Case study: University of Exeter

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Dr Nicky King, Director of Studies for Natural Sciences at University of Exeter, explains how Learning Science has helped her students feel better prepared for labs.

INSTITUTION

University of Exeter, UK

LEVEL

Undergraduate

SUBJECTS

Biosciences, Medical Sciences, Natural Sciences

Over 95% of students said they felt better prepared for lab work
— Dr Nicky King, University of Exeter
 

Director of Studies for Natural Sciences, University of Exeter, Dr Nicky King, smiles as she tells us: “I love lab work. I think it’s the best thing about being a scientist. Getting to go and play in the lab and see what happens is the absolute pinnacle of experimental science.

“But it can be a scary experience. Every year we have students who are really uncertain and will come in and just stare at bits of equipment and not want to touch them for fear of breaking something.”

Exeter’s Natural Sciences degree programme recruits with a very high tariff, one of the highest in the university. The entry requirement is maths plus at least one of the sciences, but most come with maths plus two sciences.

Every student takes maths, programming, chemistry, physics, and biology in their first year. This means despite the high academic bar at entry, most students are missing one of the sciences at A-level yet being asked to study first year degree level science in all three areas.

 
If you’ve hundreds of students, finding the ones who are struggling, unsure or possibly unsafe is quite a challenge. So, it’s really important to make sure we understand our cohort and give them a really good grounding in the techniques they need.
— Dr Nicky King, University of Exeter
 

“Interdisciplinarity is absolutely core to everything we do”

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Dr King wanted to bring in students with different backgrounds and broaden their opportunities back out.

She says: “This means equipping students with the skills and tools to work across disciplines and at the  boundaries of the subjects, where the real cutting-edge research happens. 

“Students either need to know where to go to find out about techniques and tools they’ve not encountered before, or they need the flexibility and general experimental skills to be confident to have a go, push themselves and try new things.”

When University of Exeter began their Natural Sciences course, they produced videos explaining core techniques. Dr King says: “these were appreciated by students, but they were slightly rough and ready, limited by our own skillset, and only video without any simulation. We had difficulty giving students access, and they weren’t easy to embed into our learning environment.”

Seeing how well received the video content was, despite its imperfections, encouraged Dr King to find out more about Learning Science and she hasn’t looked back: “We found the whole system incredibly simple to use, with very straightforward instructions for how to embed the resources into our learning environment.”

“It’s always difficult to get staff to engage with something new, which they think might increase their workload, but we didn’t have any problems and the staff were very keen. We also had some graduate teaching assistants and they were great at embedding resources. The fact that we could embed them directly into our learning environment, so it was completely seamless from our student’s perspective was absolutely brilliant.” 

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“The students were more engaged with the science”

Dr King found her students were highly engaged and quickly adopted the resources: “We put the key skills for each lab session on a week in advance and told  students they should access them before the lab class. We didn’t make it compulsory, but we strongly encouraged them to engage.

“At the end of the module we asked the students for some feedback about how they’d used the resources and what they felt. Over 95% of students said they felt they were better prepared for lab work and that they felt more comfortable in the lab.”

“Over 95% said they’d recommend them to a friend and that they wanted these resources across all the modules they were studying. So, they clearly had a really positive impact on the student experience.”