Development of peer assisted and online learning tools for Life Sciences students

Monday 25th February 2019, 12.30pm to 2.00pm

Speakers: Satareh Chong, Biochemistry Programme Leader
Location: Room H/G/21, Heslington Hall, Campus West

Workshop Summary

Development of peer assisted and online learning tools for Life Sciences students

Student preparedness and confidence are important in student engagement and retention in HE and academic success. Academic background is one factor in preparedness and confidence. Although for several Biology programmes at York A level chemistry is not an admissions requirement, several of our first year modules assume basic knowledge of chemistry (in one case, heavily so). This means that a sizeable minority of our incoming cohort are not, or do not feel, fully prepared for the challenges of the first year. Additionally, preparedness in a range of vital “hard science” and non-scientific competencies and skills such as mathematics and data analysis, lab and practical skills, and writing skills, in which students exhibit varying levels of confidence and experience of practice, is important in academic success.

This project aimed to develop tailored course-supplementing materials that can be easily signposted to the relevant students. It used current undergraduates, as both content producers and consumers, to provide insight into effective teaching materials.

In this workshop I describe the development of a Life Sciences Skills Hub [modelled on the Skills Hub in the Environment and Geography Department], which acts as a digital repository and single point of reference for various important skills including chemistry. This site acts as an online resource for staff and students across all cohorts in the Department of Biology. Additionally I will discuss the implementation of a pilot peer assisted learning programme (PAL) using latter year students from two departments to complement the Skills Hub material and further support Stage 1 biology students who lack chemistry.

This project was funded by the Rapid Response Fund, the Student Internship Bureau, and the Department of Biology

Workshop Report

by session chair, James Youdale

March’s Learning and Teaching Forum workshop was delivered by Dr. Setarah Chong, Programme Leader for Biochemistry from the Department of Biology. Dr. Chong reported on the development and implementation of the digital ‘Life Sciences Skills Hub’.

Bridging the gap & knowing what they don’t know.

There were several areas of impetus behind the development of a Department-wide collection of resources, tools and signposts for skills development. Students making the transition to First Year Undergraduate study in Biochemistry may not have studied Mathematics or Chemistry at A Level. Whilst neither of these are a strict entry requirement, there are certain areas that are covered in the A Level syllabus which are essential for progression as the Programme develops, and therefore need to be checked or addressed in some form.

In the past, diagnostic exercises to identify students who required skills development came in the form of ‘surprise’ timetabled tests. This, it was noted, was largely unpopular, and led to poor student feedback. As such, the notion of building a structured set of resources that students could access asynchronously was deemed to be a prudent measure. As well as being a standalone body of resources, the hub would be scaffolded through the PAL (peer-assisted learning) Programme, as well as timetabled contact hours and skills modules within for Chemistry and Mathematics. Elsewhere across the University, there was precedent for this within the Department of Environment and Psychology – both of whom operate VLE skills hubs – and had colleagues attending the workshop. As such, the intention was not to ‘reinvent the wheel’ but to adapt and link-out to established resources where possible.

Co-created by students

A consortium of colleagues within the Department came together to plan and coordinate the project – with each area of the Skills Hub receiving specific oversight from a member of academic staff.

Areas covered included:

  • Data Skills and Numeracy
  • Statistics
  • Command-line Programming (for PYTHON and R)
  • Communication Skills (Writing/Presentation)
  • Group Work
  • Becoming an Independent Learner
  • Self-reflection; Dealing with/Responding to Feedback

For the building of the resources, students within the Department were offered an internship opportunity. 15 applications were received in a very competitive recruitment process where staff found it to be very difficult to narrow down selection. It was reported that the final team of students complemented each other, with a combination of communication and technical skills being encompassed.

Content varied from informational graphics, video, text and interactive tools – such as self-diagnostic quizzes, and reflective journals.


Further Reading

It was reported that since the launch date of October 5th, 2018, The Skills Hub received 4000 hits – 735 of which were unique. The statistics that were gleaned from the VLE showed that the two months following the launch was when the hub was most viewed (perhaps due to heavy advertisement) and suggested that Mondays tended to be the most active day for usage. It was determined that the content associated with Data Numeracy had seen the most engagement, with Communication not far behind.

Student feedback to then venture – largely gleaned through contact and PAL sessions – was very positive, with the only negative aspect being that students wanted more.

It was noted that going forward, the project team were interested to see how engagement would develop as the term moved towards the common assessment period and the summer vacation.


In the second half of the workshop, participants were encouraged to form small groups and discuss their responses to three questions. These were:

  • What makes a good student? Important factors that affect students before and during their first year at University?
  • What are the best ways to identify students who need extra support in some aspect of departmental life?
  • What are good ways we can provide that support and at the same time cultivate curiosity and independence?

Participants identified that the students who were best-placed to succeed tended to be those who have developed a degree of resilience, and are able to deal reflect on critique, failings and successes in a constructive manner. Clare Hughes, from the Department of Environment, noted that she looks to signpost Skills Hub resources wherever possible – such as highlighting relevant portions of the hub when returning assessment feedback to students.

Another theme of the discussion flagged the importance of managing expectations when attempting to foster engagement. Disillusionment, it was posited, was more likely to occur when students have embedded false assumptions about the manner that their Programme of Study would unfold.

Also discussed was the difficulty of striking a balance between the early months of First Year Undergraduate study – where contact time is heavily scaffolded and large amounts of information is given to students – and the transition towards independent study.

Workshop Report Padlet

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