Introducing a 7-day Bridging Programme to Deepen Dental Residents’ Learning of Oral Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Biology


TAN Kai Soo
Faculty of Dentistry

Recommended Citation:
K.S. Tan (2016). Introducing a 7-day bridging programme to deepen dental residents’ learning of oral microbiology, immunology, and molecular biology. CDTL Brief, 19(1), 10-14.

In the Faculty of Dentistry at the National University of Singapore, the residency programmes are designed to provide specialty training for its postgraduate students in the various clinical disciplines. The curriculum includes a combination of clinical training, didactics which include basic oral sciences, and a research project. This emphasis on the integration of clinical dentistry with oral sciences is particularly apparent in the disciplines of endodontics and periodontics which are dental specialties pertaining to the treatment of dental pulp and gum problems respectively.

Diseases of the dental pulp and gums arise primarily from bacterial infections and are the result of subsequent inflammation. As such, the principles and techniques of oral microbiology, immunology and molecular biology are widely used in current dental research literature to analyse the roles and mechanisms of oral bacteria and immune response in root canal and gum infections. Ideally, residents who complete the Master of Dental Surgery (MDS) programme should have sufficient knowledge of oral microbiology, immunology, and molecular biology to effectively critique advanced dental research literature. With this knowledge, they would be more effective in analysing and solving problems in clinical settings.

Pre-existing Curriculum
Prior to the introduction of the bridging programme, there was a lack of a structured curriculum to comprehensively address oral microbiology, immunology and molecular biology for residents taking the MDS programme. It has been noted that residents tend to have only a superficial knowledge and understanding of these topics as they were not covered in great depth in the undergraduate dental curriculum. Hence, a common challenge educators encounter in teaching the MDS programme is that residents struggle to understand and critique dental literature effectively due to this knowledge gap in the oral sciences.

Introduction of the 7-day Bridging Programme to Residents
With reference to Bloom’s taxonomy of learning domains (Krathwohl, 2002), the MDS programme was designed mainly to address the cognitive domain, in particular to equip residents with a deeper knowledge and understanding of the aetiology of these diseases. In the process, they experience a progression of learning from acquisition of core knowledge to understanding and application to the respective discipline. The educational philosophy behind this course is to provide the residents with a good foundation in these concepts, such that they become confident enough to critique and evaluate research, which would enable them to be more effective in solving treatment challenges they encounter with patients. They should also be able to effectively seek out and analyse currently available knowledge from the existing literature, and evaluate the validity and applicability of what they find. The ultimate goal is to develop residents to become dynamic clinicians who can create and innovate novel strategies for patient care.

Hence, in order to fill the knowledge gap in the pre-existing MDS curriculum and deepen residents’ knowledge and understanding of oral microbiology, immunology and molecular biology, an intensive 7-day bridging programme consisting of full-day seminars and hands-on workshops was introduced in Academic Year (AY) 2012. The bridging programme aims to enable students to achieve the following:

  1. Apply the knowledge of oral microbiology, immunology and molecular biology covered during the seminars to execute the exercises during the hands-on workshops.
  2. Appraise advantages and limitations of experimental techniques to answer specific research questions.
  3. Design and execute experimental protocols for their MDS research dissertation.
  4. Relate key principles learnt during the bridging programme to evaluate and critique current literature relating to their clinical practice.

The rationale for incorporating a hands-on workshop component was to allow residents to appreciate the advantages and limitations of research techniques, instead of merely equipping them with proficiency in laboratory techniques. It was hoped that gaining such competencies would enable them to evaluate data and conclusions in the literature, and compare the different methodologies in experimental design. For example, they should be able to recognise that different bacteria have different growth rates, culture conditions and nutritional requirements; hence, changes in experimental conditions such as media, supplements and culture incubation period can yield different data and conclusions in a paper.

The bridging programme has been held annually for Year 2 endodontics and periodontics residents since its inaugural launch in AY2012. A total of 8 residents participated in the first run of this bridging programme in AY2012. Each day consisted of a 2-hour seminar session comprising didactic lectures followed by question and answer sessions, and a 6-hour hands-on workshop session in the laboratory (see Table 1).   

Table 1.
Topics Covered During the 7-day Bridging ProgrammeTKStable1

A 20-page instructional handout was also prepared to guide the residents through the laboratory work. The concepts taught during the seminars were further demonstrated during the hands–on workshop sessions. For instance, one of the seminar topics covered host response¹, while in the workshop, the residents carried out various immunoassays² to detect cytokines typically produced during inflammation.

