My presentation was about…

Science students are often quite resistant to developing their ‘soft skills’, such as keeping a good laboratory notebook. I presented on some positive changes in student perception of soft skills when I introduced a new 6-week undergraduate activity simulating the complete scientific process, from conception of the research project to conference presentation.

What inspired your approach?

When reflecting on authentic assessment practices, I thought about how we professional scientists are assessed. Our formal assessment activities are grant proposals and publications. We also have informal assessment on our progress presented in group meetings, interactions in the lab and so forth. By including similar activities in a simulated research project, the students are able to see the authenticity and necessity.

What was the most surprising outcome?

The increase in independence of the students was surprising and exciting, some of our students even began to treat their demonstrators as minor technical assistants instead of the thoughtful scientists they are! I was also pleasantly surprised to discover an increase in students doing background research using that old-fashioned medium: the book.

How has it/will it benefit students?

I certainly measured an increase in the students’ appreciation of the necessity of good quality laboratory notebooks. I also found a number of scientific soft skills such as experimental design, teamwork and self-learning were claimed uniquely by students who had completed the project.

It’s a bit annoying, but when physics students begin to speak of their competencies arrogantly (“I’ve always approached things this way, this is so obvious”) then you know you’ve successfully helped them learn new useful habits!

What’s the one piece of advice you would give other academics based on this experience?

It’s a lot of work to change six weeks of an established subject at once and you need to be creative in thinking of appropriate projects, BUT it’s worth it to see the students’ enthusiasm.

Any plans for what you’ll do next?

I’ve looked at the students’ perceptions, now I’d like to study their achievements. For example, what changes can we see in their notebooks? I’d also like to find out if the students transfer these skills into other subjects and learning activities.

Feature image by: Drew Hays

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