It’s a common problem that faces many course coordinators, laboratory class demonstrators and tutors – students being unprepared for practical classes. One approach to address this is to develop compulsory interactive modules that prepare students for classes.

Students are typically given pre-class material in their manuals to prepare before coming to their practical sessions, along with a quick introduction to the topic and requirements by their demonstrator. However due to some students not reading or listening to the material, demonstrators are still met with questions regarding the same information and avoidable health and safety risks can become an issue.

To combat this problem, in the UNSW Sydney Pharmacology Department a team comprised of Dr Angela Finch, Dr Nicole Jones, Dr Trudie Binder, Mrs Ghada Hanna, Associate Professor Lu Liu and Dr Greg Smith developed a series of Smart Sparrow modules for their practical classes. The modules were designed to be completed prior to coming to class and students were required to achieve 100% in at least one attempt of each module.

The online lessons are composed of videos explaining the requirements and techniques associated with the experiment. This is followed by questions to assess student knowledge of the required Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), Health and Safety issues, calculations and procedures.

Example questions in the compulsory pre-practical class modules

Since the “flipped class” modules have been in place, classes start on time, with students adequately prepared. Students are identified when they arrive at the class having not completed the modules thanks to the lesson analytics. These students are directed to complete the module prior to starting work. This approach has improved student understanding of experimental procedures as well as the underlying theory behind the practicals. Pleasingly for both the students and their teachers, it has been reported that practical classes that previous over ran their time slot are now finishing on time.

The last word belongs to the students:

I enjoyed the videos which showed us what to expect in the labs. I found it more helpful than the traditional written method.
Pharmacology student, 2014

This work has been presented at local teaching and learning conferences (poster below) and was awarded a UNSW Vice Chancellor’s Award for Contributions to Student Learning in 2016.