Challenges Encountered
The main challenge encountered while planning the bridging programme was designing the syllabus and deciding the content to be covered in the seminar and workshop sessions. The topics to be included in this programme would need to bridge the gap between what was taught in the microbiology and immunology, periodontology, and endodontology modules offered in the dental undergraduate curriculum, and the in-depth knowledge residents require to better understand the advanced literature in their specialties. To determine the starting level of knowledge residents already possess and identify topics that would require more in-depth instruction, reviews of related dental undergraduate modules were carried out in consultation with colleagues teaching the topics. The subject matter was carefully scaffolded to enhance residents’ learning. For example, immunology concepts were presented to the residents through illustrations of the disease process in a sequential manner.

At the beginning of the bridging programme, some of the residents came in with the preconceived notion that being clinicians, learning these scientific concepts would not be applicable to them, thus affecting their level of participation and engagement. As such, special effort was made to always relate the concepts taught with relevant examples which highlight their clinical significance while giving the residents an appreciation of the experimental process. The hands-on activities were also geared towards engaging the residents’ curiosity, for example, by having them identify oral bacteria from plaque samples freshly collected by the residents themselves.

Another challenge involved the practicalities of planning and allocating available equipment, laboratory space, and resources to carry out the workshop sessions. The workshops were conducted in a working oral microbiology research laboratory, and the schedule for the bridging programme had to be carefully planned to accommodate the workshops without interrupting the routine work of other laboratory users. The laboratory also faced working space constraints due to the fact that it is not a dedicated teaching laboratory. To ensure the smooth execution of the workshops, all experiments had to be optimised and tested prior to the commencement of the bridging programme.

Evaluating the Impact of the Bridging Programme in its First Year
We evaluated the effectiveness of the bridging programme by conducting a survey in which we collected and analysed student feedback. The survey consisted of a quantitative component where the residents indicated the usefulness of the seminars and workshops on a 5-point scale, ranging from “very positive” to “very negative”, and a qualitative component which consisted of 3 short questions where they indicated what they liked or disliked about the bridging programme, as well as suggestions for further improvements.

All 8 residents who participated in the first run of the bridging programme in AY2012 responded to the feedback exercise. The quantitative feedback they provided for all 7 seminar sessions and 6 workshop topics was “very positive”. The presentation style of the seminars was found to be “clear and succinct”, with “good and sufficient content”, and allowed “easy understanding of complicated concepts”. In terms of qualitative feedback, they found the seminar topics to be “beneficial” and “not taught before elsewhere”. According to the residents, the hands-on session allowed them to “appreciate the methods used in literature and enhanced understanding”. The workshop sessions were also regarded to be “a very important complement to the seminars”. A particularly useful suggestion to improve the bridging programme was “to incorporate a literature discussion session” which would help the educators and residents consolidate the content covered during the seminars and workshop sessions.

Incorporating Journal Club Sessions
Based on feedback from the first cohort, subsequent iterations of the bridging programme were modified to include a Journal Club session where participants read and discussed carefully selected journal articles on topics related to the course. This was important for relating what was discussed during the Journal Club with the intended learning outcomes of the MDS programme, in particular training participants to critique current literature. However, this had to be done within the given time constraints. To accommodate this new component, the introductory seminar sessions on “A Review of Basic Microbiology” and “Bacterial Virulence” were condensed from AY2013 onwards. The quantitative feedback (n=16) for the Journal Club session since its introduction has ranged from “positive” (19%) to “very positive” (81%). The following qualitative feedback, obtained from the AY2013-2015 resident cohorts who participated in the bridging programme, reflects what has been achieved using the combined approach of seminars, workshops and the Journal Club sessions.

  • “The lectures are carried out systemically to gradually allow us to digest and understand the topics.”
  • “The seminars covered relevant topics that are useful towards our understanding of our specialty. Enhances our knowledge of the techniques that were used in research papers and allows us to translate this knowledge into our research thesis.”
  • “The seminars were very informative and well-taught. Delivery is clear and topics covered enabled us to understand the papers better.”
  • “Comprehensive teaching, relevance to clinical dentistry especially through articles discussed during [the] Journal Club”.
  • “Journal club consolidated the content learnt. Workshops are useful to actually give a feel of what is going on.”
  • “I enjoyed the hands on workshop on DNA methods because it helped me to appreciate the hard work and limitations of the methods. I also better understood the subsequent papers.”

