University of Exeter tackles gaps in new undergraduates maths and lab skills

Exeter University was keen to develop additional resources to support medical and natural science students taking first-year lab modules. We partnered with them to include our custom lab simulations and Smart Worksheets in their existing learning environment.

The Challenge:

Bridging gaps in prior knowledge for a large cohort of students

Exeter’s Natural Sciences degree has a high academic tariff at entry. The requirement is maths plus at least one of the sciences, although most come with maths plus two sciences.

However, every student takes maths, programming, chemistry, physics, and biology in their first year. It means almost all students have missed one of the sciences at A-level yet are asked to study first-year degree-level science in all three areas.

Similarly, although Exeter’s tariff for a degree in medicine is equally high, many students have not taken A-level maths or physics.

The university needs to provide learning support to bridge these different gaps in prior knowledge while developing new practical lab skills.

With the need to provide lab classes for over 400 students, finding these gaps through tests and providing helpful feedback creates an enormous marking load. In the past, Exeter set quizzes on its VLE to test students' knowledge after a lab class, but because of the number of students, these quizzes had to be multiple choice and relatively generic questions.

To improve learning from the lab, without significantly increasing the marking burden for already overworked staff, Exeter’s Natural Sciences department sought to innovate with online materials, such as producing videos explaining core techniques.

While the students appreciated these videos, they were slightly ‘rough and ready’ and not interactive. The goal was to give students the confidence to enter the lab, knowing how to use the equipment without fear of breaking something.

Exeter Challenge Nicky
“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
Exeter Challenge Student
“My understanding of exactly what I need to do is sometimes lacking a bit because I am using stuff that I’ve never used before.”
Student on the challenges of practical labs.

The Solution:

Interactive tools enabling students to practise until they understand each lab skill

We helped Exeter’s interdisciplinary team integrate lab simulations and Smart Worksheets into their existing online learning environment, so students from different courses could prepare in advance of practicals.

Seamlessly including new learning resources

Dr King and her colleagues partnered with us to develop interactive resources covering core practical skills for Exeter’s Moodle learning platform, which were available to students a week before each lab class. Students were able to virtually practise skills before entering the lab and revisit them to cover any areas they wanted to understand better following the real experience - at their own pace. 

A student using a Smart Worksheet in the lab
A student using a Smart Worksheet in the lab

Academic staff added Smart Worksheets to the learning environment to help students engage with specific mathematical and data problems. Students would attend a practical workshop to run experiments and run data before completing a computing workshop. Using Smart Worksheets gave students the chance to work through the calculations multiple times.

The worksheets enable students to work through calculations, providing immediate feedback as they progress, highlighting errors and suggesting solutions about what is wrong. This process allows the students to perform each step without the sometimes daunting prospect of asking for help from the teaching staff.

“The fact that we could embed them directly into our learning environment, so it was completely seamless from our students perspective, was absolutely brilliant.”
Dr. Nicky King
“The feedback from the simulations was really useful to understand where I went wrong, so I don’t go wrong when I am doing the lab in real time.”
Natural Sciences Student on the use of simulations before labs

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The Results:


of students would recommend our activities

Feedback responses at the end of the module

The resources prepared students for their practical lab sessions across the natural sciences, medicine and biosciences courses. These helped the students hone their skills and build confidence in core techniques before and after the classes.


felt more prepared for lab class

Feedback survey at the end of the module using LabSims and Smart Worksheets


would like the same type of online resources to support all lab classes

Feedback survey at the end of the module using LabSims and Smart Worksheets

Exeter’s teaching team found it straightforward to incorporate our online resources, overcoming any concerns about staff adoption. Similarly, 99.5% of students reported that they found the lab simulations and worksheets were ‘easy to use’.

The Smart Worksheets also helped support students carry out statistical analysis, particularly those with weaker maths skills. Exam scores for modules using these resources noticeably improved across the board, raising the level of stronger and weaker students alike. 

Dr King explains that she used the chemistry technique resources in her inorganic chemistry classes. She found that the titration sessions, in particular, ran much more smoothly. Students got through their lab work much quicker as they were more familiar with the apparatus and techniques.

Dr. Nicky King
“I’ve looked at usage data on the day of a practical, while the students were in the lab, and then again a week later, and there’s a clear trend of students going back to the resources to consolidate their learning in the lab, which is great. Anecdotally the lab classes have run smoothly, which hopefully is due to this better preparation.”
Dr. Nicky King
Alison Hill
“Our Analytical Techniques in Biochemistry module has had a longstanding problem with students having all the required maths skills, and we brought in a Smart Worksheet this year to help with this. Section A of the exam requires the students to do one of the experiment calculations and then critically assess the data. This has been a real challenge for a significant number of students and has brought the paper average down. This year Q1 has been transformed: students are still having problems with the critical analysis bit, but the calculations are MUCH better. The average has improved from 59% to 72% for this part of the exam. I am really pleased.”
Dr. Alison Hill, Senior Lecturer, University of Exeter

Teaching the teachers

Exeter University also gave technicians access to all the resources, which were helpful for their professional development. They’ve come into biosciences, and some are chemistry specialists, some are biology specialists, some are apprentices at very early stages of their career, with an ongoing need to learn. 

Many technicians also want to find out more information about what experiments the students are doing, not just preparing solutions in advance. They found them a handy resource to enhance their skills and their understanding of techniques.

It also helped them understand how the techniques are being used by students in the lab, as this means they are better prepared if the students come to them with any questions.

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