar with an independent research environment. Each team was allocated an academic supervisor to whom they reported their results weekly. During the final week of each project team members discussed their results and prepared a presentation. Students were given feedback on the first presentation to help inform the second. The second project was written as a formal report, with each student writing up their individual investigations and the whole team contributing to the introduction and final discussions and conclusion.

Students were assessed on the basis of their individual laboratory notebook, their oral presentation and project report. They were asked to evaluate their peers’ contributions under a variety of categories to produce a factor which could be used to scale any group component marks.


In 2015-2016 a total of 12 team-based projects were carried out in 4 different research areas. As the topics were re-visited (i.e. the same topic used more than once), the second group of students were able to carry on the investigation from where the first group finished.

All projects were successful in producing results that the students were able to analyse and discuss. The value of the results to the research question varied significantly with the team and the nature of the project. Students were not penalised if they worked in a project area that did not easily yield positive results: they were advised that their grades depended upon their input into the project and their oral and written communication skills in presenting the project. In the majority of cases the teams worked well to plan and execute experiments that led to conclusive results.

Although the numbers were relatively small in 2015-2016, the team-based approach reduced academic supervision and training time, as one staff member could supervise a team of students. More results were obtained from the team-based approach than when students worked independently. The research questions had to be selected carefully and some preliminary work done, but despite this some of the projects yielded new results that are publishable. Students improved their team working skills significantly and have ample experiences to discuss at interviews.


The success of each group project depended to a large extent on the individual supervisor and the group dynamics. Ownership of the project by the supervisor led to more successful outcomes and better group dynamics. It was observed that groups of 4 students seemed to work better than 3 or 5, as research problems often break down to comparing A against B, and therefore workload could be more easily divided. Interestingly, students requested one long project in future rather than two short ones because they felt that with a long project they could really make a meaningful impact with their work.

As the project reports were to be submitted shortly before the exam period, some students were anxious to complete their contributions in good time and found it difficult to work with their peers who had a more relaxed approach. Because of the high weighting (40 credits) on the project, we will require individual project reports in future. In addition, combined group reports were difficult to assess fairly, even with peer evaluation.


The work was presented at the 2nd Enhancing Student Learning Through Innovative Scholarship Conference meeting in June 2016.

Developing independent learners – a first year skills module

Professor Elizabeth Page, Chemistry, Food and Pharmacy


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.


  • 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.