Design of an enquiry-based ‘Practical Only’ course for the teaching of basis skills in first year Biology

G.K. Ellem, R.H. Dunstan, R.J. Tayler, E.A. McLaughlin, B. Nixon, J.W. Patrick, C.E. Offler, G.R. MacFarlane


First year Biology teaching at the Callaghan Campus of the University of Newcastle has undergone a significant reorganisation in 2006. The rearrangement was conducted with the aims of increasing flexible delivery, improving student learning, reducing overall teaching effort, targeting teaching effort to biology majors and standardising course delivery throughout the university campuses. Key to the reorganisation has been the separation of the practical and lecture components of first year into distinctly separate courses. The practical course runs only in semester 2 and is compulsory for students that intend to graduate with a major in biology. Students that do not intend to continue their biology studies past 1st year are not required nor expected to enrol in the course.

Separation of the courses has allowed a renewed focus on basis skills including laboratory and field techniques, the scientific method and practice, report writing and personal interaction. In this paper we present the design of this practical course and explain the process and logic we have used in its construction. Skill acquisition is situated in authentic learning contexts, employing the University campus as a unifying theme. Through an enquiry- based approach, students learn how to think as scientists, posing and testing questions rather than ‘doing the experiment’. The process of building and reinforcing skills (scaffolded learning) and the use of assessment & peer interaction to facilitate the learning process is discussed.

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