Planning Ahead
Given the rapid pace of research, one of the main challenges to anticipate when it comes to running this 7-day bridging programme in the future would be ensuring that the programme design and content are up-to-date in order to keep pace with changes in undergraduate and postgraduate dental curricula, new techniques, and emerging research. Based on analysis of the student feedback,  the majority of the residents who have attended the bridging programme so far have suggested that it could be offered earlier in their postgraduate curriculum, for example during their first year. This is so that residents can reap the programme’s learning benefits from the earliest possible stage. However, to successfully achieve the learning outcomes, the programme’s content will need to be customised accordingly to fit their baseline level of knowledge. Ultimately, it is hoped that through this bridging programme, postgraduate dental students reading the MDS programme would be equipped with the necessary skills to become dental clinicians who are able to understand, critique and make use of new knowledge for the improved care for their patients.

The author would like to thank Associate Professor Lim Lum Peng, Ms Liew Shin Dee, and Mr Alan Soong for their valuable input.


  1. According to Genco (1992), host responses, which are primarily directed to “defending the host against fulminating infections, also likely result in some of the local tissue destruction that we know as periodontal disease” (p. 338).
  2. They refer to chemical tests used to “detect or quantify a specific substance, the analyte, in a blood or body fluid sample, using an immunological reaction” (Encyclopaedia of Surgery, n.d.).

Genco, R.J. (1992). Host responses in periodontal diseases: Current concepts. Journal of Periodontology, 63(4), 338-355.

Encyclopaedia of Surgery (n.d.). Retrieved from

Krathwohl, D.R. (2002). A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An overview. Theory Into Practice, 41(4), 212‐218. Retrieved from

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About the Author
Dr Tan Kai Soo
teaches oral biology, endodontic and periodontal microbiology and molecular biology to undergraduate and postgraduate dental students. She has a keen interest in exploring new ways to enhance dental students’ learning of oral sciences, equipping them to be well-rounded dental practitioners.



Students’ Perceptions of the Use of the Virtual Patient Record (VPR) App for Pharmacy Education


Kevin Yi-Lwern YAP
Department of Pharmacy

Recommended Citation:
K.Y.L. Yap (2016). Students’ perceptions of the use of the Virtual Patient Record (VPR) app for pharmacy education. CDTL Brief, 19(1), 15-19.

In 2009, the Obama administration passed the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act, committing up to $27 billion worth of incentive payments to clinicians and hospitals to encourage greater adoption and use of electronic health records (EHRs) (Blumenthal & Tavenner, 2010). Although the benefits of EHRs—increased completeness and accuracy of patient information, better clinical decision support and electronic prescribing, and greater medical practice efficiency—have been well-documented (Menachemi & Collum, 2011; Clay, 2012;, 2015), the adoption and acceptance of EHR technology in clinical pharmacy practice has been poor (Li, Land, Ray, & Chattopadhyaya, 2010). One reason could be that the implementation of EHRs disrupts the usual workflow processes in clinical environments, and many pharmacists had difficulty extracting relevant and accurate patient information from the EHR systems (Wang & Huang, 2012). This unfamiliarity with EHR systems could be attributed to the pharmacists not being trained to use the systems when they were students (Guile & Ahamed, 2011). During a review of the pharmacy practice curriculum conducted in the Department of Pharmacy in July 2012, the faculty felt that there was a need to expose students to the basic workings of an EHR system and the types of patient- and drug-related information it contains. Such exposure would address the learning gaps observed, and the information retrieved from the EHR system would be relevant for patient counselling and dispensing, which would ultimately ensure undergraduate pharmacy students make a smoother transition towards clinical practice. With smartphone technology gaining acceptance and increasingly being adopted by students, mobile applications (apps) could be a potentially viable and authentic learning platform for our pharmacy students to familiarise themselves with the workings of EHR systems. Although there are apps available in the Apple iTunes and Google Play stores which have been developed as educational tools for healthcare students, none of them contain EHR features (Mosa, Yoo, & Sheets, 2012; Handel, 2011).

This pilot study aims to determine the perceptions of a group of Year 4 (final year) pharmacy undergraduates on the usefulness of a virtual patient record (VPR) mobile app prototype, developed as a tool to support their learning. The VPR mobile app serves to educate students on the types of patient health information (PHI) available from EHRs to supplement their pharmacy practice curriculum.

Creating the VPR Mobile App Prototype
The VPR mobile app prototype consists of two core features, the “Patient Health Records (PHR)” and “Case Questions”, as well as two supporting features, “Statutes” and “Useful Links” (see Figure 1). Fictional patient records containing the PHI were incorporated into the PHR feature. The types of PHI were categorised into “Social Data”, “Medical History”, “Prescription History”, and “Lab Data”, while the “Case Questions” feature contained clinical case scenarios. Web links to the governmental statutes of Singapore (e.g. the Medicines Act, the Poisons Act, and the Misuse of Drugs Act) were included in the “Statutes” feature. Meanwhile, web links to other professional websites (e.g. Singapore Pharmacy Council, Pharmaceutical Society of Singapore, and the Department of Pharmacy, NUS) were incorporated within the “Useful Links” feature.

