Transitioning students from laptop to lab

A close up image of pills of different sorts being sorted into jars by a person in a white coat with blue disposable gloves.

Transitioning pharmacy students back to lab-based learning in a pharmaceutical compounding unit

Pharmaceutical compounding refers to the process of combining, mixing, or altering ingredients to create a medication tailored to the needs of an individual patient (US Food and Drug Administration, 2022) and is a core competency in pharmacy (Pharmaceutical Society of Australia, 2016). University pharmacy programs need to be able to deliver graduates who can prepare and supply extemporaneously compounded medications safely and accurately in accordance with current legislation and guidelines (Australian Pharmacy Council, 2022).

At the University of Sydney, pharmaceutical compounding skills—namely, preparation of products such as oral mixtures, creams, lotions and ear drops, completion of associated documentation and calculations—are taught in the compulsory undergraduate unit PHAR3815 Pharmaceutical Skills and Dispensing A. Assessment focuses on achieving competence. Students must get demonstrate proficiency across all components from documentation to labels and final product of a dispensed product; This must be correct in its entirety and no partial marks are awarded). In 2022, all classes were held face-to-face with no remote learning options available. Students typically find this unit challenging as the focus on competency is a change from their previous assessment experiences. The prominence of face-to-face learning activities was also difficult for this years’ students, who, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, had spent their first two years of higher-education learning online. After such a long hiatus, direct action was needed to help transition students back to the lab. We introduced two new workshops whose pedagogical rationale and ultimate impact on the student learning experience I detail below.

How to succeed in dispensing

In Week 1 students complete the “How to Succeed in Dispensing” workshop. This workshop prepares them before they begin on any practical work. Working in small groups, students access

  • grading rubrics that are used for both weekly lab classes and exams
  • reference texts that they are expected to use both  in their summative assessments and in addressing questions that they will encounter in both the course and their future pharmacy practice (e.g. such as how to interpret directions on prescriptions and label dispensed products).

Using the above resources students practice marking other students’ products using the grading rubrics, which helps to develop the checking skills they will need as a practicing pharmacist and helps to consolidate their own learning as students appear to learn more from generating feedback for their peers (Nicol & McCallum, 2022). Finally, they practice and receive feedback on key skills (writing methods for compounded products and labels for dispensed medications) used in their summative written and practical exams. All workshop sessions were led by unit coordinators to help the teaching team forge connections with our students right from the start of semester.

Biggs’s concept of constructive alignment (Biggs, 2003) underpins the design of this workshop. Constructive alignment requires that learning outcomes are clearly articulated, assessments are designed to match outcomes and learning environments facilitate student achievement of outcomes. We had previously identified that students were unclear of the expectations for dispensing and the workshop aims to clarify this and support deeper approaches to learning by giving students the tools to reflect on and discuss their marks with demonstrators when they felt that their work was marked incorrectly. We also drew on key principles in the literature on transitioning to university (Briggs et al., 2012), such as that students value teacher approachability and receiving answers from teachers rather than support staff and enjoy learning through group interaction rather than formal lectures.

Practice mid-semester quiz workshop

The practice mid-semester quiz workshop is an example of assessment for learning where assessment is formative, and the design of the activity enables students to receive feedback that they can act upon (Jisc, 2022). Students completed a timed practice Canvas quiz of the same format as their summative mid-semester quiz and final exam, under exam conditions. After all students had completed their quiz, the tutor provided correct answers and the reason for these and students could ask questions of both the tutor and their peers.

These changes had a number of positive impacts. Students noted how helpful they found the workshops in both the USS and in conversations with teaching staff and appear to have greater understanding of resources such as grading rubrics. Compared to previous years, less students have contacted us to ask for marks to be reviewed and when they do, their queries are more specific and make reference to the grading rubric. We also saw improved exam results compared to 2021, with a higher average mark (for the mid-semester quiz 57% in 2021 and 62% in 2022 and final exam 58% in 2021 and 66% in 2022) and smaller proportion of students failing exams (for the mid semester quiz 30% in 2021 and 25% in 2022 and final exam 24% in 2021 and 5% in 2022).

Overall, utilising the principles of constructive alignment, assessment for learning and transitioning to university in the design of learning activities has positive impacts on the student learning experience and can help students to transition to new ways of learning and assessment.

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