Transforming the way academics give feedback to students

Dr Cherie Lucas from UTS Pharmacy together with Dr Adam Aitken, Dr Andrew Gibson and Professor Simon Buckingham Shum from UTS Connected Intelligence Centre (CIC) trialled the use of the Academic Writing Analytics (AWA) tool with first-year Master of Pharmacy students. The tool uses Natural Language Processing to identify concepts, people, places and metadiscourse. It facilitates the user to dynamically analyse their work and formulate and communicate ideas while they write.

The initiative was recently recognised at a pharmacy education symposium in Prato, Italy in July 2017, where the team was awarded a Teaching Innovation Prize in the Poster Category for their poster entitled ‘Utilisation of a novel online educational tool to assist pharmacy students to self-critique reflective writing tasks’.

Here’s what Dr Lucas had to say about the process.

How did the idea materialise?

I arrived at UTS as a new academic in 2016 and wanted to get in touch with other researchers in the area of Reflective Practice. Reflection is a graduate attribute for most tertiary education degrees and is certainly an important part of the journey for a Master of Pharmacy student. I contacted Simon Buckingham Shum, Andrew Gibson and Adam Aitken from CIC who mentioned that they were about to start a project involving a reflective online tool. They asked if I would be interested in working with their team of researchers on different aspects of the project.

With cohort sizes increasing and the time restraints in providing individual feedback in a timely fashion, I was very interested in critiquing and utilising a tool which provides immediate feedback to students in their own time. And when I realised the impact their project would have on student learning and feedback, for my own discipline and across a number of different disciplines, I immediately knew I wanted to a part of that, even if it was a small contribution.

How did it begin?

We decided to implement the tool into the first-year curriculum early in the first semester. This was a challenge, because most of the students had come from an undergraduate science background and many (if not all of them) were new to the concept of reflection and reflective writing. Reflection is not an easy concept to grasp, but evidence has shown that the process can be taught with prompts and guides. In the first few weeks of lectures, I scaffolded the concept to my students, emphasising why reflecting on their practice was important and using my previous research on reflective practice to back it up. By the second week, our online tool was introduced within an allocated workshop and students had the opportunity to play around with it. After that initial workshop, students were on their own and could voluntarily use the tool at will.

How does it work?

Students submit their work onto the online system as many times as they wish prior to submission. In return the tool provides immediate feedback in the form of prompts, guides and coloured tags and this assists them to critique their own work.

Did it pay off for students?

In my experience students will not delve into a voluntary exercise; even if it requires minimum effort! That is unless there are benefits to the exercise. There was no pressure for pharmacy students to actually use the tool, it was simply provided as a resource. However according to the usage analytics there was a clear indication that the majority of students were accessing the tool. They seemed to appreciate the opportunity to reflect on their own writing prior to it being submitted for grading.

Looking ahead

Elements of reflection across disciplines are the same, however there are usually specific areas that students can drill into more deeply which may differ between the disciplines. For example, in pharmacy education, reflections may involve a clinical event, a non-clinical event (also known as a critical event) or a learning task and each is directly related to a professional competency the student is working towards. It would be great to include professional competencies within the tool for different disciplines. This will allow the students to reflect on an incident or learning task but keeping in mind of the professional standards of competence they need to be working towards.Also, giving the students control over their progress allows them to reflect on their learning and practice and provides greater visibility on how they have improved.

Our newly structured ePortfolios ensure that students embed their weekly reflective statements (which require them to reflect on their professional competencies) and as a result they can track their own progress. This can then become evidence to provide to future employers as to why they are the perfect candidate for the position. I think embedding this kind of technology into a curriculum is so valuable and if students can see the benefits first-hand, I really believe the sky is the limit! This has definitely been the case with my wonderful pharmacy students so far.

Dr Cherie Lucas is a Lecturer and the Clinical Practice Subject Coordinator in the discipline of pharmacy at the Graduate School of Health.

The poster the team won the award for, titled 'Utilisation of a novel online educational tool to assist pharmacy students to self-critique reflective writing tasks'.

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