Enhancing Projects and Practicals in Biosciences

Here are some really nice reports from the HEA Bioscience Centre on enhancing undergraduate science dissertations and laboratory practicals. In recent years, academic departments have seen growth in student numbers, and the cutting back of resources and access to laboratories. Yet, we are still supposed to maintain a high quality education! The documents below compile ideas from universities across the UK on how to cater for undergraduate science dissertations and laboratory practical classes.

Undergraduate research projects

Student Research Projects: Guidance on Practice in the Biosciences. By Martin Luck. Available:ftp://www.bioscience.heacademy.ac.uk/TeachingGuides/studentresearch/studentresearch_web.pdf

Interesting information on the wide range of projects available from laboratory, to fieldwork, data analysis and literature reviews. We need to be mindful of the IBMS requirements for projects that must contain an element of data and statistical analysis. For fieldwork-type projects I have had students design questionnaires, and for data analysis students can carry out a “mini-systematic review” and meta-analysis of pooled clinical research data. Literature reviews are a challenge to do well and meet IBMS criteria I think. (Feel free to comment below!).

Universities run both individual and group projects. Some universities separate project choices based on year 2 performance. Projects are allocated in different ways:

1) Staff provide list of titles.
2) Students develop projects based on their own ideas.

In my experience, it is nice to allow students to develop their own ideas in line of what their career aspirations might be, but it is hugely time consuming to supervise them on an individual basis.

Useful resource for students

All my project students use this as a basis for their work. It takes them through every step of their project.



Improving Laboratory Practicals

The Bioscience Centre held a workshop on practical work back in 2008 and there are many good ideas in their report, and in the labwork notes for new staff.

Workshop on 1st year practicals. Available:


Labwork notes for new staff. Available:


  • Move away from recipe-led practicals.
  • Move away from practicals with no further analysis / discussion.
  • Flip-practicals: students watch videos / materials prior to coming into the lab.

For example at De Montfort, students used to work through our Virtual Analytical Laboratory for 4 weeks in their first year before coming into the lab. It enhanced their confidence no end, and staff reported it saved time going over common things.

In histology we would have a 4 hour wet practical and a 2 hour dry microscopy / observation class where students would peer-mark each other’s observations. They would grade their slides according to NEQAS standards. At level 3 students would design their own practicals and work in self-designated groups.


Linking research and teaching

Linking Teaching and Research in the Biosciences. By Heather J. Sears and Edward J. Wood (2005). Available: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/documents/subjects/bioscience/bioscience-education-5-4.pdf

This was raised as an item to explore in one of our staff meetings. We assume that our research and teaching is linked, but as the report says, “the link could be exploited more effectively for the benefit of staff and students”. Raising the profile of our research would give Biomedical Science a distinct identity and move it away from Healthcare Science.

MOOC research on student experience and social responsibility toward learners

Open Education Conference 2013
November 6-8, Utah

I am very excited about being in UTAH this week and presenting at OpenEd 13. Here are slides accompanying my presentation and below are listed other resources and a short description of the research. A full publication is currently being drafted.


View slides on Slideshare

Download reference list of peer-reviewed literature articles

Download reference list of blog articles

Methodology for literature and blogature searching and evaluation – coming in a wee while!


I am interested in our academic and social responsibility toward online learners. I don’t know a single academic past or present who is not entirely dedicated to supporting young people through their education. I just get the sense that just because some online learning is now free, academic institutions involved have just stopped caring.

My aim was to look at the literature and “blogature” surrounding massive open online courses (MOOCs) that has discussed academic standards, social responsibility, inclusivity and accessibility, and many of the other core values of an education institution. I conducted a systematic review of the literature and also evolved methods for identifying and evaluating other web-based literature such as blog articles.

What did I find?

In his keynote lecture at the OpenEd13 meeting, George Siemens reported on recent Gates-funded research around MOOCs, and identified there is certainly interest in good quality research being carried out. I guess I am a little surprised at the conference so far at the lack of speakers talking about any research underway. Mike Caulfield was one exception reporting on a really interesting study where a group of academics looked at using MOOCs in blended learning scenarios.

Hopefully my research will act as a bit of a primer in terms of identifying gaps and also making the plea (once again) for good quality work.

Whenever I research an educational field, as with my past systematic review looking at multimedia and learning (Rolfe and Gray 2011), it is always surprising how little good quality education research is actually carried out. In my MOOC review, of the 38 peer-reviewed articles that I did find, 26 were empirical studies and only 1 was a case-control study with two comparative groups. Only 1 study directly addressed social responsibility, and the rest largely focused on methodology for analysing learner data rather than the learner experience.

Results of the blog search

In addition to searching peer-reviewed academic journals, I used Google Scholar and Google Blog Search to surface current opinion and other useful reports. The blogs were from high authority people – academics, technologists, senior university executive, and in my thinking are as good quality as any “letter to the editor”, “comment” or “mini-review” of any peer-reviewed journal. Some of my themes of interest in terms of digital and social inclusion, intellectual property and privacy, were reflected in the blogs but not the published literature.

I would hate to see people get a bad taste of university because there’s just too many students in there to get personal attention.

There will be no private, “safe” spaces for learning.

Fairly unaltered in relation to the important stuff like instructional design, instructional delivery, and authentic assessment.

Conclusions of the research

The increasing number of free online courses delivered by large-scale platforms (xMOOCs) are reaching potential learners all over the world, and sparking much debate in media and educational circles. What is clear is the evidence supporting the MOOC in terms of learning design and providing the best possible opportunities for learners is lacking, and much research focuses around tracking users and analysing the vast quantities of user data.

It would be lovely to see in the future:

  • Some good quality research into xMOOC learners – their needs, their successes and what happens when they fail? This could feed directly back into mechanisms for support.
  • Discussion around intellectual property and privacy. Do participants know they are being tracked? Where are their personal details going next? Don’t they have the right to a safe space in which to learn?
  • How inclusive and accessible are xMOOCs? Current institutional strategies reflect widening participation, providing accessible learning for ALL including those with special needs, and are digitally inclusive. Much of this is not reflected yet in the xMOOC.