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Debbie Meakin's Design Narrative - An approach to enabling returning to learn adults work with biochemistry

An example of how a subject was broken down to aid understanding. Worksheets used to aid learning of carbohydrate structure.

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Deborah Meakin
19 April 2015

Context: Delivering biochemistry to adults who are returning to learn and have had no recent science teaching (Or often cannot remember any). 

Using conventional face to face delivery that had been used for students more recently progressing from education (school) was not effective and increased anxiety, therefore the learning opportunity for the students.  I had covered the module I was teaching, taking it over from another staff member, but had the opportunity to rethink it as the course was being revalidated.  The difficulties were in this first year of delivery.


Objectives: I needed to make the material more accessible.

Students needed to be able to use concepts such as atomic bonding and understand how simple carbohydrates are formed and then combine to make more complex carbohydrates.  Once the idea is understood, another concept needs to be taken on board.  Discriminating between what can be left and what still needs to be used in the next stage of understanding is key. From the subject point of view, students finally needed to know how the bigger carbohydrates are used in organisms (plant and animals) both structurally and functionally.


Actions taken: I ultimately created a module book with all the materials in, including those I had used for some time and had been created by colleagues.  On the way I introduced worksheets which provided outline notes.  I also brought in interactivity (completing the sheets in class) and ‘take home’ science ideas, so that early practical work we did could be repeated at home in the kitchen (for example, with water and glasses).  Also the principle of relating the molecules to known substances, such as food in diets, eg potatoes was used extensively.

The material presented the subject in a structured step-wise progression. For one particular area, on carbohydrates I produced a series of sheets, which had basic material on them (a skeleton of the structure of glucose, as a straight chain molecule) and which students (and I) completed as I explained the structure and referred back to previous work (atomic bonding using sweets and cocktail sticks).  There were a series of sheets which went through the straight and ring structure of glucose, and then how it makes bonds with other molecules.


Outcomes and results:  Students seemed to be able to accept the concepts more readily.  The activity of using the sheets presented less questions and confusion.  Students worked with the material more efficiently and were then able to engage with the standard information such as text-books more readily subsequently.  The approach seemed to be more accessible.

I was able to spend more time on aspects that were key to their assessment, also.


Unexpectedly, colleagues I shared the approach with did not always see it as useful.  The water practicals (which were used as an introduction to the lab) were one surprising example of this.


Meeting objectives:  The objectives were met and the sessions went much more smoothly.


Reflections:   Making the material more accessible and framing it in every day terms, rather than using scientific terminology very heavily from the start was a good approach.  I adapted material that I had found which has been used in enthusing children about science as well as adding a few ideas of my own.

The particular issue with these students and the material was that it needed to be covered early in the programme which was at a time when the students were anxious about returning to learn as well as coping with the workload; adding difficult concepts and terminology just added to the mix.

I presented the material in a way I understood it, as not all concepts needed to be remembered completely at each stage.  It also meant trying something different, which did not appear to be in the comfort zone of some of my colleagues.

Using this approach had other benefits as it fostered trust with the students to work with new ideas later on in the course and gave them confidence to try new things.

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