How the University of Glasgow’s School of Chemistry transformed its teaching labs

This semester, the University of Glasgow’s School of Chemistry have transformed two teaching lab units with learning technology.

In doing so, they have enhanced student confidence in the lab, made more efficient use of  lab time and improved the quality, consistency and timeliness of feedback whilst reducing the staff marking burden.

Obtaining valuable feedback with one of the focus groups at the University of Glasgow.

Obtaining valuable feedback with one of the focus groups at the University of Glasgow.

The initial situation

Lecturer Dr Ciorsdaidh Watts had already added some innovative changes to Glasgow’s chemistry teaching labs the previous year. These included student-created videos, plus pre-lab and safety quizzes.

The videos which gave information about equipment set-up were useful but students desired something more interactive:

In a video you just see someone doing it right. If you do it yourself you can learn from making a mistake.
— Student on initial pre-lab situation

And there were still concerns where “students would often come into the lab unprepared.”

Post-lab assignments were written up from scratch, and marking was spread between various demonstrators, returned after a number of weeks.

In the “before” case: consistency, quality and established rules around feedback were among the major gripes:

It didn’t lay out very clearly where you got marks from.... Everyone gave marks differently as well, which didn’t help and was frustrating.
— Student on initial post-lab situation

After Ciorsdaidh reached out to us at Learning Science, we began discussing end-to-end lab solutions.

The practicals themselves were well-established and roadtested over a number of years. But together we transformed the students’ pre-lab and post-lab experience.

The first practicals to receive treatment were 1st year synthetic chemistry (7 labs, ~600 students) and 3rd year organic chemistry (5 labs, ~100 students) labs.

 

A still from an interactive from our pre-lab chemistry resource package

A still from an interactive from our pre-lab chemistry resource package

Pre-lab solutions

For each practical, students accessed Learning Science’s interactive pre-lab activities from within their VLE. They could learn-by-doing to boost confidence and skills in the equipment and techniques they would be using in the lab session.

The students were keen on the interactive nature of the pre-lab simulations, and the immediacy of feedback received as they were practicing:

It tells you what you’ve done wrong and gives you instant feedback and that is really helpful.
— Student on new pre-lab interactives

This had a real impact in the lab. Staff reported a reduction in time taken for students to get up-and-running, and a decrease in trivial question frequency:

We have noted how quickly students got started initially, and how much extra time they had in the lab to concentrate on techniques and safety.
— Dr Ciorsdaidh Watts on new pre-lab interactives
Still from one of the University of Glasgow's Smart Worksheet post-labs, offering feedback at every stage

Still from one of the University of Glasgow's Smart Worksheet post-labs, offering feedback at every stage

Post-lab solutions

Each post-lab report was converted into an online assignment, featuring complex calculations using our Smart Worksheet technology among other question types.

Smart Worksheets work with students’ own data and provide instant, personalised feedback as the student types and after submitting each answer. Issues with inconsistent marking were removed, and students appreciated how it scaffolded their learning without taking away the challenge:

It’s just at that point where it is not telling you the answer but it’s helping you get there.
— Student on Smart Worksheets

Students were more satisfied due to the instant feedback and support provided through the Smart Worksheet post-lab experience. The ease by which students could submit the report and get immediate access to the grades and feedback helped maximise the learning in their busy schedule.

If I get it [the feedback] a week later, I’m too busy working on the next lab report.
— Student on Smart Worksheets

Ciorsdaidh reported on the benefits to academic staff running the practicals who want to ensure students get the most out of their lab sessions:

They’re tailored for each experiment - the academic that’s working with Learning Science can really focus on the learning outcomes they want to bring across through these reports.
— Dr Ciorsdaidh Watts on Smart Worksheet post-labs

Conclusion

Overall, the transformation of the pre-lab and post-lab experience has enhanced student engagement and confidence in the lab, as reported by staff and the students themselves.

Furthermore, the pre-lab and post-lab resources were popular with students and staff, and students were more satisfied with the feedback quality and timeliness.

Many thanks to all students and staff for their input across the project and in the focus group sessions (Nov 2017) where we obtained the quotes used above. We look forward to working with Ciorsdaidh and the rest of the Glasgow Chemistry team in readiness for next academic year.

We work with universities across the UK and around the world. Our pre-lab resource packages in chemistry and bioscience are available now, and our expert team is ready to create bespoke post-labs to meet your teaching needs. Contact us via our website or email info@learnsci.co.uk to find out more or book a free demo.