Teaching Innovation Awards Winner

University of Exeter

Dr. Steve Porter, Prof. Nicholas Harmer, Dr. Alison Hill


At the University of Exeter, ~500 first year Biochemistry (BIO1332), Neurosciences (CSC1009) and Natural Sciences (NSC1004) students perform an integrated series of practicals. Students work in teams of up to five to purify an enzyme, investigate its kinetics and perform inhibitor studies. We used to assess the students’ understanding and engagement through two laboratory reports submitted as a team; but the problem was that we were assessing students as a group, rather than individually, to maintain an acceptable marking burden for staff. This inevitably led to issues with group working - most commonly some team members would not engage and so fail to achieve the intended learning outcomes.

Our solution was to develop Smart Worksheets with LearnSci to replace both laboratory reports. This ensures that every student learns how to analyse their team’s data for themselves. An added benefit is that we no longer have a problem with chained calculations having errors carried forwards as the instant feedback and solve option ensures that no students get stuck. Another advantage is that the Smart Worksheets direct students towards good presentation practices, for example titles for graphs, error bars, and units.

Student feedback includes:

  • "[The Smart Worksheets are] very useful for learning how to do calculations and consolidating lab concepts."
  • "Liked the instant feedback it provides and the ‘solve’ option helps if you are really stuck – this corrects misconceptions quickly."

Adopting the Smart Worksheets has improved student engagement and performance (Figure 1). We introduced them in 2020/2021. Comparing student performance in 2022/2023 with the four previous academic years, we found a significant improvement (p<0.0001) from 2018/2019 and 2019/2020 where work was last marked as a team submission. In 2020/2021, we allowed students a second chance of marks on questions they got wrong initially, but we have partially (2021/2022) and totally (2022/2023) disabled this function to realign the mark distribution.

Graphs showing Smart Worksheets have significantly improved student performance for all years.

Introducing the Smart Worksheets in 2020/2021 presented an additional challenge as students could not collect their own data due to COVID-19. Had we provided a single model dataset, collusion would have been a significant risk as the same answers would be expected from all students. To circumvent this, we developed a Javascript-based Smart PDF to automatically generate individual datasets (Figure 2). It uses data from a past class and transforms it using the student’s ID number to seed an algorithm based on prime numbers and remainders. We designed the algorithm to embed a security “watermark” into the dataset so that we can verify that students are using their own unique data and not sharing answers. We continue to use the Smart PDF for students who have missed practical sessions or for whom the experiment failed. We have also worked with colleagues to develop Smart PDFs for generating unique datasets on other modules e.g. BIO1338 (Plants) and BIO2091 (Bioinorganic Chemistry). Student feedback has been resoundingly positive and staff are delighted they are no longer marking over Christmas!

Tables showing the autogenerated data when students input their ID number.