Having had our shiny new biological sciences curriculum approved for 2014, one of the main things occupying me at the moment is planning the new module I am convenor of - BS2000: Research Skills.
Our curriculum redesign had several guiding principles. Reducing the overall number of modules and student assessment load were two of them. Partially as a consequence of that, previous key skills modules have been absorbed into subject modules. The Research Skills module is the exception to that principle as it is designed to equip students for the challenge of their final year research project. As I know from long experience, getting students to engage with anything that smacks of "skills" rather than biology is difficult, and I know exactly what approach I would like to take to overcome that problem: mastery learning. Consequently, I was very interested in a new paper, which describes almost exactly the approach I would like to take with BS2000:
Lesley J. Morrell: (2013) Use of Feed-forward Mechanisms in a Novel Research-led Module. Bioscience Education. DOI: 10.11120/beej.2013.00020
Abstract: I describe a novel research-led module that combines reduced academic marking loads with increased feedback to students, and allows students to reflect on and improve attainment prior to summative assessment. The module is based around eight seminar-style presentations (one per week), on which the students write 500-word ‘news & views’ style articles (short pieces highlighting new results to a scientific audience). Students receive individual written feedback (annotated electronically on the work), plus an indicative mark, on their first submitted report. For subsequent reports, only a subset is marked each week, such that each student receives feedback on two further submissions. Simultaneously, they have access to written feedback on their peers’ reports (a total of two reports per student enrolled on the module). Students are encouraged to read and apply the general and specific messages from all the feedback to their own subsequent work (using it as feed-forward). At the end of the module, students self-assess their eight submissions and select the two they believe are their best pieces to put forward for summative assessment. Combining data from three cohorts, student attainment increased throughout the module, with higher marks for the two chosen reports than for the two marked reports or their first report. Students selecting previously unmarked reports also showed a greater increase in their mark for the module than students selecting reports that had previously received a mark. Module evaluation forms revealed that the students found access to feedback on others’ work helpful in shaping their own assignments.
But there's a problem. BS2000 will have over 350 students on it, not 32 as described in this paper. Much as we would like to, the team of five co-convenors would not be able to cope with the workload of the formative assessments in this model. There are plenty of American models for mastery learning with large student cohorts (such as: The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring. (1984) Educational Researcher, 13(6), 4-161), but they mostly fall back on online testing and MCQs, which are not suitable for the skills we need to develop in this module (critical appraisal, ethics, information literacy). So I'm stuck, and how to square this circle is the problem the module team and our advisers have got to figure out over the next few months. Right now our proposed solution is group working, effectively dividing 350 by five, but it's not clear to me if that's the best way to get students who are still a year away from a final year project to engage with skills development.
1 If you're looking for someone to blame for Udacity, there's a direct lineage from this paper to the present day.