Figure 1.
Graphical user interface of the VPR mobile app prototype, as seen on the Samsung Galaxy Tab.

Development process
The graphical user interface of the VPR mobile app prototype was conceptualised on storyboards using Microsoft PowerPoint 2013, from which an Android version of the app was created. Mock patient records¹ created for training purposes were uploaded into a local backend database and integrated into the app’s PHR feature to simulate an EHR. The app was installed locally on two Samsung Galaxy Tab devices for the pilot study.

Study Design
The VPR mobile app prototype was used within a Year 4 undergraduate pharmacy practice module for 4 weeks from March to April 2013. Classes were held once every week where students had to participate in mock counselling sessions, where they engaged in one-to-one role play which mimicked real-life patient encounters. They then had to use the app to solve these clinical cases. Following the role play, students had to complete an online survey in which they had to indicate their perceptions of the app’s usefulness for pharmacy education, and its relevance as an EHR simulation tool. Overall usability of the VPR mobile app prototype was assessed based on a scale of 1 (“not useful at all”) to 10 (“extremely useful”). Additionally, qualitative feedback was sought on how the app could be improved. A total of 31 students were involved in the pilot study, and all of them participated in the survey.

Students’ perceptions regarding the usefulness of the VPR mobile app for pharmacy education
The general response towards the VPR mobile app prototype was positive, with 100% of the respondents agreeing that it was easy to search for PHI relevant to the case questions. Most of them felt that the designs for the app’s features were understandable and self-explanatory (96.7%), and that the graphical user interface made it easy to navigate within the app (93.5%). 100% of the respondents found the PHR to be the app’s most useful feature, followed by “Case Questions” (83.9%), “Statutes” (57.1%,) and “Useful Links” (48.4%). Overall, 28 students (90.3%) found the app useful as a teaching aid, and 87.1% of the respondents gave a rating of at least 7 out of 10 for the usefulness of the app as a teaching aid for pharmacy practice education.

Students’ suggestions on how the VPR mobile app can be refined and implemented in other pharmacy modules
A majority of students indicated that the app had the most potential to be implemented in the following modules: pharmacology and pharmacotherapy (90.0%), pharmacy law (81.0%), health communications skills (74.0%), and pharmacokinetics (58.0%). Over half of the respondents also suggested that additional features be included in the app, such as revision and supplementary materials from lectures (61.3%), practice quizzes/questions, and lesson updates (54.8% each).

In this study, the “Statutes” and “Useful Links” features were deemed less useful by respondents (compared to “PHR” and “Case Questions”), with respectively only 57.1% and 48.4% finding them useful. This could be because the respondents, who were Year 4 (final year) pharmacy students, had previously undergone several modules on pharmacy-related law and good clinical practices in their curriculum, and were more likely to refer to their lecture notes instead. Nevertheless, half of the respondents felt that “Statutes” and “Useful Links” were still useful features for the app. One of the respondents suggested that the app be implemented earlier in their Year 1 and Year 2 modules so as to introduce undergraduates to the concept of EHRs and how to apply the information they retrieve from this system to clinical practice. In fact, the respondent added that students should be familiar with the app before their hospital preceptorship attachments, which occur during the mid-term holidays in Year 3, by which time the app’s usefulness to pharmacy education would become more obvious to them.

In order to help students keep abreast of the latest medical-related news and developments, websites that provide relevant health- and medication-related information (e.g. Medscape), and useful materials for continuing professional education (e.g. American Society of Health-system Pharmacists and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain) will also be included in the “Useful Links” feature. This would make the app more useful and relevant in the pharmacy practice curriculum.

Limitations and Future Plans
The main limitation of the app was that it lacked a security login feature to prevent unauthorised access to the case questions, hence it was locally installed on two tablet devices owned and provided by the facilitator. This also limited the number of students to only a small group who could utilise the app at any time during the counselling sessions. In addition, only one source of data was obtained for this pilot study. Data collected from other sources, such as focus group interviews with students and video recordings of mock up counselling sessions, could better support the findings.

To overcome these limitations, future plans to enhance the VPR mobile app include incorporating a login function tagged to the institutional login identities of students and facilitators, as well as migrating its access to the mobile web. This enhancement would mean that the app can be tested on a larger sample of students in their earlier undergraduate years and in other pharmacy practice modules. Besides surveys, the facilitator may consider collecting additional user feedback data through focus group interviews to ascertain the usability of the app, as well as identify and address any potential reliability issues.

