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Developing Research Skills in First Year Human Biology

Mario and Eleanor
  • Eleanor Peirce and Mario Ricci
  • School of Medical Sciences, University of Adelaide

What We Wanted to Achieve

We wanted students to understand the writing and research skills they needed to develop by the end of their first year. How could we communicate our expectations, and give effective feedback, to a class of over a hundred students?

What We Wanted to Build On

When we had smaller numbers, we used ‘Portfolio’, a tool Eleanor designed in 1998, to identify the concepts and skills we wanted students to demonstrate in their assessment tasks. These included finding and critically analysing appropriate information, citing sources correctly, organising ideas and data, and adapting general concepts to fit specific contexts. Students negotiated with staff the tasks they would undertake to demonstrate these concepts and skills.

As student numbers rose, however, this approach became unworkable, so we introduced what Mario called ‘Competency Exercises’. These were a sequence of teacher-prescribed assessment tasks that would demonstrate the same skills. Students could still negotiate some aspects of the topics and assessments.

Introducing the RSD Framework

When we saw an early version of the Research Skill Development framework in 2004, we realised that it described exactly the processes we had been looking for. While the nature of our assessment hasn’t changed since we started using RSD—the competency exercises evolved into our current assessment tasks—RSD has pushed our thinking further. 

We’ve Had To …

  • clarify what we wanted students to be able to do.
  • modify our assessment tasks so that students could achieve specific objectives in each one.
  • decide how to communicate these objectives explicitly.
  • make RSD marking criteria context-specific, in language understandable to both students and markers.

Benefits of Using the RSD for Students

  • Their research skills in our course have improved.
  • They understand much more clearly what is expected of them.
  • They know exactly where they need to develop thanks to feedback.

Benefits for Lecturers

  • We’ve made our objectives and assessment tasks clearer, more specific and more focussed.
  • We can give feedback on assessment tasks more accurately and efficiently; we can give the same quality feedback with less writing, and faster.
  • We can get a much better idea of where our students are from a quick analysis of the RSD results than from a detailed analysis of standard marks.
  • We can easily match assessment tasks with course objectives, and course objectives with the University’s Graduate Attributes.

One of the biggest benefits…

It’s forced us to think about the expectations we’re putting on our students. What exactly is a Pass, a Credit, a Distinction?

Our grading process is much better reasoned now, and based on more transparent criteria.

Research Skill Development

Established October 2006

School of Education

6.22, 10 Pulteney Street
The University of Adelaide
SA 5005


Dr John Willison
T: +61 8 8313 3553

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