LW2RPP – Research Placement Project

Dr. Stavroula Karapapa, Law
s.karapapa@reading.ac.uk

Overview

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.

Objectives

  • 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.

Context

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.

Implementation

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.

Impact

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.

Reflections

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
k.c.harloe@reading.ac.uk

Overview

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.

Ojectives

  • 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.

Context

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.

Implementation

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.

Impact

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.

Reflection

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
l.meteyard@reading.ac.uk

Overview

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.

Objectives

  • 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.

Context

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.

Implementation

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.

Impact

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.

Reflections

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
s.j.lakin@reading.ac.uk

Overview

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.

Objectives

  • 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.

Context

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.

Implementation

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.

Impact

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.

Reflections

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
e.m.page@reading.ac.uk
Year of activity: 2015-16

Overview

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.

Objectives

  • 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.

Context

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.

Implementation

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.

Impact

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.

Reflections

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.

Links

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
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

Take Home Exam by Dr Stuart Lakin, School of Law

This post has been uploaded to the T&L Exchange, and can now be found at:

http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/t-and-l-exchange/take-home-exam/