Rethinking practical assessment in first year Biology

Fiona Bird


Practical work is viewed as an essential component of studying the natural sciences. The “hands on” approach has the potential to stimulate student interest in the subject matter, teach laboratory skills, enhance the learning of knowledge, give insight into the scientific method and develop scientific attitudes such as objectivity (Gorst and Lee 2005). Practical work gives students the opportunity to learn and practice all the activities involved in working in their profession (Meester and Maskill 1995). Practical classes in the First Year Biology unit Animal Diversity, Ecology and Behaviour offer students an opportunity to handle preserved specimens of animals and to see external and internal structures of animals firsthand. The practical exercises allow students to review the lecture content and to fully understand the function of the various structures. Students are arranged in benches (small groups) which gives them the opportunity to discuss the concepts together. Teaching staff are available to identify structures and help students interpret what they see in terms of function. The practical classes are regarded by many students as the highlight of the unit.

A decline in marks and pass rates in recent years has prompted this review. The average final mark for the unit has declined by 10% and overall pass rate has decreased by 23%. Students are performing particularly poorly on the practical examination, with only 30% of the class passing the examination in 2005. Possible reasons for the decline may include a change in academic ability of students, fewer students studying Biology in Year 11 & 12, a lack of aims and objectives stated for the practical course and problems with assessment. The aim of this project was to explore these themes, evaluate the current assessment scheme of the practical course and make recommendations that will improve student learning outcomes.

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