University of Exeter revolutionises online assessment, reduces marking, and eliminates attainment gaps

The University of Exeter bioscience staff needed to redesign assessment in their Analytical Techniques in Biochemistry module when increasing cohort numbers were causing marking workloads to become unsustainable. 

After partnering with LearnSci, they were able to offer more support, improve performance and utilise resources before, during and after the pandemic. Their unique approach to online assessment was celebrated by the community and their findings published in the Journal of Chemical Education.

The Challenge:

Increased assessment demands from growing student numbers

At the University of Exeter, Dr. Alison Hill and Prof. Nicholas Harmer have been running the Analytical Techniques in Biochemistry module for over ten years. The course - taken by Second Year Biosciences students - introduces state of the art methods used in biochemical research and the techniques used to examine protein structures and properties. When first introduced, the module would be taken by 30-40 students, who would all complete two lab reports. 

However as student numbers grew, staff realised that it was unsustainable for them to manage the increased marking burden. They needed an approach that was scalable as each incoming cohort increased in numbers. 

Initially, this involved replacing one lab report with a data processing section in the exam. Students would collect data in groups and analyse it in their assessments. This was challenging for students, particularly those who had no post-16 mathematics qualifications. The notable attainment gap between students with differing maths experience and the difficulty providing feedback on an individual basis revealed further intervention was needed.

Exeter (2) case study - challenge
“It became evident as we doubled our student numbers that [two lab reports] was unsustainable for the staff. It was also really difficult for the students: they were finding it too much of a burden.”
Dr. Alison Hill

The Solution:

Efficient feedback, multiple opportunities to practise, and future-proof assessments

The Biosciences team was able to develop digital resources alongside LearnSci to teach and assess students' understanding of techniques in the module. This offered benefits before, during and after the pandemic restrictions.

Before covid: Improving mathematics and data processing skills

In 2017, Dr. Hill was appointed as an Exeter Education Incubator Fellow.  Her goal was to find ways in which the students' confidence with numbers and data processing could be improved. She began working with LearnSci to create a custom Smart Worksheet that focused on the data processing skills assessed in the module.

Students were invited to use the worksheets in computer labs to analyse and process their own data individually. These formed the basis of formative assessment, and staff were able to provide feedback to individual students based on their worksheet progression and scores.

Additionally, students would submit data that they had generated which was then added to the online dataset to be used for future years. This allowed students to practise their calculations repeatedly with historical datasets generated by real students.

“Before, we would talk to them in their groups and you would give feedback but a hesitant or anxious student could hide in that group. Now we could go around to see exactly who was proceeding and who wasn't. We could identify immediately who needed help.”
Dr Alison Hill

After covid: Individual fair assessments and bespoke lab demonstration videos

During the summer of 2020, with no guarantee that students would have access to labs, Dr. Hill and Prof. Harmer put into place a series of course adaptations to ensure their students were still able to experience practical techniques throughout the module. 

Bespoke videos were created of staff demonstrating the experimental techniques featured in the labs. With the help of a videographer, the videos showed details of processes from different angles and perspectives to ensure the best visualisation was available. Complementary LabSims were used alongside the videos, with students asked to complete simulations of the techniques shown. The combination of these methods allowed students to consolidate underlying theory, see how to perform techniques, and demonstrate each step in detail.

Assessments were moved online, but this caused two major problems. Firstly, students were no longer able to collect their own data to be analysed in the final exam. Secondly, there was a risk that supplying datasets to all the students and offering an non-invigilated exam would present opportunities for collusion. 

Therefore, the historical datasets generated by previous years of students were used to create individual data, to be used by each student for their exam. Using an R script, the datasets and corresponding answer sheets were generated and randomly assigned, meaning each student would have their own tailored data that could be processed in the exam.

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“The Smart Worksheet allowed practise of practical lab calculations to ensure we genuinely understood the calculations we were performing. This was great during the lockdown period, where it was difficult for us to get any time in the lab.”
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“LabSims don't replace a lab class, but they are another great way of teaching and learning about a laboratory technique.”
Prof. Nicholas Harmer

The Results:

Average performance increased from 46% to 72%

Student performance in the data handling results of assessment improved after Smart Worksheets were introduced.

After introducing Smart Worksheets to the module, there was a significant increase in the average grade for the data processing part of the final exam. This stayed consistently high after the exam was moved online during the pandemic, with students still achieving an average grade of 69%.

Students rated LabSims 4.3/5

On a Likert scale in the end-of-module evaluation

Attainment gap eliminated

The gap between students with and without mathematics qualifications was removed.

The introduction of Smart Worksheets also had a huge impact on staff workloads and student performance. The immediate feedback and automated grading meant students became more confident in their skills and staff were able to devote more time to those that really needed it. 

Introducing these digital approaches before COVID-19 future-proofed module assessment, and made the transition to online delivery that much easier. Adopting LabSims to use alongside bespoke recorded videos allowed students to become familiar with techniques and actively learn during restrictions. 

Smart Worksheets helped students understand data processing as well as master skills needed in science, such as rounding and significant figures. The use of the historical datasets allowed students access to authentically generated data that was used to prepare and complete their final exam. 

Now that students are back in labs, they’re saving time by completing labs faster. They’re arriving at labs asking better questions and are more confident. Moreover, students appreciate labs, understanding that the resources aren’t replacing practical labs but complementing them.

“The [LearnSci] resources were concise and interactive, and were excellent means of testing my knowledge of different analytical techniques.”
Dr. Alison Hill
“We saw an immediate benefit from using the Smart Worksheet with a statistically significant performance increase on the data section of the examination.”
Dr. Alison Hill
Prof. Nicholas Harmer
“It's dramatically more efficient for the people who can do it, but weren't sure they could do it before. Now they’re confident, and they don't need to ask questions. That saves a lot of staff time and we’re able to devote this time to the people who struggle, who need some real guidance and teaching.”
Prof. Nicholas Harmer, University of Exeter

Spreading best practice and continuing student support

Dr. Alison Hill and Prof. Nicholas Harmer are planning to continue their work using individual datasets, and to introduce the Smart Worksheets in more topics across biosciences. Their novel approach to achieving robust and fair online assessments has been celebrated by numerous academics and their findings recently published in the Journal of Chemical Education and the JISC Digital Culture collection

The LabSims have continued to be of use in preparing students for the lab. They have also provided staff the opportunity to expose students to more techniques that previously could not be explored due to expense of equipment and time consuming processes that aren’t feasible in teaching labs.

LearnSci resources can enhance your student’s learning experiences while reducing staff workload. Request a demo to learn more about how LearnSci can work with your institution. 

Prof. Nicholas Harmer
“We would like to bring Smart Worksheets into more areas because they're transformative in terms of getting students to really get to grips with problems and to upskill themselves numerically.”
Prof. Nicholas Harmer