Is the traditional practical report redundant for large practical classes with the Life Sciences?

Page, Nigel (2009) Is the traditional practical report redundant for large practical classes with the Life Sciences? In: Science Learning and Teaching Conference 2009; 16-19 Jun 2009, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Science Learning and Teaching Conference 2009)


Teaching science should not only reflect the facts, but the ‘how to’ involved in practical experimentation and observation. Key to this process is the communication of experimental observations. However, the increasing numbers of students entering university has led to a decline in the number of practicals run and challenged the traditional method of laboratory class assessment - the practical written report. To date, I still maintain (as module leader) the tradition of written practical reports for our first year practical skills module; yet this has become an increasingly difficult task with larger student numbers and the need to provide both fair and rapid assessment and feedback. Indeed, it may be questionable whether writing a report meets all the required learning outcomes and provides practice in a range of key transferable skills. Recently, as part of an action research project I evaluated student questionnaire responses to help understand student expectations of first year practical class assessment and feedback and how this compared to their previous educational experiences. The results showed distinct differences between college and university where detailed practical reports formed the basis of practical assessment in colleges. Furthermore, students were often provided with extensive feedback before being allowed to resubmit their reports. Interestingly, over 80% (n = 104) of our students indicated that practical reports are a good way to assess their practical understanding, nevertheless just over 50% felt that writing practical reports alone demonstrate their full range of practical abilities. My evaluation of our student’s opinions has led to a number of transformations in our teaching practice and changes in attitude amongst the staff teaching on the module, which is reported. Nevertheless, we still feel there is a place for the practical report, which can help to bridge the gap between college and university assessments.

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