Sinclair Refining laboratory… at Corpus Christi Texas, by Robert Yarnall Richie via DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University (no copyright restrictions)

Enhancing learning in lab-based science education through re-designing assessment practices

Yesterday we had a really successful seminar with @seerym (Michael Seery) and @Breebio (Ronan Bree) opening up the lab practical for critical and practical inquiry.  The event attracted attracted over 40 colleagues from @NUIG including technical officers, post-doctoral students, educational technologists and academic developers, as well as lecturers.

In this post I will focus on the challenges offered by Michael’s contribution.

Michael was asked to problematise the lab practical as it normally appears in the science curriculum in higher education.  Those who know Michael’s work will be aware that unpacking the role of the lab practical has been a central focus of his work, so much so that he is endeavouring to write a book on the subject. An interesting resource on the ideas covered in the seminar is a post by Michael last year.  I will make some reference to it here.  The seminar offered Michael an opportunity to rehearse the central argument of his book.  I will try to outline some of the central issues and questions below.

  • Lab practicals, contrary to the professional discourse, do not warrant the effort expended on them
  • Despite the claims made that practical classes reinforce the theory and develop core skills there is no evidence to support this
  • The usual model for organising practicals result in negligible learning gains, over assess students without resulting in incremental improvements in either theoretical understanding or scientific skills, and have no demonstrable link with lecture series.

Practical classes can often be epitomised by the rush for the door where students correctly read the deep structure of the classes as being to get the experiment done as quickly as possible, write the lab report, and leave.  An average undergraduate can produce at least 125 lab reports without there being any substantial improvement in their scientific knowledge over that period related to the lab practicals.

Instead of making the false assumption that practical classes are locations for teaching theory, Michael, along with others, propose a different presumption

  • Organise lab practicals and lectures separately, each having a distinct function
  • Lectures become the means by which students are invited to engage with disciplinary knowledge, core concepts, troublesome knowledge, threshold concepts, etc.
  • Lab practicals then become the vehicles for developing and practicing disciplinary ways of doing, of practicing the scientific method. [I hope I have this distinction right…I’m sure Michael will correct me]

A number of practical ideas were offered to illustrate what a lab curriculum could look like.  I will focus on just a few.

  • Keep the traditional deductive approach but include decision points
    • Michael argued that there was nothing particularly wrong with the traditional deductive approach of practical classes.  Lab work should operate within a knowledge framework but should free itself from a ‘cook book’ approach.  The experiment would be organised around a series of decision points, where students would need to make informed choices about possible routes (having compared entity 1 with entity 2) what method would I use to test (hypothesis x)…I think.
  • Fewer but more powerful assessment points
    • There is no logical or necessary reason why students should have to produce a report for every lab.  Rather than producing 12 reports for a series of 12 labs why not 3 more substantive and focused assessment points which require students to go deeper into the topic/skill and educators to provide useful formative assessment.  In addition why not organise the assessment points so that each point build a basis for the next set of labs and assessment?
    • Based on the theory of cognitive load Michael suggested that assessment could focus on specific skill sets rather than being assessed on every dimension of the experiment.
  • Lab reports can simulate the research article
    • Michael suggested that lab reports should support the rationale that lab practicals develop disciplinary ways of doing and being by emulating the research article.
  • Diversify the modes of reporting
    • While lab reports might be perfect for some forms of assessment we should consider other modes of reporting learning.  One example provided was that of students using mobile devices to video each other practicing certain lab skills and then peer assessing this (with the added advantage that the videos can go into students’ portfolios and be used in securing internships or even jobs).

Certainly a lot of food for thought and I will certainly be back to discuss this again.


Reflections on an emergent identity as an Academic Developer

celbracion de internet


I am a neophyte OPEN EDUCATOR, a newbie on the digital scholarship block.

My move into ACADEMIC DEVELOPMENT has come hand in hand with the challenges of networked learning, learning technologies, etc.

The  notion of openness has slowly transformed from a political stance to an emerging pedagogic practice.  As part of that I am involved in various ‘projects’ where I am experimenting with different aspects of open scholarship.  One project is my BROKEN ACADEMIC blog where I am sharing my thinking and writing on academic wellbeing.  Another involves my reflections on the process of BECOMING an academic developer through engaging in some of the learning activities of participants on one of the courses I co-ordinate.  Below is another extract from an inconsistent learning journal I am keeping alongside the lecturer/participants.  I have edited some of the detail because I have taken the decision to not mention my institution explicitly unless the meaning of the post demands it.  This space is a reflection on my practice rather than on my place of work.


