Enhancing attendance and engagement with non-science students

Author: Linda Hughes Part-time Lecturer School of Biotechnology

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As a post-doc for the past 10 years I thought I understood teaching and assessment albeit from a distance. However having taken on the role of teacher and student this semester I’m amazed at what I’ve learned from both experiences. I would like to recommend the module LI502 (Assessment and Feedback in the Online Environment) facilitated by the DCU Teaching Enhancement Unit to all teachers as a means of developing your skills in both teaching and assessment, particularly if, like me, you are a novice. I just wish I knew in November what I know now because my foray into teaching would have been far less stressful.

This semester I am teaching a 100% CA module to Marketing, Innovation and Technology students with a minimal background in science. The module is known for having a low lecture attendance rates. To overcome the problem of low attendance rates, an online journal which asks students to reflect on each lecture was added as part of the final assessment. 10% of the module mark is allocated to this journal. The remaining 90% of the module mark is allocated to a group project. To encourage participation in group work, students are asked to submit the minutes of their meetings on Loop. This activity is worth 5% of the final group mark.

Not having any experience with online assessments, I didn’t know what to expect from the journals but I’ve been surprised by the honesty of the students. As a result of their reflections, I’ve begun pitching the topic a little differently (‘dumbing down the science’) and I am including the kind of examples that they’ve indicated they find memorable. I can now see that an online forum would have been a more appropriate assessment for both the students and me. I’m learning from them and if this was a forum rather than individual reflections they could also learn from each other. What I can see and they can’t at the moment is that many of them who have no science background have difficulties with the material whilst others with better background knowledge understand it. If they were working together in a forum I think they could help each other and hopefully be less daunted by the material.

Most of the students had a negative perception of the module before starting as they had a similar module in Semester 1 which they also found very difficult, but those (approx. 1/3 of the class) who are interacting with the journal now (after 3 lectures) are starting to be quite positive. If this was a forum it might attract non-participating students, ‘lurkers’ who are happy to read posts without joining in. From what I’ve read and heard while participating in LI502 it appears that engaging all of the students in any module is difficult but lurkers are unlikely to show up in the classroom so a well-designed forum might encourage reticent students to at least get a sense of what the module is all about. The challenges of such a forum are not small but, as an instructor, if I maintain a presence and if I am careful with the design I might be able to improve on what I’m using now.

One problem I don’t think I can overcome is individualized feedback which is something students value more than I had previously thought. Currently my capacity to give feedback is severely limited so I only manage to give a generalized feedback during class and give individual feedback to the group project postings. Time is my enemy in this so I would need to put a lot of thought into both the assessment and feedback mechanisms I might employ to achieve what seems to be very important in keeping students engaged with these online activities. Despite this I still feel a forum is something I would really like to bring into this module as I can see real learning potential in it as the learning becomes more social and the students can help each other out in understanding the topics.

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