2019 Oral Presentations – Session 3

Presentation 1: Reflections on an Archaeological learning community: Undergraduate Year 2 experimental Archaeology practical skills and independent project

Authors: Aimée Little, Andy Needham and Andy Langley
Department of Archaeology

Many artefacts used during (pre)history are made from materials and techniques that can be unfamiliar to contemporary people. This can pose a barrier to learning in an undergraduate context where an unfamiliarity with materials and manufacture techniques first hand can limit engagement and understanding. Experimental archaeology – the (re)production of (pre)historic archaeological objects to facilitate a greater understanding of manufacture and function – can facilitate deep learning through direct engagement with materials and processes.

Undergraduate Year 2 Practical Skills: Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture and Year 2 Team Project: Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture are linked modules run in the Department of Archaeology, University of York, and designed pedagogically to create a learning community through experimental archaeology. In the former, students are exposed to a wide range of materials and production techniques and in the latter are tasked with working as a group to replicate an artefact, aligned with active research, which typically has an ambiguous manufacture process or function.

We reflect on the learning communities created: how students construct knowledge together and enhance their learning experience through collaboration, and how students become increasingly responsible for their own learning through working as part of a group, and being motivated through their contributions to active research.

The modules foster a collaborative and active approach to learning in our students, who become active participants in knowledge creation, resulting in deeper engagement with the course and the theme, and typically contribute directly to conference posters/presentations and published papers, providing career benefits.


Presentation 2: In search of validity – direct assessment of student skills in laboratory practical sessions

Author: Nick Wood
Department of Chemistry

We have implemented a new assessment programme for Year 1 Chemistry laboratory practicals. This is a challenging environment for assessment due to several factors, including variable prior experience of practical chemistry among the cohort, and the need for good practice as a safety-critical issue.

Firstly, we provide students with supporting material, to establish a secure basis for learning. Secondly, the sequence of experiments provides opportunities to repeat, and improve, key skills. Thirdly, we use discussions with graduate demonstrators to structure the practical sessions, including formative assessment and feedback on the students’ skills. Fourthly, the practical sessions are conducted without summative assessment, to inspire effective learning, by removing/reducing associated anxiety. These last two points encourage the students and the graduate demonstrators to freely communicate, as there is no requirement to withhold information or guard “correct answers”. Fifthly, at the end of the sequence of experiments, the students are directly assessed on practical techniques selected from the experiments, providing a valid assessment of their skills.

The students know, in advance, which techniques are eligible for assessment; this fosters an active, collaborative learning environment, where they can discuss their work with each other, and with the graduate demonstrators, in order to improve their expertise. The direct assessment also allows us to target specific students for extra help, when needed.

This presentation will outline the structure of the programme, with emphasis on the challenges associated with the direct assessment of student skills in a practical context.


Presentation 3: Multidisciplinary workshops to develop graduate skill sets in the circular economy using systems thinking

Author: Rob McElroy
Department of Chemistry

Increasing demand for chemicals worldwide, depleting resources, stricter legislation and the rising cost of waste disposal are placing increasing pressure on the chemical and related industries. For any organisation to survive in the current climate, the issue of sustainability must be fundamental to the way it operates. A sustainable manufacturing approach will enable economic growth to be combined with environmental and social sustainability, and will be realised via collaboration between a multidisciplinary community including chemists, biologists, engineers, environmental scientists, economists, experts in management and policy makers. Hence, employees with new skills, knowledge and experience are needed.

After close consultation with industry, an annual programme of interactive workshops has been designed for graduate students to go beyond looking at the ‘greening’ of chemical reactions, processes, and products, and instead embed a systems thinking approach to learning.  The workshops provide an insight into the issues surrounding sustainable manufacturing including change management, commercialisation, environmental impact, circular economy, legislation and bio-resources including the conversion of waste into valuable products. The multidisciplinary course content incorporates industrial case studies, providing access to real business issues, and is delivered by experts from departments across campus as well as from industry.


Chair’s Report

by Nick Ritchie, Senior Lecturer in International Security,
Department of Politics

In the third session of oral presentations we heard from Aimée Little from Archaeology, Nick Wood from Chemistry and Rob McElroy also from Chemistry about the new approaches they have developed to enhancing student skills.

Aimée Little gave a detailed overview of a project with two colleagues, Andy Needham and Andy Langley, to develop practical skills through experimental archaeology for a year 2 module. This was a new module designed to develop a range of student skills that were clearly integrated into learning outcomes and assessment. It is rooted in experiential practice to facilitate deep learning by helping students get hands on with archaeological materials and concepts. It makes full use of Archaeology’s YEAR (York Experimental Archaeological Research) Centre – an outdoor experimental archaeology workspace on campus.

The module also placed a strong emphasis on developing a learning community and building that into assessments through team projects. The pedagogic process was  based on teaching practical skills, enabling students to develop and apply these through group work and thereby develop additional transferable skills, and then assessing these through team projects and an assessment based on writing an article informed by the practical skills the students have acquired. The best of these would then be published in the peer-reviewed EXARC journal. Emphasis was placed on students’ shared responsibility for through teamwork, real-life research, and peer assessment.

Nick Wood told us about how he had led a re-working of a chemistry module to isolate specific laboratory skills and test them through assessment, both to ensure students had developed a core set of competencies before progressing and to enable staff to know that the competencies had been developed. A problem had been identified that the assessment regime was focused more on technique than understanding insofar as students were often uncertain as to why laboratory experiments worked when they got it right or didn’t work when they got it wrong. Post-lab scripts written by students only let teaching staff know what students said they did in practical sessions, rather than what they actually did, so that teaching staff were unable to help students understand what went wrong when students reported that an experiment did not turn out as intended.

The reworked module is based around a new skills framework based on practicing individual laboratory skills that are introduced and then repeated multiple times, rather than doing them all at once. The skill set builds cumulatively over the module and assessment is then based on testing a representative set of key skills. Students are individually assessed in small groups in the lab for 15 minutes during which they are observed performing the required laboratory skills. The assessments are graded using marking criteria that differentiates essential and desirable skills and major and minor errors to generate a pass/fail result. Those that fail have then have to do a compulsory retraining session that teaches core techniques from scratch with a further assessment after six weeks. The key change is that the skills students are expected to use in the laboratory are now directly assessed and, as a result, students get feedback on how to improve the specific techniques assessed. The new process has demonstrated that large scale direct assessment of lab skills is possible with preparation and training of students and assessors.

Rob McElroy informed us about a series of multidisciplinary interactive workshops convened over a year to help develop graduate skill. The workshops focussed a range of different challenges and industries and were designed to develop students’ systems thinking. This was in response to feedback from employers that graduates’ ‘soft skills’ were often poor. The workshops covered a range of issues and centred on iterative learning to refine solutions to different types of challenges. Workshops have examined issues such as “safer chemicals for healthy buildings”, “running a sustainable chemical company” and “green chemistry marketing to the global research community”. A key outcome was to develop students’ ability to think in terms of sustainable systems and system effects and not exclusively in terms of linear causality. Here, the workshops sought to introduce chemistry students to the issues surrounding sustainable manufacturing, commercialisation, environmental impact, circular economy, legislation and bio-resources including the conversion of waste into valuable products. 

All three presentations highlighted the different ways in which a range of skills is being developed by students through different teaching programmes and activities, and in particular the importance of experiential learning.

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