Teaching Excellence Case Study: Encouraging students to DO science

In 2014, Dr Brianna Julien and Dr Louise Lexis received a La Trobe Learning and Teaching Award for the creation of an innovative capstone program in advanced human physiology that promotes discipline-specific research skills, team work skills, and scientific communication skills.

In their own words, they have outlined the processes, challenges and successful outcomes of their project.

Identifying the issues

In 2009 we were invited to undertake coordination and re-development of the existing 60 credit-point third-year advanced human physiology program (Advanced Human Physiology A & B, HBS3APA & APB). These are core subjects for the Bachelor of Health Science physiology and anatomy major, and electives for students in the College of Science, Health and Engineering.

It became apparent that the existing curriculum did not engage students as active participants in the scientific process; rather it was heavily focussed on student learning of scientific facts, with 70% of the subject grade derived from the final exam on lecture content, and 30% from teacher-directed cookbook-style practical classes. Students had few opportunities to gain discipline-specific research skills which are expected of all science graduates, and most students did not know what their career path would be following graduation.

We set out to solve this problem by transforming these two content-focussed, teacher-centred subjects into a student-centred capstone curriculum that prepares students for postgraduate study and the workplace, and promotes the development of discipline-specific research skills, team work skills, and visual, oral, and written scientific communication skills.

Addressing the issues

Taking a holistic approach, and based on the constructivist theory of learning [1], we developed a complex curriculum scaffold spanning two semesters to support chronological skill development in our large cohort of approximately 100 students.

Our curriculum design is embedded in the prevailing learning and teaching literature, but was also adapted to suit our specific human bioscience context. It has a combination of student-centred face-to-face teaching, guided-independent learning, and online delivery. Given the nature of our new curriculum it was important to us that the staff involved in the program adopted an 'advisory' role rather than a traditional 'teaching' role.

The scaffold consists of strategically devised placement of learning activities, and assessment tasks designed primarily to promote learning and skill development, and secondarily to determine certification of achievement. For each assessment task we developed intended learning outcomes, detailed assessment guidelines, detailed rubric marking schemes, suggested learning activities and weekly timelines, and resources including tools to assist with best practice. In addition, the major assessment tasks have an academic advisor support system.

Content-focussed interactive lectures are interspersed with interactive seminars from staff of the LTU Career Development Centre and industry experts to provide an orientation to opportunities for further study, employment, and career development. Assessment is heavily weighted towards demonstrated research, communication, and team skills (60%), with the exams used as the main measure of assessing content knowledge (40%).

Therefore, following completion of the capstone program students will be well-placed to succeed at postgraduate study or to enter the workforce.

Outcomes

Evidence from students, colleagues, superiors at La Trobe, and experts in the field shows that our capstone curriculum is effective at engaging students in their learning and promoting skill development.

Since its introduction in 2011:

  • Student pass rates have increased from 91% (average 2007-2010) to 97% (average 2011-2013) and the learning experience is highly valued by students (average Student Feedback on Subject rating of 4.2/5; 2011-2013).
  • Students have typically undertaken further study on completion of their degree. Common pathways include honours in human biosciences leading onto postgraduate research degrees (i.e., Masters, PhD), medicine, and allied health courses (e.g., physiotherapy, speech pathology, dietetics, and podiatry) at undergraduate or graduate entry Masters levels.
  • We have also received exceptional acknowledgment from the international community regarding our curriculum design and its focus on engaging students as active participants in the scientific process, and the teaching and learning resources that we have created.

In designing and implementing this curriculum we have responded to the calls to action from leading national [2] and international [3] biological and life-sciences experts to engage students as active participants in the scientific process so they can be better prepared for the biology-related challenges of the 21st century.

References

  1. Biggs, J. and C. Tang, Teaching for Quality Learning at University. 4th ed. 2011, New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.
  2. Office of the Chief Scientist, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia's Future. 2014, Australian Government: Canberra.
  3. American Association for the Advancement of Science, Vision and change in undergraduate biology education a call to action, C.A. Brewer and D. Smith, Editors. 2011: Washington.