Friday, 5 February 2016

An example of increased student engagement through ‘Student Choice’ in the School of Life Sciences

The need for change

Keele University has focussed on differentiating itself in its market sector by introducing a ‘distinctive’ element to the curriculum: a framework that articulates the opportunities for an individual to design their own student experience:

Every student is encouraged to develop their own knowledge, skills and attitudes in order to make a difference to their own world – and create a ‘personalised learning experience’ (Campbell, et al., 2007) (Department for Education and Skills, 2004). However, when it comes to study skills and professional development sessions we, as academics, identify the needs of students through our own experience of student problems – these might be common mistakes in written assignments, visible difficulties in class discussions, or the personal assessment of capabilities during coaching sessions.

In Biochemistry & Biomedical Science we decided to turn things around and let the students drive their own development!

Research suggests that significant benefits are realised if students are in control of their own destiny – these are seen as improvements in ‘general well-being, behaviour and values, and academic achievement’ (Kohn, 1993). These finding are echoed in the work of Kay & LeSage (2009) who looked closely at the relationship between personalisation and achievement. Streeting & Wise (2009) also suggest that student engagement will follow if students are actively involved in the decision-making process, invited to help in curriculum design and given some control over the learning environment.

As teachers, the task at hand is to establish ways of achieving student engagement (the motivation, self-discipline and reflection that leads to a deeper understanding) when we are faced with large groups of diverse students with differing interests, abilities and needs.

We decided to try to tailor a learning intervention in the form of a skills conference.

A different approach

In the first instance we created a ‘conference style’ matrix of study skills sessions and we asked students to select which sessions they would like to attend. The Google booking form (see Fig 1) gave us a comprehensive picture of which students had replied and how many students were booked in to each session. We asked students to assemble in a main room for an opening and introductory few minutes before they then divided and made their way to their own programmes of study. This created a real buzz around the event and there was a lot of discussion between students about what they had chosen and why. The feedback from the conference was extremely encouraging. Students appreciated the choice element and did feel in control of their study.

Encouraged by the initial success, we ventured further into the choice element for the Year 2 students! In this case we sent out a questionnaire asking the students what they would like to see on offer in a Year 2 skills conference so that they could drive what was on offer. The responses that we received were extremely helpful (see Fig 2). They allowed us to tailor inputs to meet specific requests and ensure that all needs were catered for (see Fig 3).

It was not all plain sailing as you can imagine. Students need to be encouraged to book onto the sessions, and constantly reminded that this was important! Questionnaires needed to be followed up, and the session bookings were not entirely reliable since some students did not book in time or changed their minds on the day! However, the end result in terms of engagement far outweighed any difficulties experienced.

Figure 1: Biochemistry & Biomedical Sciences (Year 1) - Skills Conference

Figure 2: Skills Conference Content- Student Requests

Year 2 Conference Outline

Figure 3: Biochemistry & Biomedical Sciences (Year 2) - Skills Conference

How did we do?

The feedback that we received was very rewarding. The comments were reflective and indicated a deep level of engagement with the session content:

“I will start to practice now on the online (psychometric) tests and find more volunteer work.” “I will present myself better at the future interviews.”

“I will identify more of the transferable skills and state them in my CV. I will make my CV more specific.”

“I will analyse the situations I go through and really think about the skills I gain and how they can help me in the future.”

“… the KUSP - it’s been on my mind and I'm happy I've got more info and begun it.”

“It has kicked me in to gear to start the KUSP as I have been putting it off for a while, also, informing me that I need to start looking at internships.”

And the best comment to receive after trialling this approach was:

“I found picking the courses most relevant to me made it more interesting.”

A student-driven model for success

The two skills conferences now form the foundation blocks to an integrated development programme that ends with a student-led conference for Biochemistry In Practice students in their third year (see Fig 4).

Figure 4: Biochemistry & Biomedical Science Transferrable Skills Development


Campbell, R. J. et al., 2007. Personalised Learning: Ambiguities in theory and practice. British Journal of Educational Studies, pp. 135-154.

Department for Education and Skills, 2004. A National Conversation about Personalised Learning, Nottingham: DfES Publications.

Kay, R. & LeSage, A., 2009. Examining the benefits and challenges of using audience response systems: A review of the literature. Computers & Education, Volume 53, pp. 819-827.

Kohn, A., 1993. Choice for Children - Why and how to let students decide. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 20 July 2015].

Streeting, W. & Wise, G., 2009. Rethinking the values of higher education - consumption, partnership, community?, Gloucester: The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.

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