January 8, 2004, by Teaching at Nottingham

The future of practicals with increasing numbers

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Kathy Simmons: “Like you say, it’s just a comment really. It is a problem; it means that we need to evaluate quite carefully what we are doing with the practical work we do. Whereas before it might have been easy to put a piece of practical work into the course or a module and not really think about what it was achieving.

“I think if it is going to cost a lot of money and take up a huge amount of resources, you need to think really carefully whether you need it to be there and if there are alternatives that will achieve the same aims, such as going to CAL based or computer based approaches to the same piece of theory learning.

“If you just try to teach the techniques with the actual piece of kit then yes sure they actually have to do it, they have to turn valves and make readings and look at equipment, if that is what you want to teach them.

“But if you just want to generate some data that they can manipulate there are other ways of doing that, that might be as effective. So that is the approach, to carefully evaluate whether each thing that you are doing is essential to what you want to teach.”

Michelle Clarke: “I think I would look at it from the point of view of what are the skills you are trying to inculcate within them and is there an alternative way of doing it?

“For example if it’s generating numbers, rather than provide an understanding of the piece of equipment that’s generating the numbers, could you generate the numbers for them, explaining how that works and put it into context.

“How are you going to use these numbers in the wider environment? Then get them to design an experiment which uses that information in a meaningful way. At the end of the day you are not answering the same question but you are using that information in a more meaningful manner.”

Chris Barnard: “I would echo several of those comments. We are encountering exactly that and I suppose biology is fortunate in some ways that it’s the whole organism end of it, in that it allows you a fair amount of flexibility in how you can approach it, and flexible is what we have been.

“What we have tended to do in large numbers is get away entirely, because of the numbers problem, from illustrative practicals that go with lecture modules where you suddenly faced with 200 people at once who have to be given a Wednesday afternoon practical and gone towards tailor made practical skills modules which are often group based and are stretched out over a long period of time or run on a circus basis.

“But we have also gone over to a lot of web based approaches, particularly for example with teaching things like statistics and setting up quantitative hypothesis testing problems. Where students go away in their own time and can either deliver work to you directly by email, or turn up to a mass tutorial session where exemplars of work are given in on discs, where you then work through them with the whole class. So we have employed a number of things like that.”

Chris Barnard
(School of Biology)
Michèle Clarke
School of Geography
Kathy Simmons
Department of Mechanical, Materials & Manufacturing Engineering

Extracts from a panel discussion on teaching in practicals at the January 2004PGCHE Introductory Event. Produced January 2004.
This video was originally published as part of PESL’s Teaching at Nottingham collection.

Posted in Practicals and labs