Assessing practical laboratory skills in undergraduate molecular biology courses

  • Hunt L
  • Koenders A
  • Gynnild V
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Abstract

ISSN: 0260-2938 (Print) 1469-297X (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/caeh20 This study explored a new strategy of assessing laboratory skills in a molecular biology course to improve: student effort in preparation for and participation in laboratory work; valid evaluation of learning outcomes; and students' employ-ment prospects through provision of evidence of their skills. Previously, assess-ment was based on written laboratory reports and examinations, not on the demonstration of practical skills per se. This action research project involved altering the assessment design so that a greater proportion of the marks was allocated to active participation and learning in the laboratory, partially replacing a single examination with direct observation of student participation and learn-ing over a prolonged period of weekly laboratory sessions. We ascertained staff and students' perceptions of the new assessment processes by means of a Likert scale questionnaire, student focus group and individual staff interviews. Overall, students and staff evaluated the new assessment structure positively, citing fair-ness, authenticity and reward for effort. Results also revealed the need for spe-cific training of staff in this form of assessment and indicated staff–student ratios made assessment burdensome. Four out of five students reported that an increased awareness of the importance of practical laboratory skills stimulated them to greater efforts to achieve. Introduction This study reports on the relative merits of performance assessment of laboratory skills in a second-year cellular and molecular biology undergraduate course. The study was conducted in two semesters over a two-year period. Traditionally, students of biological sciences at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia, were assessed on their laboratory work by reports, write-ups, assignments and examinations which were mostly prepared outside of laboratory sessions. Reports and write-ups could include as many as 10 individual pieces of work, which, together, were normally worth some 30% of total marks. Students reported that this imposed a large workload for little reward. Further, traditional modes of assessment failed to address adequately the development of practical laboratory skills considered to be useful by employers. The action research project was based on an intervention that increased the focus on

Author-supplied keywords

  • action research
  • authentic assessment
  • laboratory skills
  • molecular biology
  • performance assessment
  • theory/practice

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