BIO3313 (Pharmacology), about 25 students, all of whom are on campus in Toowoomba.
1. Learning/teaching activity
This 3rd level course has been offered for three years. In designing this course, there was a conscious decision to integrate communication skills extensively into the course. Andrew points out that the benefits of scientific knowledge are restricted unless they are communicated effectively. Traditionally, science undergraduates produce lab reports for many courses, but Andrew felt it was important to encourage students to read, review and write scientific literature in a greater variety of ways. Students (working in pairs) select a Pharmacology topic of their choice, which may be refined after discussion with the examiner. They then have to negotiate how to share out the work between them for the literature review, preparation of a conference poster and oral presentation with question and answer session. Students are encouraged to identify and utilise their complementary skills by working to their strengths.
Andrew invites students to choose a topic they feel passionate about and to build their communication skills around this topic. He encourages them to choose an area in which they have personal experience of some sort so that they relate directly to the material. He helps the students refine the area of enquiry and to develop the outline of their essay and presentation.
3. Learning goals/objectives
Through this activity students learn teamwork and planning, creativity, negotiating, skills analysis and written and oral communication skills, as well as learning in the discipline area of pharmacology.
Andrew is careful to think about different learning styles and different ways of presenting information, such as using visually descriptive language or visual diagrams rather than just text or talk. The student posters likewise show visual creativity, organisation and presentation skills as well as pharmacological content. Andrew is particularly pleased that students often use powerful images to get the attention of their audience - for example one team developed a poster presentation on schizophrenia by dividing the page down the middle, with a different colour and font in each half.
This course has been modified over a few years in response to student feedback and workload. Initially students submitted a literature review and then gave a 10 oral and 5 min question and answer session. However, this required more time in class, curtailing other activities, especially as enrolments hit approximately 30. The introduction of posters diversified the learning experience, allowed students more creativity, taught valuable skills and reduced presentation time in class. Similarly, working in pairs taught negotiation and planning skills. In 2007 he introduced peer assessment of the presentations, meaning that students took greater interest in other students' presentations, and they were also awarded marks for active participation.
Students receive written feedback on their literature review prior to the deadline for their posters. This gives them time to incorporate the feedback. They then submit their posters electronically and these are checked briefly prior to their oral presentations. Andrew stresses the input of the students themselves, especially in the peer review component. He provides students with feedback sheets to fill in concerning each presentation, and Andrew collates these, condenses them and sends them back to each pair of students. This process provides continual feedback throughout the semester, which the students appreciate.
Anecdotal comments from students, as well as written SELT comments and scores, are very positive. In particular, the following SELT questions received very high scores: "The staff member made aims and objectives clear from the outset"; "The staff member explained clearly that I was required to do in assessment tasks"; "The staff member put a lot of time into commenting on my work"; "The staff member normally gave helpful feedback to me on how I was going"; and "The staff member motivated me to do my best work".
8. Problems and advice
The issue of working in pairs or teams always has the potential to create problems. Watching presentations and providing feedback on them takes time but is a very worthwhile activity.
9. General recommendations
Andrew says it's important to consider each course in the context of the program. For example, between the two third level courses of which he is examiner (Pharmacology and Cardiorespiratory & Sports Physiology), the students complete a laboratory report, two literature reviews, a poster and an oral presentation with questiona nd answer session, plus an end-of-semester exam for each course. This provides a balance in assessments, while providing a focus on learning and communication of what they have learned.
10. Additional comments
For the literature reviews and laboratory reports, students are required to provide an abstract. Writing an abstract ensures that they understand the big picture or overview of what they have done and can communicate that clearly and concisely. Many students have struggled with writing an abstract and a tutorial is now dedicated to this issue.