Reflections on moving final year lab based projects into dry projects overnight

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Typical chemistry research bench

The start of a year of shifting sands

The past year has been full of changes and shifting of sands under our feet. During this year I have been recording the odd thing to reflect on so thought I would put them into blog form. It may take one or two or maybe lots, we’ll see. Currently it’s more of a notebook jottings, I’m sure some will flesh out nicely into fully formed ideas!

Emergency!

This is a reflection of managing changes in the complex project module at a late stage, maintaining the academic integrity and student experience as much as possible in the very short timeframe we had. On Monday March 16 2020 we were in the laboratories of Sheffield Hallam, just past the mid way point in our final year research projects. Around 200 students on our courses were in labs. All of these changes had to be made, agreed and communicated to students within a week – considering curriculum design is usually a year long process this was no mean feat!

That evening we went into a national shut down as the Prime Minister announced:

We need people to start working from home where they possibly can.

Boris Johnson, Downing St, 16th March 2020

The final year projects are the culmination to a scientific degree, one of the best parts of the whole course for many. At SHU the projects are six weeks of lab work (or students may chose a non lab option). The students then write up their project and have an individual viva with their supervisor and a moderator.

We had got to the first day of week four prior to this point. The lockdown had been anticipated so we had already made some contingency plans and had told students that day that they should plan a final week of experiments but look to pause at the end of the week. Instead of making it to the end of the week we were told to stay home from then on. I had to do some mass emailing to staff and students telling them that they should not come into the University the next day but await further instructions. We had some replies from students saying that they had left reactions on overnight – I was able to collate those and pass on to our excellent technical team to sort out the following day. They were the only staff on the campus on the Tuesday!

We had to then make rapid decisions on: what to get the students to do now? how to mark the projects? and should we keep the viva exams (this last was the source of some of the hardest discussions)? These decisions were made in our leadership team with the module leader also. I took on many aspects of the project as I had been involved previously, including leading on redesigning the assessment criteria, marking arrangements and so on.

First up were discussions over what to do with that extra time instead of labs? Our approach was to get students to concentrate on two areas – the introduction and future work sections. We asked the students to ‘beef up’ their introduction with further literature reviews on the topic to make it much more substantial. For the future work we ask for more detailed planning of what they were actually going to do next. This was to test their skill at planning and also evaluation of how the first three weeks had gone, developing the work from there on.

Marking was done by two tutors separately as they would normally, then shared their marking on a google sheet. A very much simplified marking grid was used that guided tutors in how to assess the students. The markers were given guidance on the various learning outcomes and what each grade should look like.

Viva exams had to be cancelled. It is already a logistical nightmare trying to get three people at the same time into a room for half an hour. You’d think zoom would be easier but the short timeframe and lack of preparedness meant some staff and students were at home with either no computer so working off a phone, or limited and patchy internet. This was contentious with many staff very keen to keep them as they are useful training exercises for the students, particularly those who go on to PhD and further study.

All changes to assessment had to be matched against the module documents to ensure learning outcomes were covered. It was too late to make any changes within the University system to assessment requirements. We also double checked our plans, once made, with external examiners (even though the university had waived the requirement to do so).

Once all this was done I prepared briefing documents for staff and students. These had to be passed around all of the team before sending out. They needed to be clear to all what was happening, what deadlines were, weightings on sections of the report and so on. Our aim was to ensure students didn’t spend too much time trying to get their tutors to answer questions when staff were already really stretched and stressed and that tutors had all the answers that they would need.

The use of dry projects in general is for another day.

Successes

Moving to entirely online submission (previously students gave in two bound copies). This made a lot more sense, allowed tutors to mark immediately when handed in (rather than a day or two delay between submission and availability).

Marking grid redesign was overwhelmingly positively received with a simplified approach to the marking to ensure staff could do this without spending too long per report. Getting tutors to use a google form to collate marking and see whether they needed to discuss any variations was also good.

A briefing document linking outcomes, expected work and full instructions went down well and did prevent a large number of similar queries from students to staff.

Learning opportunities

Viva exams – we are still split down the department on whether these should happen. Spoiler: they aren’t this year.

Communication to staff and students was tricky, Staff need knowledge before students to support the students. In this module it was not too bad but that is certainly an area that we didn’t get right every time.

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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.