Future developments of the VPR mobile app will also consider its use on a variety of platforms, including Android, the Apple iOS (operating system) and the newer Microsoft Windows 10 platform. Another possible refinement would be to migrate the app’s features to a cross platform-based medium, such as the mobile web as mentioned earlier, to cater to the general student population and address the issue of students’ unfamiliarity with the app. Besides the advantage of the mobile web version having a uniform look and feel (which can have a positive impact on students’ usability experience), it is also easier to maintain and sync any updates to the app across all platforms. This would yield savings on logistics and manpower. In addition, students can access the app from the browsers on their mobile devices without having to download and install the app onto their smartphones.

Technological advances and innovations in the educational arena are changing the landscape of pharmacy education. The lack of EHR-related intended learning outcomes in our pharmacy curriculum presents itself as a potential aspect of pharmacy education which we can improve, and there is a need to look into the feasibility of including them in our course curriculum. With a student population that is increasingly tech-savvy, there is great potential for educators to utilise mobile apps as learning tools for pharmacy students. The high student feedback ratings given for the VPR mobile app’s usefulness as a teaching aid for practice education in this pilot study suggest that it has been successfully implemented as a tool which gives pharmacy students much-needed exposure to the workings of an EHR and the types of PHI that are relevant when dealing with clinical patient encounters. An opportunity also exists for the Department of Pharmacy to leverage on this app and explore how it can be used in other modules to enrich students’ learning experiences. Although there is still room for improving some features of the app, I hope in subsequent semesters to incorporate its use in the early segments of the undergraduate pharmacy practice curriculum, so as to ease the transition process of our graduating pharmacists to becoming healthcare professionals.

I would like to thank Mr. Terry Toh (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program student, Faculty of Science) for his help in developing the VPR mobile app prototype.

Funding Support
This article was written as part of a bigger study funded by the Teaching Enhancement Grant (C-148-000-036-001) awarded by the Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning, National University of Singapore (NUS).

1. As mock patient records were created for training purposes and uploaded into the app’s PHR feature to simulate an EHR system, it eliminated any security concerns regarding access to confidential patient data. Furthermore, the app was isolated from the hospital’s EHR records and did not tap into any real patient records. As such, the app can be used for pharmacy education without any risk of compromising patient privacy and confidentiality.

Blumenthal, D. & Tavenner, M. (2010). The ‘meaningful use’ regulation for electronic health records. New England Journal of Medicine, 363(6), 501-504.

Clay, R.A. (2012). The advantages of electronic health records. Monitor on Psychology, 43(5), 72. Retrieved from

Guile, D. & Ahamed, F. (2011). Modernising the pharmacy curriculum. LLAKES Research Report. London: Institute of Education. Retrieved from

Handel, M.J. (2011). mHealth (Mobile Health)—Using apps for health and wellness. EXPLORE: The Journal of Science and Healing, 7(4), 256-261. (2015, July 30). Benefits of electronic health records (EHRs). Retrieved from: Retrieved from

Li J.H., Land L.P.W., Ray P., & Chattopadhyaya S. (2010). E-Health readiness framework from Electronic Health Records perspective. International Journal of Internet and Enterprise Management, 6(4), 326–48. Retrieved from

Menachemi, N., & Collum, T.H. (2011). Benefits and drawbacks of electronic health record systems. Risk Management and Healthcare Policy, 4, 47–55.

Mosa, A.S., Yoo, I., & Sheets, L. (2012). A systematic review of healthcare applications for smartphones. BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making, 12, 67.

Wang C. & Huang A.T. (2012). Integrating technology into health care: What will it take? JAMA, 307(6), 569-570.

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Kevin_3cmAbout the Author
Dr. Kevin Yap is a cyber-pharmacist and an interdisciplinary researcher at the Department of Pharmacy. He strongly believes in a blended form of learning for students which combines digital education and authentic learning environments. His educational research interests focus on e-learning and e-assessments, mobile and games-based learning, and how such technologies can enhance students’ learning and build up their domain-related knowledge and skills. He has led several initiatives in promoting the use of technology in pharmacy education through using the university’s e-assessment platform, initiating a YouTube channel, and creating a virtual pharmacy game for clinical practice and skills training.

Augmenting the Chemical Engineering Capstone Design Project Experience through Industry Involvement

S. Gautam, A. Borgna, L.A. Karimi, S. Kawi, G.P. Rangaiah,
M.P. Srinivasan, and Y. Long
Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering

Recommended Citation:
S. Gautam, Borgna, A., I.A. Karimi, S. Kawi, G.P. Rangaiah, M.P. Srinivasan, and Y. Long (2016). Augmenting the chemical engineering capstone design project experience through industry involvement. CDTL Brief, 19(1), 20-24.

