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Why biology students and teachers value the E-learning skills platform

Students of the Biology minor course Molecular Design have successfully boosted their skills in collaboration, research and writing with the recently developed E-learning Skills Platform. The biology students and their teachers greatly value the initiative. ‘Sometimes I couldn’t believe what progress the students made,’ one of the teachers says.

Students welcomed the support

The students used the platform while working on an extensive research proposal, a process that most students struggle with due to a lack of skills and experience. At the end of the minor course, six students shared their experiences with the team that developed the Skills Platform (see box). Students unanimously appreciated the extra support the platform offered. For most, it was the first time designing and writing a research proposal. For each section of this proposal, students could use a template including example phrases to structure their thoughts and create a first draft. The students indicated this really helped to get an overview and made starting up much easier. ‘I found the templates super easy to work with, our team used all of them,’ one student mentioned. 

The skills platform

The E-learning Skills Platform was developed to help students improve their skills quickly and permanently. Although students have to write, collaborate and present a lot, they are not always specifically instructed how to do this. For example, how do you use an agenda during team meetings, what is the structure of a literature review, and how can you pitch your research proposal to an expert-panel? All this is explained in the platform, which is accessible to students throughout their entire study programme.

Illustration of set-up and content of the E-learning skills platform. (A) The content on the platform is divided across skill domains such as Writing, Presentation and Collaboration. Each domain contains several modules split into chapters. Students appreciate this splitting of information ‘because it made getting an overview and navigating to the relevant content easier’. Each chapter offers a theoretical background, a step-wise guide in the how-to and a checklist to check the product they are working on. (B) When working on a research proposal, students first learn about the structure of a proposal and what each section typically contains. Interactive visuals make the learning experience ‘more enjoyable because they break up the text and are nice to look at and click through’.

Steep learning curve

The learning curve of the course was steep according to one of the students: ‘In the beginning, we were new to the process of developing and writing a proposal. The guidelines and explanations of the skills platform really helped us understand what we needed to do. During the later rounds, we got more confident and only used the platform to check whether we were still on the right track.’

The structure of the chapters in the platform appears to meet different students’ preferences. Some started by reading the theory and then followed the how-to step-by-step. A student with a little more writing experience admitted that he often started writing right away but then ‘used the checklist to review his work and go back to the theory or how-to if she saw that he missed something.’

Enthusiastic teachers

Biology teachers Marcel Schaaf and Dennis Claessen contacted the skills team for support with their re-designed minor course. During monthly short meetings, the skills team offered advice on how to effectively implement suitable skill modules. ‘It is an incredible platform’, Claessen and Schaaf said when they first browsed through the platform and selected modules. They became even more positive after seeing the products the students delivered. Schaaf noticed they made big leaps forward and presented a very decent and coherent final research proposal: ‘Sometimes I couldn’t believe my eyes,’ said Schaaf.

Schaaf and Claessen implemented the skill modules in multiple ways. They introduced the modules during their introduction lectures and advised students to go through them. After grading the assignments, they pointed out some skill modules for the students to revisit so that they could increase the quality of their product(s). With the new language module, the teachers could easily explain to the students how to improve the writing of their paragraphs. Schaaf: ‘I could literally quote from the theory about paragraphs - A paragraph consists of two or more sentences that together focus around one unit of thought or point -, since it was exactly what most teams needed to improve after their first draft.’

Support for language skills. (A) In this domain, students learn (or refresh) what to keep in mind for all types of academic communication. Not only do they practice matching their text or presentation to their audience and purpose, they also learn how to reference their sources properly and how to train their (English) language skills on different levels of complexity. (B) Different types of paragraphs call for different structures and transition terms in order to bring a point across. Students learn how to improve the flow of their text by building professional paragraphs.

Schaaf: ‘I really felt like we taught our students something without increasing my own workload. The modules explained exactly what was needed to incorporate into our feedback.’ Referring to the skill modules was not only convenient for the teachers, but also for the students: ‘The feedback we received was really helpful, because you knew exactly what to do in order to improve,’ one of them explained.

Future implementation in more courses

Last year, the Skills Platform was successfully implemented for the first time in the bachelor’s programme Biopharmaceutical Sciences. The Institute of Biology (IBL) was the first institute to follow. IBL confirmed that it will definitely incorporate the skill platform in other BSc and MSc courses after this first success ‘When using the platform, students can train or refresh their skills without too much extra workload for the teacher’, says Director of Education Han de Winde. ‘For the Biology Minor course Molecular Design we have seen that students that actively used the recommended skill modules obtained significantly higher grades for their final assessment.’

Want to learn how the platform can support your teaching? Sign up for an online demonstration session!

The skills team organises live demo sessions of the platform on the dates listed below. Sign up by using the online registration form.

11 March 10.00-11.00 2021

16 March 15.00 - 16.00 2021

23 March 10.00 - 11.00 2021

1 April 14.00 - 15.00 2021

If you want to start using the skills platform immediately, do not hesitate to send an e-mail to the Skills Team.

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