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How successfully are students engaging with the Python component of SM123?

  • Project leader(s): Gemma Warriner
  • Theme: Supporting students
  • Faculty: STEM
  • Status: Archived
  • Dates: April 2020 to October 2021

SM123: Physics and Space is a Level 1 module aimed at preparing students to study physics, astronomy or planetary science at OU level 2. Most students are not new to the Open University and will have already studied S111: Questions in Science. SM123 is an important module within the degree qualifications within the School of Physical Sciences (SPS) as success in this module will provide students with a solid foundation to progress to higher level study.

Retention on SM123 was known to be lower than on other level 1 STEM modules. One issue that students face is getting to grips with some simple programming, with four discrete weeks dedicated to the study of Python, spread throughout the year (Appendix 1). The programming is done via Trinkets (embedded boxes of runnable code) in the module web pages. These enable students to code and run programs in two panes displayed side by side. Learning to think in a logical way and to code may be very different from other study that students have done previously and the way that the Python content is delivered needs to account for that. It is apparent from forums and SEaM comments that many students are daunted by Python and some do not make good progress in learning. This may include students that score well in other aspects of the module.

We wanted to gather evidence on students’ experience of learning to program on SM123. To delve deeper into the reasons that students had difficulty, we used two questionnaires to ask them about their experience in studying Python and how it compared with the rest of the module. We particularly wanted to hear from students that felt unable to continue with Python and indeed those that felt unable to continue with SM123.

Our first questionnaire was run in November 2020 during the first week of Python study and our second in April, enabling us to see how the views of the cohort had changed throughout the module. We had 55 students complete our first questionnaire and 87 complete the second. Students were generally positive about the support from tutors, especially in forums and tutorials. However, a sizeable proportion reported difficulties with Python, including lack of time and insufficient guidance from the module materials. Responses to the second questionnaire indicated that this was not isolated to the first Python week but continued in the later Python weeks, so that progressively more students gave up on Python throughout the module. Some students reported that they found the learning experience very stressful.

After the first questionnaire we set up a meeting with the Module Team and other members of SPS outlining some suggested changes centred around the preparation for SM123 and the materials and resources available to students within their study. Some of these have been put into action with improvements being made to the Python for Physical Sciences website in time for 21J to better support SM123 students before and during the module. Familiarity with this resource should also benefit students when making the transition to SXPS288 Remote experiments in physics and space,.

Most SM123 students will move onto SXPS288 where Python programming is used extensively for data analysis. Ideally this site will house material relevant to the Python included in the new modules at Level 3. We hope that additional resources such as screencasts will be available to SM123 students in within the module website and that solutions to activities will be available to students earlier than they are now. It became apparent to us that the Python material may need to be streamlined or re written and we would hope that this would be part of a mid-module review.

If we can optimally tailor the delivery of Python for SM123 students, so that they find it a rewarding experience and can have success in this area, more students will be able to progress to level 2 and 3 and feel confident tackling Python at a higher level. Our project has become part of a wider drive in SPS to improve our delivery of Python and this is now a scholarship priority within our school.

Related Resources: 
File Gemma Warriner and Andy Diament poster.pptx136.83 KB

Project poster.