Many universities and colleges across the world recognise the capstone design project as an effective vehicle to round out the undergraduate education in chemical engineering (Kentish & Shallcross, 2006). The objective of the design project is to provide students with a valuable opportunity to do the following: apply their technical knowledge, build on professional skills (e.g. communication, decision-making, and teamwork), and enhance their analytical, critical and creative thinking abilities. In the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (ChBE) at the National University of Singapore (NUS), all chemical engineering undergraduates are required to take and complete the capstone design project as part of the core curriculum module. This module has a strong technical and professional component, with students having to review and evaluate process alternatives, simulate and optimise the chosen process using Aspen HYSYS1 and/or Matlab packages, size process units/equipment, conduct safety, health and environmental studies, and perform economic analysis. Details of the design project structure and implementation methodology at ChBE, NUS can be found in our previous article (Bansal et al., 2012).

The scope and format of the design project is based on the expected learning outcomes and objectives (outlined in the earlier paragraph) which are in line with the Department’s vision to produce dynamic, innovative and ethical engineers with a strong engineering foundation. The module emphasises the development of soft, hard and ethical skills of undergraduates with the intended result of producing graduates who are ready to pursue challenging engineering careers. To meet these aspirations, the teaching and learning practices in ChBE are constantly being evaluated and refined; these include enhanced industry involvement in the capstone design project. This paper discusses various aspects of industry involvement in the design project over the past two academic years (AY2013/14 and AY2014/15) and their implications–from industry personnel being invited to be guest speakers and external advisors for the project, to students going on plant visits.

Industry Involvement in the Chemical Engineering Design Project
Industry personnel as guest speakers
Industry talks have long been recognised as an effective pedagogical tool (Wolfe & College, 2006). Inviting experienced engineers as guest speakers provide elements of an authentic learning environment (Donovan, Bransford, & Pellegrino, 1999; Herrington & Herrington, 2006), and help to enrich the students’ overall learning experience in several ways. The guest speakers provide relevant up-to-date industry-specific information. They also share real-world experiences and give students valuable insights into their respective fields of practice. Every year, practising engineers from Singapore’s numerous chemical process industries are invited to present technical talks on a range of topics related to the design project4 . Six or more industry talks were arranged during each of the two academic years mentioned; details of these talks can be found in Figures 1 and 2. These talks, each lasting between one and one-and-a-half hours and prepared in consultation with ChBE’s faculty advisors, serve to bridge the gap between classroom education and industrial experience, as well as provide students valued exposure to industry perspectives and engineering practices. According to Herrington and Herrington (2006), such talks give students access to expert knowledge and performance that would provide “a model of how a real practitioner behaves in a real situation” (p. 5). For the benefit of students unable to attend, the talks were webcast and made available on the Integrated Virtual Learning Environment (IVLE).

Industry personnel as external advisors
Members of the industry could impact on students’ learning experience by serving as external advisors for the capstone design project. As external advisors, they can support the “collaborative construction of knowledge” (Herrington & Herrington, 2006) by contributing significantly to the formulation of the engineering problem statement for the design project, sourcing for realistic data, advising students, and more. One of the primary requirements towards achieving the intended learning outcomes for the design project is the formulation of an open-ended engineering problem that is realistic and accurately reflects the constraints found in the industry. Though faculty advisors are responsible for preparing the problem statement, feedback from the members of the industry can be very helpful in ensuring that the proposed design project problem is industry-relevant and adequate in preparing students for their professional careers. Furthermore, the industry representative can contribute by interacting with students, participating in meetings, as well as sharing insights and practical experiences. Working along these lines, the Department of ChBE appointed Dr. Gavin Towler (Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of R&D, UOP2) as external advisor for the design project in AY2013/14 and AY2014/15. Over the past two academic years, Dr. Towler has contributed in a variety of ways: reviewing the design project’s problem statement, delivering talks, participating in the team leaders’ meeting, and offering consultation to students. The design project and students involved have benefitted immensely from his expert suggestions and involvement.

Partnering industry to organise industrial visits
Another form of industry involvement in the capstone design project is through the plant visits for students. Visits to the industries, particularly to plants with manufacturing activities closely related to the design project problem, can help students broaden their learning experiences by helping them gain a better understanding of the overall process as well as by facilitating awareness of new technologies, good industrial practices, and safety issues. The visit to a related industry in the midst of working on the design project is particularly beneficial for students, even though many of them have to complete a 24-week industrial attachment before doing the design project. For example, during Semester II of AY2013/14, students were assigned to work on the phenol manufacturing process using cumene3 as the feedstock. To help students acquaint themselves with the production process and obtain a closer view of the large-scale unit operations/equipment, we worked with our industry partners to organise a visit to Mitsui Phenols Singapore Pte Ltd. Students valued the visit to the plant as they gained a deeper insight into the process and had the opportunity to talk with the engineers, make queries, and clear doubts. In continuation of such efforts, an industry visit to Asia-Pacific Breweries Singapore was organised during Semester II of AY2014/15. More than 100 final year undergraduates participated in both visits5.