What is Curriculum?

For the purpose of this Course Review Folder I will be reflecting upon one of the modules I am responsible for on the Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education….[I am referring to a module that runs in the preceding semester].


I started [here] in January 2014. This meant that my teaching began with the two other modules on this course…In that sense I ‘inherited’ the legacy of [the module] without actually experiencing it. That semester was very much one of getting through and felt like I was ‘delivering’ a course that I only had a shallow understanding of , though I did manage to introduce elements…that reflected my own interests and knowledge.

Using Fraser and Bosanquet’s framework (2006), this first semester of working on the [the module] (and the PgDip and MA) felt very much one of ‘The structure and content of a unit’ of teaching. I was dealing with getting the material ready for each week’s teaching, becoming familiar with a different way of using the [VLE] learning environment, and trying to approach my feedback on the fortnightly ‘learning journal’ entries as meaningfully as possible. The ‘curriculum’ was very much conceived, at that point, as ‘syllabus’. My overriding concern was with content and meeting the necessary requirements of the job. Much of the content was inherited. But more importantly, the job required a shift in knowledge and practice. While there was much about the ‘signature pedagogy’ of the role of academic developer that was familiar to me … the knowledge base and many practices and ‘ways of knowing’ were different enough to invoke anxiety. I was experiencing the troubling nature of the enterprise, teetering on the threshold of a new world. Reading up (to gain appreciation of the knowledge – of constructivist approaches to teaching and learning, assessment, learning outcomes, etc.) was not an issue. Becoming functionally familiar with the structure of the course was a challenge at times (a challenge of time management), but doable. What was really challenging was getting to grips with the underlying episteme of the course (Perkins 2006), of its ‘deep structure’ (Schulman 2005). What was the fundamental rationale of the course and therefore how did this translate into the expectations I communicated to the course participants?

The immediacy of the flow of experience meant that I was hardly able to even consider the curriculum in terms of the ‘structure and content of a programme of study’. That aspect really only impressed itself upon me when I had to prepare for our internal exam board in the summer. Only then did I really begin to see each unit of teaching within an overarching programme, of how each unit related to others, how participants might travel from one point to another, and how the immediate demands of the job sat within and related to university level structures and processes (registration, syllabus, exams, conferment).

Thinking of the generative ideas presented by Burnett and Coate (2005), my ‘experience’ of the course was dominated by the domain of knowledge. I was focused on what ‘I’ needed to know as well as what knowledge I perceived participants needing to be exposed to. The nascent sense of the beingness of participation in a course such as this was not really on my horizon at that point. As the weeks passed and I became more familiar with it, the practices required for full participation in the course increased in visibility.

I approached the new academic year with a desire to frame the whole programme with a coherent curricula idea. Some of this was already there. The programme I inherited had behind it a dual function to simultaneously address the technical concerns of higher education teachers and to support a paradigm shift institutionally (though admittedly this actually involved multiple paradigms). The syllabus reflected this. All modules … spoke directly to those technical concerns we all face teaching in higher education – large classes, small group work, assessment, planning, learning technologies, engagement, diversity, supervision. Much of the ‘content’ addressed these issues in terms of ‘how to’, ideas for practice, etc. But there were also other ideas on offer. Empirical, theoretical and philosophical resources were also available for participants to consider. These perhaps offered alternative perspectives on the mundane concerns we bring with us. But they also animate those concerns and reveal to us that they are not so mundane after all. Our apparently mundane issues (which we may deem technical) are always rich with nuance, possibility, and meaning. Then there was the key signature pedagogy of academic development, that of reflective learning. This was an inheritance I could subscribe to. It was pragmatic (something that attracted me to the job in the first place). It built on my desire to integrate scholarly engagement with professional development that placed practice at its heart. It was also scholarly, which, in a university, should be central to any educative activity. And it was strategic, it sought to encourage a shift in orientation that a) took teaching seriously, b) conceived teaching and learning as knowledgeable activities, and c) saw itself as engaged in institutional learning.

So, if the nature of the educative environment I was faced with between January-August 2014 resembled something like this:

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 13.53.16

what did I want it to look like, and what was the curricula intent or animating idea that would frame consideration of content, sequencing and practice?

