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Using smart phones to help international students develop science communication skills

Creating video reports to collect and present data encouraged international foundation students to speak about their chemistry work and provided a new way of assessing it, says Dr Aga Kosinska

26 March 2019

For this initiative, international students taking the Chemistry module on the Undergraduate Preparatory Certificates (International Foundation) for Science & Engineering (UPCSE) used their mobile devices to produce video lab reports rather than a written scientific reports. The main goal was to develop international students’ oral presentation skills and give them an opportunity to work in a team. The first video lab report they produced was a formative type of assessment, and the second was a summative one. 

Why was the initiative introduced?

Students taking the UPCSE module have limited opportunities to discuss and present scientific phenomena orally. However, it is an essential skill to be able to talk about the science to peers and colleagues especially if one is not a native English speaker. We introduced this new approach to give our students the opportunity to practice speaking about their work to other people. In addition, it provided a different, technology enhanced method for the course teachers to assess students’ experimental work.

Another consideration was students’ growing attachment to their mobile phones, and the risk of being distracted by them during classes. For this initiative, we wanted to embrace technology in a positive way, and put it to good use.

Why is this approach different?  

Writing traditional, long reports can be a daunting and time-consuming task. Therefore, we were looking into novel methods of assessing students’ experimental outcomes. Video lab reports provide a new alternative way of presenting work and then assessing it. It embraces easily available modern technology, makes the task more fun and less daunting for international students, and helps them be more confident when speaking about their work.

How is this innovative approach implemented?

Each time we introduce this approach to a new cohort of students, we make sure they have the opportunity to try it out without their marks being affected (formative assessment). First of all they get an introductory training session in using ‘Movie Maker’ or ‘iMovie’ software, and they are then asked to work in pairs to make a video report about one of their experiments. At least one student from the pair has to have a video capable mobile phone. The students also attend a practical session about how to present their report once they have created it.  

This first video report is just used as a practice session, which we give feedback on, before they then create a second report, which is formally assessed as part of their course. 

Even though the approach is usually a much faster process than creating a traditional long written report, we have found that in some cases for our students, preparing a good quality video report has been equally time consuming. Overall, we allow about two weeks for the students to produce their video reports. 

Where did you get the inspiration from?

The team were aware of Undergraduate Chemistry students at other universities filming their experiments, but our initiative introduced the important element of using the video reports to help international students practice speaking about their scientific work, and improve their presentation skills.
 
Inspiration also came from a presentation by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Sir Harold Kroto. His potential Master’s students had to apply for places with video presentations rather than written documents, because of his view that video production was an essential skill for young scientists to acquire. 

What difference has it made? 

Producing the video reports has given students a different way of communicating experimental findings. Students can try something new, and technology-based, which can help them to improve their presentation skills, and which can be subsequently transferred across disciplines and used in the professional world.

What students said

We surveyed students on the course in 2017-2018. 

  • 52% said practicing their oral English skills was the most useful aspect of this approach to producing lab reports, 48% highlighted the teamwork aspect, and 44% highlighted the filmmaking aspect. 
  • 44% found the approach ‘very helpful’, 24% found it ‘extremely helpful’, and 8% said ‘somewhat helpful’. No students gave a negative response to this question. 

Here is what some of them said: 

We believe this form of lab reporting was helpful with our understanding of the experiment. It required us to be concise and logical, and let us incorporate visual aids, which allowed for our further comprehension of the content as visual learners.Lara Lembet & Heba Alharith, current UPCSE chemistry students
I found making the video reports ... helped us to remember the names and explanations of what we did in experiments and also to understand the logic behind each step. Tingjun Zhou, current BASC and former UPCSE student at UCL
The video lab reports … gave us an opportunity to present our results and interpretations in a new, interesting and engaging way … making the video reports took us out of our comfort zones, which was very challenging at first, but when we looked at the final reports, they were very rewarding to watch. Mohamad Abdullah, current Chemical Engineering and former UPCSE student at UCL


The team

These staff members are responsible for running the video report initiative for the UPCSE module: 

  • Dr Peter Bowman, UPCSE Admission Tutor, previously Chemistry Teaching Fellow 
  • Dr Deborah Gater, UPCSE Chemistry Teaching Fellow
  • Dr Aga Kosinska, UPCSE Senior Chemistry Teaching Fellow and Chemistry Coordinator
  • Paul Hogan ICT Coordinator CLIE 
  • Nigel Thompson EAP Tutor

What are your plans for the future?

The video lab reports are evaluated each year, and students’ feedback is used to improve the way the exercise is conducted. Recent feedback from students has indicated that they need to be able to plan and organise their time better in the lead up to producing their second, assessed video report. Therefore, next year we plan to start preparing students at least three weeks before the actual experimental work has to take place. 

What are your top five tips for someone wanting to do something similar?

  • Identify your reasons for using video-based assessments as an alternative to written ones
  • Prepare students early enough, especially in relation to the technical work they will need to do, as their IT skills may not be not as strong as you might expect
  • Have a clear and explicit approach to assessing their work
  • Include an opportunity for the students’ first video report to be just for practice, and only formally assess their second attempt
  • Be enthusiastic about seeing the video reports and hearing your students talking about the subject

How can your experience help others at UCL?

The UPCSE team can provide workshops or talks which would explain the advantages and challenges related to using video-based assignments, based on our experience. We feel that the approach could easily be adapted to various contexts other than lab reports and would be happy to speak to any colleagues who are interested about it. 

If you would like to find out more, please contact Aga Kosinska: a.kosinska@ucl.ac.uk