Student Response and Feedback
On conclusion of the design project, an online survey was conducted via the IVLE to evaluate students’ perceptions and learning from having enhanced industry involvement in the design project. The anonymous survey collected both quantitative and qualitative feedback from students. A total of 105 and 200 students participated in the survey conducted in AY2013/14 and AY2014/15 respectively. The quantitative responses are summarised in Figures 1 and 2.

S Gautam et al_Fig 1b
Figure 1. Students’ quantitative responses to the survey questions (AY2013/14).

S Gautam et al_Fig 2b
Figure 2. Students’ quantitative responses to the survey questions (AY2014/15).

Quantitative feedback
The student feedback results were highly encouraging, with a majority of the students in both academic years (>70%) finding the industrial talks and visit ‘helpful’ or ‘very helpful’. The positive feedback clearly indicates that students embraced the industry talks as well as the visits, and considered them to be valuable and practical learning resources with long-lasting learning benefits. As part of the survey, students were asked if there were other topics they felt should be included in future industry talks. Among the various topics suggested, the following appeared most frequently: economic analysis, design of absorption columns, and heat integration.

Qualitative feedback
The qualitative feedback also indicated a very positive student response to industry involvement in the design project. Some of the students’ comments on how such industry involvement had enriched their learning experience are shown below:

  • “The industry talks and visit were very useful. They set the foundation and initiate the thinking process for students. They give us a yardstick to which we can compare our calculations to and ascertain if our calculations are meaningful on an industrial scale…”
  • The talks were pretty useful, especially the talk by Dr. Towler. They gave a good insight into the industrial practices.”
  • “Talks were useful as they provided knowledge beyond those available in books and we could apply them in our design project.”
  • “They are very useful, particularly the plant visit because it gave an opportunity [for us] to talk to the engineers who are involved in running the plant. We can thus become aware of what’s practically correct and what’s not.”

Farr et al. (2001) stated that “relevant, industry partnered design is an important part of the undergraduate education experience for tomorrow’s engineers” (p. 193). Our approach is a step in this direction. In view of students’ positive feedback and apparently enhanced performance, evident from the improved quality of the written reports submitted and students’ responses to questions during the oral presentations, we will continue to incorporate and strengthen industry involvement in the capstone design project. Given the industry’s expectations when it comes to the skills that entry-level engineers should possess, it is important to understand and identify the most effective means for preparing undergraduates to meet these expectations. The active involvement of industry personnel in the chemical engineering design project as formulators of the design project problem, guest speakers, external advisors, and hosts for industrial visits can make a significant impact on students’ overall learning and preparation for their professional careers. We are grateful to the practicing engineers in the chemical process industries for their support and cooperation in the past, and look forward to the continued support in the future.


  1. HYSYS is a powerful software tool which is commonly used for the simulation of chemical process plants including petroleum refineries and petrochemicals. It includes tools for estimation of physical properties and vapour-liquid phase equilibria, heat and material balances, and simulation of many types of chemical engineering equipment.
  2. UOP, formerly known as Universal Oil Products, is a Honeywell company which develops and delivers technology to the petroleum refining, gas processing, petrochemical production, and major manufacturing industries.
  3. Cumene is the common name for isopropylbenzene, an organic compound that is based on an aromatic hydrocarbon with an aliphatic substitution. It is used in the production of phenol, acetone and other derivatives.
  4. We are grateful to Dr. Gavin Towler (of Universal Oil Products), Lau Sue-Ann (of Sulzer Chemtech), Mr. Joseph William Eades (of Ispahan Group), Mr. CCS Reddy (of Singapore Refining Company), Mr. Satendra Singh (of Foster Wheeler), Mr. Raman Balajee (of Air Products) and Mr. L. Srinivasan (of Shell) for giving the industry talks.
  5. We are grateful to Mr. David Sugiman and Mr. Brendan Ng (of Mitsui Phenols Singapore Pte Ltd) and Mr. Derek Ho, Ms. Irina Cristina, Ms June Koh and Mr. Chan Chan Heng (of Asia Pacific Breweries Singapore) for hosting students from ChBE.


