Space for Learning

| 06 May 2020

Education Focussed (EF) academic Peter Neal describes how building space into a course allows students to receive timely feedback that they can integrate into their practice and consolidate what they have learnt.

This article was published in the March issue of the Engineering Education Newsletter. Please subscribe here.

CEIC3007 “Chemical Engineering Lab B” was a new course in 2019, intended to expose students to chemical engineering unit operations (processes that would be used in a chemical plant, like distillation columns, membranes and so on). Students get practical experience operating different processes so they have an opportunity to experience for themselves what they learn about in lectures.

At a higher level, students are developing their skills in enquiry-based learning. The goal is to get them to a stage of guided inquiry where they can be provided with an aim or a problem and a small amount of guidance as to how to design an experiment, and then can be left largely to their own devices to design the experiment and come up with an explanation.

Because the course was new in 2019, it was designed specifically for ten week terms. Often, in Chemical Engineering labs, students work through pre-prepared experiments, and cover a lot of material. This class takes a different approach, deliberately including just three experiments over the term, even though there is technically time for at least four. The time allowed for each experiment (two 4 hour labs) is fairly generous. This was also a deliberate choice: a four hour lab session gives students time to recover if they make a mistake.

Students present an experimental plan at the beginning of the first 4 hour lab session. Each time, they have to write a proposal, explaining how they will do the experiment over two weeks, what resources they’ll need, what measurements they’ll take, and providing a Gantt chart. During the first week of the experiment students might screen options, while in the second week they might pursue one of their ideas to completion. Students have the opportunity to learn from the first week and repeat it in the second week, if necessary, fixing mistakes that were made. Because each experiment requires the same process but with a slightly different flavour, students also have the opportunity to learn from process mistakes and improve from one experiment to the next.

Each of the three experiments spans two weeks, and in between there is a week off during which students turn in a report, and instead of the lab class, they have a mentoring session with demonstrators, who go through their reports and give feedback in person. The demonstrators have about 24 hours to look at a maximum of 8 reports before the mentoring session. This allows students to spend time in the lab, then have time for reflection and writing. Importantly, they get the feedback from their demonstrator within a few days of submitting their report, and before they have started their next experiment.

Being able to get feedback and use it to prepare for the next experiment means that students come into the next lab with a much more focussed agenda. One online lesson (30 min) before each experiment helps to get them started on the experiment, priming them to do their own research.

Peter also surveyed students after each experiment to get a sense of how things were going in real time, rather than waiting until the end of the term. This allowed him to modify the course in response to pain points, and since the surveys were not anonymous, he could intervene directly to try to help resolve any problems.

The course ends with seminar presentations in which students are required to reflect on all three experiments and the entire process. While some students “reflected” on a low, operational, level, many were able to recognise their own failings and improvement over time, giving examples of where they had implemented what they’d learnt. One team noted that the course is much like a workplace, with internal deadlines and the need to liaise with tech staff, teaching staff, and other student groups, all of whom perform different roles in the process.

The students’ reflections showed that they are able to learn more effectively because of the extra space built into this course. The first experiment was mostly confusion. If the course charged ahead with new material each week, it might have stayed that way. Instead, the students got more efficient with each iteration of the experiments, getting a clearer picture of what they needed to do, what resources they might need and what questions they needed to ask. By the third time around, students were no longer confused, and were able to approach the task with a clear focus.


Dr Neal had run two workshops on the topics Microsoft Forms: For marking presentations and poster sessions (with or without Power Automate)’, and 'Using Turnitin'. Please access his useful presentations here and here. You can catch up on other workshops and webinars hosted by our EFs on our dedicated Workshops on Online Teaching page.