The OU centre for STEM pedagogy
The level 3 module Evaluating Contemporary Science (S350), helps students learn, develop and apply important key skills such as evaluation of current science research and communication of these findings to different audiences, along with professional skills such as time-management, giving constructive feedback to peers and reflecting on learning practices. TMA3 requires students to take part in an asynchronous online student conference, creating a poster and audio presentation that can be viewed by all students on the module. Students are also asked to give feedback to their peers and comment on feedback they received. The scientific content of the posters is developed further for the EMA, so participation in the student conference can have a significant impact on module outcome.
Whilst many students enjoy the conference and achieve relatively good marks on the style and presentation aspects of the poster, it was not clear to us to what extent students develop and recognize deeper scientific understanding and critical evaluation skills that are needed for their EMA and final project modules. We wished to investigate how students approached learning through peer-to-peer feedback in an online environment. Initially this was so that student experience and success could be enhanced through improved understanding of the purpose of this activity and through improved support from the module team and their tutors. However, the latter stages of this scholarship work fell in the Spring-Summer of 2020 during the first UK-wide pandemic lockdown. During and since then, other HE providers have worked at pace to move to online teaching, support of students and assessment, so this project also has significant implications for the wider HE sector in developing online asynchronous learning activities and their assessment.
We analysed a random sample (n = 100) of posters submitted in the 18J student conference, looking at a number of quality descriptors covering presentation and evaluation skills. From this analysis we came up with a set of ‘quick fix’ recommendations for both students and for tutors to use when giving preliminary feedback to students in 19J. After the 19J student conference we repeated the analysis to see if there were significant changes in student performance in the quality descriptors.
Our results showed that following the quick fixes of 19J there was a statistically significant improvement in a number of quality measures, namely application and evaluation. The overall quality of poster presentations also showed a significant improvement.
We conducted a number of student-led focus groups and one AL focus group to gain insights on student and tutor perceptions of the conference. Four main themes emerged from the student focus group discussions: constraints, academic challenges, skills and experiences, and personal development. Students recognised that the student conference helped their development of key skills such as higher-order cognitive and communication skills, and that it was a very ‘real’ and relevant experience to how scientific work and research is conducted.