Elvira Mambetisaeva (Genetics, Evolution and Environment, Division of Biosciences)
The biggest challenge that university teachers faced during remote teaching forced by the COVID-19 pandemic is student engagement. In teaching science communication skills, student engagement and interaction with other students have been achieved by introduction of peer assessment, group work and a participation in a scientific debate. Working in small groups (3-4 students) during pre-class preparation for in-class presentations enabled students to interact with other students irrespective of their location. Throughout the term, the flipped classrooms were combined with the use of breakout rooms in the Teams and Zoom during synchronous sessions allowing students in small groups to collaborate and work with each other on the given science communication activity. Finally, the scientific debate enabled students to express openly their own opinions and hear views of other students. These approaches helped with student engagement in learning science communication skills during remote teaching and gained positive feedback from students.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us, university teachers around the world, to learn promptly how to deliver our teaching online. In a record time we came to know how to use different education platforms that rapidly became our “new norm” of teaching. We spent time and thinking on creating contents, online activities and resources that every student, no matter how remotely they are located, can learn. Here I am sharing my experience of teaching science communication skills to human genetics graduate students.
Why teaching science communication skills at university is important?
Science communication skills are vital skills for scientists as the nature of the job necessitates them to write articles, present their work in front of other scientists and collaborate with others to be successful. But these skills are also essential in many other professions. This is evident to me when our alumni who took different career paths than to becoming a scientist, acknowledged that among all skills, communication skills are the most essential in their everyday work. In fact, employers commonly complain that university graduates lack core skills including communications skills to succeed in the competitive job market.
Online teaching activities that helped me to engage my students
Online teaching created some challenges in engagement and motivation of students. Being located in a different country and not being able to see face-to-face tutors and students in the cohort, can demotivate some of students and feel being detached. In my online teaching of science communication skills, I used different engagement strategies: peer-review; small group work and collaboration, and giving opportunities to students to express their opinions and demonstrate their learning through discussions, participation in a scientific debate and presentations.
At the start of the course, each student was assigned to peer review the mock essay of other student. This task helps students to learn the essay marking criteria ahead of the essay writing summative assessment. Students are instructed to review and grade other student’s essay and provide feedback via Moodle. This activity helped them to learn from their peer’s writing about the topic and be critical and improve their own writing skills in their subsequent essay writing.
Small group work and collaboration
Collaboration is a powerful way to develop young people’s communication skills. Online teaching encouraged me to develop learning activities that enabled students to interact with each other through working in small groups on a given task. For these activities I used the flipped classroom approach and breakout rooms in the Teams. Clear instructions and creating online resources are essential to support these activities.
In the flipped classroom, students in a group of three are required to watch a pre-recorded lecture to learn about a specific topic related to human genetics, read online resources and go through a questionnaire to prepare their report. All groups would then present their reports at the synchronous online session followed by the class discussion. These activities encouraged students to speak out. Creating different groups for different learning activities enabled students to get know each other in their cohort.
Breakout rooms in the Teams were used for group work during synchronous sessions when after learning about a certain topic, students in groups were asked to discuss and re-write pieces in a certain style and then present their work in front of the class by sharing their screen.
Individual presentations and participation in a scientific debate
To give students an opportunity to develop further their science communication skills and assess what they have learned from the course, each student needed to give a live presentation in front of their tutors and class through summative assessments. To make these sessions more engaging, they were designed in the style of a scientific conference where students chaired sessions encouraging others to ask questions after each presentation.
Finally, students were invited to participate in a scientific debate on one of the contentious topics related to human genetics. During the debate a live polling tool Mentimeter was used enabling each student to contribute in the discussion. A Mentimeter helped to engage students: by using their computers or smartphones, they could give their responses that could be then seen in a straightforward way on the screen shared by their tutor.