Case study: University of Plymouth


Dr Roy Lowry, Faculty of Science and Engineering, University of Plymouth, explains how Learning Science has removed an unmanageable marking burden.


University of Plymouth, UK





Over the last two years, over 600 individual pieces of coursework have been summatively assessed, and not one member of staff did any marking.
— Dr Roy Lowry, University of Plymouth

“In truth, this particular change was brought about by a very powerful agency, that of crisis.”

Dr Roy Lowry wryly admits his decision to work with Learning Science wasn’t born from a hypothesis founded in a detailed educational model: “In truth, this particular change was brought about by another very powerful agency, that of crisis.”

In his capacity as Programme Lead for Foundation Pathways in Science at the University of Plymouth, Dr Lowry recently gave a talk on Hands on Laboratories and Online Assessment.

Speaking at the 2019 Horizons in STEM Higher Education Conference: Making Connections, Innovating and Sharing Pedagogy at Kingston University, Dr Lowry discussed the impact of Learning Science.


“Previously, the assessment included a full lab report, and marking a workbook based upon the lab sessions.”

No one doubts the value of hands-on lab learning. However, there is an inherent challenge in giving accurate and timely feedback without a massive marking workload for staff.

Dr Lowry is module leader for a first semester chemistry module in the foundation year. “Its purpose is to make sure the foundation of chemistry is solid and can be built upon. It has a number of lab sessions which are designed to provide experience and also provide data for further analysis.”

When he took over the module in 2016 Dr Lowry recognised that the manual marking of assessments was becoming too burdensome, and that the current assessment model couldn’t continue. Student numbers taking the module are now 50% above what they were three years ago.

Before the start of the 2017/18 academic year Dr Lowry worked with Learning Science’s Dr Iain Thistlethwaite on developing a series of online assessments based on the lab experiments.  

Dr Lowry demonstrated how formative assessment is used by his students in a simple experiment using gravimetric analysis to derive the formula for magnesium oxide.

Students click through from the University of Plymouth Digital Learning Environment, which is hosted in Moodle, directly into the embedded Learning Science Smart Worksheet.

“I decide the number of attempts available, and the penalties, if any, for each submission.”

Immediately the student is given clear instructions on what to do. They enter their data from the lab practical and begin their calculations.

The student can see the marks awarded for the outcome of each calculation. Upon entering the correct result those marks are awarded and a full green ring next to their answer gives immediate feedback.

If a student makes an error, rather than the marks being awarded, the software gives some feedback as to how the answer should have been calculated. The student can make corrections and submit again. If they have it right, they get half the marks and half the ring turns green to indicate this.

The solve button allows students to see the correct answer for an individual step. Whilst this means that individual calculation receives no marks, it allows the student to continue their calculations from the correct starting point.

Students also use the solve button where they believe that they have correct data, but it is not being recognised. This is often down to common errors like ignoring the powers of ten shown on their calculators. Again, the feedback given helps students learn.  

Dr Lowry also values the Quality of Data Assessment. “This uses the student’s raw data to give a mark based on the difference between the expected and the theoretical mass gains. Upon finishing the calculations, the data assessment mark is displayed, and feedback is given.”

“To use this for summative assessment, exactly the same system is used but some of the feedback is turned off”

In the case Dr Lowry describes the lab used for formative assessment was the formula of magnesium oxide and the summative exercise was based upon the production of anhydrous copper sulphate. So, it’s a similar process with two different compounds.

The mark profiles for two academic years before and two after the change in assessment method were analysed.

“I wanted to see if this new method of assessment generated marks which were very different from the previous method. The change in assessment has not created a very different marks profile. The effect upon student marks does not appear to be significant”.

This means Dr Lowry is confident he has a robust grading method, without the requirement for staff to read through each student’s work.