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Supporting students

Can an asynchronous student conference in Open Studio develop students’ critical evaluation skills?

Project leader(s): 
Catherine Halliwell and Jenny Duckworth

The level 3 module Evaluating Contemporary Science, S350, helps students learn, develop and apply important key skills such as evaluation of current science research and communication of these findings to different audiences, along with professional skills such as time-management, giving constructive feedback to peers and reflecting on learning practices. TMA3 requires students to partake in an asynchronous online student conference using Open Studio (OS), creating a poster and audio presentation using accumulated knowledge to evaluate a contemporary topic in science. The work in the poster is further developed in the EMA, so participation in this OS activity can have a significant impact on a student’s final grade in S350. Whilst many students enjoy the conference and achieve relatively good marks on style and presentation of their work, it is not clear to what extent students develop (and recognize) deeper rather than superficial critical evaluation skills that focus on the science presented. This is a key issue in terms of helping students learn and practice skills of critical evaluation which are needed for them to succeed in their final project modules (student success). It is important for module teams and ALs to understand how students approach learning through peer-to-peer feedback in an online environment so that student experience and success can be enhanced (learning design) and best practice in the assessment of such activities can be shared within the module and to other modules (innovative assessment).

Our research questions are therefore:

  • Can a student conference using OS lead to a positive impact on module success through supporting a deeper engagement with critical evaluation of contemporary science?
  • What ‘quick fixes’ can we put in place to help promote student engagement in deeper learning and reflection?

We will collect and analyse data on when students engage with the conference, the scope and depth of that engagement (particularly in relation to feedback from and to peers), and whether students reflect or act on that feedback. From this we will propose interventions and actions in 19J that will promote deeper learning and reflection.We will then monitor the effectiveness of these interventions.

The impacts of this work are potentially

  • Minimizing the stress associated with OS activities so that students are more aware of the professional skills they develop than the mechanics of the conference preparation
  • Development of post-conference teaching materials
  • Assess the potential for enhancement activities such as a synchronous conference
  • Advice for the design of assessment using OS and/or student conferencing/peer evaluation

This would lead to the following outcomes

  • Increased attainment levels amongst S350 students, particularly in professional skills (for example using and giving constructive feedback, time management and organization) – in line with student success and employability priorities
  • Increased student confidence in giving peer-to-peer constructive feedback
  • Recommendations on design of assessment involving OS for other STEM modules and disciplines.

Halliwell, C. and Duckworth, J. (2019) poster

How are students using extensions and what is the impact on success?

Project leader(s): 
Catherine Halliwell and Cath Brown

Tutors have reported dealing with increasing numbers of requests for TMA extensions from L2 students studying Life and Health sciences. Potentially this causes problems for students with important material being rushed, and, particularly towards the end of module(s), numerous deadlines pushed together. It is predicted that the number of students studying at full time intensity will increase (Insight, 2018), so deadline clashes will be a problem for an increasing number of students.

This issue is already apparent in L2 Life and Health science modules; students commonly study two thirty-credit modules simultaneously, with those on full-time intensity studying four out of SK299, S294, S295 or SDK228, SXHL288. For example in 18J 432 out of 559 students registered for S294 are studying another module (SST Tool). The same problem is likely to occur in other disciplines across STEM Faculty with a high dependence on 30 credit modules, for example physics and astronomy.

Our research questions are:-

  •  Whether the number of extension requests a student makes is associated with the number of modules they are studying
  • Whether the number of extensions relates to success on the  module in terms of grade attained, or pass/fail/defer
  • Whether students are actively using extension requests to balance their workload across multiple modules

We will perform a statistical analysis to address the first two questions, and a qualitative discussion to address the latter question. Subject to appropriate statistical results, there is also the potential for a simple predictive model to be developed that will aid the planning of appropriate interventions by SST, module teams and ALs.

The answers to these questions have the potential to inform the following within life and health sciences:-

  • advice given to students proposing to study these modules regarding study intensity
  • advice given about more and less suitable combinations of modules
  • discussions between ALs and their students concerning the advisability of extensions
  • module teams regarding “pinch points” for assessment, allowing for consideration of alteration of the assessment model
  • resources and support for students studying at high intensities

Broader impacts could include:-

  • Generalising to other subject areas with a similar pattern of modules and study intensity;
  • Laying foundations for more general study of approaches to support students studying at high intensity, in line with the student success priority of supporting full time and flexible study
  • Potentially feeding into the work being carried out by PVC Students office on approaches to granting extensions
  • Informing the university’s work on different, more innovative or flexible modes of assessment.

Halliwell, C. and Brown, C. (2019) poster

Strategies to support students and tutors with online collaborative projects: an action research project

Project leader(s): 
Shirley Evans, Winston Graham and Manish Malik

Development of group working skills is important both in terms of employability and as part of a collaborative learning approach but students may not always recognise the importance of it. Online collaborative group work in the work-place has become even more important due to COVID-19 since many people have been forced to work online rather than face to face.

Online collaborative group work has been developed at the Open University since the 1990s and over the last 10 years, with T215 and TM255, has had an 8-week block of work devoted to it in a Level 2 module relating to communications and information technology. During this period the nature of the collaborative work has changed somewhat in relation to timing, the spread across blocks and complexity of the task. At the same time the student profile has changed significantly due to funding necessitating a qualification focus, more students taking more modules simultaneously, and less face to face tuition taking place.

The original aims of this study were to better understand which strategies best support students to engage with online collaborative projects and which strategies best help tutors to support students in this activity. Three Tutor Groups were involved from which students were recruited for interviews regarding their experience of the group work, as well as a support mechanism, pre, during and post group work; the three tutors kept reflective diaries of the group work process; tutors were surveyed about their experience of engaging students and the support strategies with a follow-up interview to investigate this further. Students appreciated the additional support of weekly support bulletins, short telephone calls at key points and a focused group work tutorial.

A key concern is engagement of other students and other pressures impinging on themselves which may limit their engagement and the quality of the engagement. Tutors appreciated the weekly bulletins and some would welcome additional support from the Module Team but had concerns about student engagement  including slow starters, not being able to address the non-engagement; insufficient information to group students; fostering of relationships; complexity and timing of the task and difficulties assessing the task. That said those students that engaged fully with the tasks tended to achieve high marks and retention does not appear to be affected by the group work.

Key themes that have emerged are tutor skills/experience, assessment, engagement, nature and timing of the task and difficulties in fostering relationships. A set of recommendations have been drawn in terms of strategies to address these potential issues, and it is recognised that some aspects will need further investigation. These strategies may be at a level tutors can implement such as approaches to selecting groups and weekly bulletins although this may only impact on those who are already engaged; some are at module team level such as complexity and timing of the task and technologies utilised.

Higher level strategies by faculty or above in terms of how to incentivise students to engage in group work could be needed particularly in relation to the significance of employability skills and the place of online collaborative group work in the curriculum.

Related resources

Evans. S. (2020) Strategies to support students and tutors with online collaborative projects: an action research project. eSTEeM Final Report (PDF)

Evans, S. (2020) Strategies to support students and tutors with online collaborative projects: an action research project. Appendices B-H (PDF)