In fact there were three animating ideas.

  • It’s not about blaming the teacher: I was conscious of Catherine Manathunga’s identification of the association between academic development work and institutional quality assurance concerns (Manathunga 2014). Specifically, I was concerned that our courses would be viewed as viewing university teachers as the ‘problem’.
  • Professional education: I was keen to conceive of what we do as a form of professional education as a way of bridging the ‘training’ and ‘educative’ aspects of the course. My hope was that the metaphors through which I viewed what we were aiming to do escaped the language of ‘acquiring’ knowledge or skills that were then ‘applied’ or ‘transferred’ to the practice context (See Boud & Hager 2012). I didn’t want to present an idea of the knowledge about teaching and learning practices as something exterior to the context of practice nor of practice as absent of theory (implicit or otherwise). Along with many others I wanted to locate our approach in relation to a practice approach to professional learning (for instance see Fenwick & Nerland 2014) that “…provides a holistic way of thinking that integrates what people do, where they do it, with whom and for what purpose.” (Boud & Hager 2012: 22). Practice (what university teachers do, where, with whom and for what purposes) becomes the ‘site’ of attention for professional education (Nicoline 2011). The site of practice (and therefore learning) is always situated socially. It happens in particular places, at particular times. It is conditioned, changeable, moving. Therefore, educative endeavors have to somehow account for this. So we need to move from thinking of knowledge as something static that is acquired to knowing that is accomplished. Also, knowing is conceived as distributed through all the myriad small acts of professional practice, as knowing-in-practice. This indexes back to earlier organizational learning work by Argyris on ‘theory in practice’ (Argyris & Schon 1974).
  • And scholarship: While aware of some of the limits of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (Boshier 2009), I was heartened by Carolin Kreber’s (2006) conceptualization of the potential of SoTL that lies in the ethics or values it conveys rather than notions of ‘best practice’. SoTL and a constructivist approach to matters of learning (and therefore teaching) are central features of academic development’s signature pedagogy, of its deep structure. But its implicit structure can be vague, or can over-emphasise a highly normative sense of what should be done. I did want to signal the broad body of knowledge that existed that could stimulate thought and reflection, offering new thresholds through which participants could travel. But rather than perceive this as linear, I have increasingly come to see it as framed more openly, where the relationship between knowledge, teaching and learning is highly dynamic, and is oriented not towards best practice but to cultivating a way of individuals orienting themselves to the world. This seems quite abstract at the moment and needs further development.

So, my aspiration was that the curriculum, following the curricula intent outlined above, would resemble something more like this:

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 13.54.42


Argyris, C. & Schon, D. (1974) A Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. Oxford: Jossey-Bass.

Barnett, R. & Coate, K. (2005) Engaging the Curriculum in Higher Education. McGraw-Hill: Maidenhead.

Roger Boshier (2009) Why is the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning such a hard sell? Higher Education Research & Development Vol. 28, No. 1, March 2009, 1–15.

David Boud & Paul Hager (2012) Re-thinking continuing professional development through changing metaphors and location in professional practices, Studies in Continuing Education, 34:1, 17-30.

Sue Clegg (2012) Conceptualising higher education research and/or academic development as ‘fields’: a critical analysis, Higher Education Research & Development, 31:5,

Fenwick T & Nerland M, (eds.) (2014) Reconceptualising professional learning: Sociomaterial knowledges, practices and responsibilities. London: Routledge.

Fraser, S, and Bosanquet, A (2006) The Curriculum? That’s just a unit outline, isn’t it? Studies in Higher Education, Vol. 31, (3), pp. 269-284

Carolin Kreber (2006) Developing the Scholarship of Teaching Through Transformative Learning, Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 6(1):88 – 109.

Catherine Manathunga (2014) The deviant university student: historical discourses about student failure and ‘wastage’ in the antipodes, International Journal for Academic Development, 19:2, 76-86.

Davide Nicolini, (2011) Practice as the Site of Knowing: Insights from the Field of Telemedicine. Organization Science 22(3):602-620.

Perkins, D. N. (2006). Constructivism and troublesome knowledge. In J. H. F. Meyer & R. Land (Eds.), Overcoming barriers to student understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. London: Routledge

Shulman, L. S. (2005). “Signature pedagogies in the professions.” Daedalus 134.3: 52-59.