Enhancing Tertiary Student Education

My experience of science education at the tertiary level, secondary school and public outreach has led me to the view that you need to focus on three things to get the most out of undergraduate students. To be your best at teaching you need to be passionate about your subject, be an enabler of people and integrate feedback. Using the setting of an undergraduate course in this post I will explore how I feel bringing passion, enabling people and using feedback effectively are integral in well run tertiary science courses.

Firstly passion. This is where research led education takes its energy from. By ensuring that the research side directly informs the educational style students can engage more with the act of science – that is gaining knowledge through experimentation. To increase ties between the research and education at a university I feel it is important to regularly attend seminars to understand what groups are doing, scheduling visits to different laboratory groups and calling for submissions of simple experiments from the lab groups. Informing the education content through research input into courses allows the education to be more engaging and relevant to students. Postgrad demonstrators can really make or break the experience for students. Before a lab begins I have found it is great to introduce postgrad demonstrators and their research to students and encourage undergraduates to volunteer for them. Highlighting the experience of the educators and their enjoyment in what they do promotes students to be engaged with the course from day one. Postgrads act as near peers that by involving themselves in the learning experience of the students allows the students to feel part of the research community. Moreover by highlighting the stories of postgraduates, students will be more able to see the link between the lesson objective and science research.

For effective learning you need to be an enabler. An open environment is promoted where everyone feels comfortable sharing their ideas and striving for the highest level of achievement. Guiding students to demonstrate leadership and teamwork by suggesting they plan their work and alternate between activities can also help develop core graduate skills. To enable students to achieve the highest excellence you need to be clear about the objectives and give them the tools needed to undertake the work. Utilising more open ended questions and building a scaffold for ideas allows students to focus more on developing their critical thinking skills than worrying about the answer itself. A great example of this I have experienced in previous teaching was for a first year plant transpiration lab where students were told about a protocol to measure transpiration using movement of a dye up a stem but they have to design their own experiment. Using basic materials of fans, cardboard boxes, petroleum jelly, lights and the guidance of demonstrators, students were able to create sound experimental designs. Bringing experimental design elements into the first year courses I think is essential to kick start students into developing their inquiry skills that they can use for the rest of their lives.

Feedback is pivotal to the learning process and to be useful it needs to be done often and as a continuous circle of learning. Feedback is not just the mark and comments on the major assignment at the end of semester and this needs to be highlighted to students regularly. Small elements in the design of a course can really strengthen this feedback loop. An example is using student peer review on a draft of their major assessment to enhance their understanding of feedback and if a small mark is attached it gives a great incentive to do it. The use of online marking platforms, such as turnitinonline, can also improve feedback by improving feedback quality to give greater detail of comments in the same amount of time so a student can more easily understand how to improve. Feedback is not just about improving student learning outcomes. Teachers need feedback too so encouraging educators to participate in teaching meetings and by providing continual professional development opportunities it keeps the teachers engaged with the best ways to communicate the science and encourage students to improve their understanding.

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