Bansal, M., Srinivasan, M.P., Rangaiah, G.P., Kawi, S., Karimi I.A., & Borgna, A. (2012). Chemical engineering students design for powering the world. CDTL Brief, First Look (Dec 2012). Retrieved from

Donovan, S., Bransford, J., & Pellegrino, J.W. (1999). How people learn: Bridging research and practice. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences.

Farr, J., Lee, M., Metro, R., & Sutton, J. (2001). Using a systematic engineering design process to conduct undergraduate engineering management capstone projects. Journal of Engineering Education, 90, 193-197.

Herrington, A., & Herrington, J. (2006). What is an authentic learning environment? In T. Herrington, & J. Herrington (Eds.) Authentic Learning Environments in Higher Education (pp. 1-14). Hershey, PA: Information Science Publishing.

Kentish, S.E., & Shallcross, D.C. (2006). An international comparison of final year design project curricula. Chemical Engineering Education, 40(4), 275-280.

Wolfe, A.M., & College, E. (2006). Student perceptions of guest speakers in marketing education. Proceedings of the Marketing Management Association, 4-10. Retrieved from

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HRT_9483iAbout the Author
Dr Satyen Gautam is part of the academic team coordinating the Design Project for Chemical Engineering students. He believes that education is a progressive journey of becoming better and that students learn best when they are in harmony with their learning environment. Also, learning becomes most efficient if it can appeal to students at both personal and intellectual level.



Welcome to our latest issue, in which we unveil a new, more streamlined look!

In this edition, we feature articles by colleagues devising strategies to ensure their students learn more effectively during laboratory and practical sessions. In an attempt to break away from the step-by-step protocols that have informed traditional microbiology practical sessions thus far, Dr Justin Chu (Dept of Microbiology) came up with Practice Practicals, a concept based on the principles of active learning in which students are challenged to formulate and plan their own experiments to solve a presented problem. He discusses the process of implementing such a session and his students’ response to this approach based on the post-session survey results. Meanwhile, Dr Xu Hairuo (Dept of Chemistry) explores whether it is feasible to set up a paperless system to manage and grade laboratory reports. In her article, she compares the conventional and paperless methods to determine which is more efficient, and examines whether implementing the latter in her lab sessions has enhanced her students’ learning experiences. She also reflects on its limitations and suggests measures to refine it.

We also feature an article by Dr Omid Iravani (Dept of Anatomy), who introduced the concept of question-based learning (QBL) to enhance student engagement during his tutorials. Based on aspects of inquiry-based learning, the learning activities employed in QBL include getting students to think through objective-oriented questions, discussing their responses to these questions in groups and getting them to do pre- and post-tutorial tests to evaluate their understanding of the tutorial content. He discusses the implementation process and examines the effectiveness of QBL in fulfilling the tutorial’s learning outcomes. Finally, Dr Stephen Lim, Mr Lee Li Neng and Ms Sarah Wong (Dept of Psychology) discuss the rationale behind organising a symposium for graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) in their Dept. According to Dr Lim and his co-authors, the symposium aims to “facilitate a meeting for discussing and sharing best practices and ideas in order to empower…GTAs on how best to teach psychology students”. The article goes on to examine the extent to which the various sessions in the symposium have fulfilled this aim, based on the authors’ reflections as well as an analysis of attendee feedback.

Students’ Perceptions of Practice Practicals: An Approach to Active Learning

CHU Jang Hann, Justin
Dept of Microbiology

Recommended Citation:
Chu, J.J.H. (2015). Students’ perceptions of practice practicals: An approach to active learning. CDTL Brief, 18(1), pp. 1-6.

The module LSM3225 “Molecular Microbiology for Human Diseases” introduces undergraduate students to the molecular principles and physiological processes involved in the life cycle of microbes (virus, bacteria, fungi and parasites) in relation to how these microbes affect human health and diseases. Great emphasis is placed on the practical application of advanced molecular technologies in the identification, treatment and prevention of both existing and newly emerged microbial pathogens.

Limitations of traditional practical sessions
Most of the traditional practical sessions offered in the undergraduate life sciences modules are designed such that to complete the experiments, students are only required to follow the instructions (step-by-step protocol) provided during the session itself. There are a few pedagogical drawbacks with such a step-by-step approach. For one thing, students neither have the chance to plan and think in depth about their experiments, nor are they able to exercise their creativity during the practical session. Such an approach provides limited opportunities for students to think about the problem associated with the practical and to adopt a proper experimental approach to formulate a solution. In short, they may not know how to apply the skills they learnt in the practical session to solve a real-life problem. As a consequence, it is common during the semester feedback exercise to observe students leaving comments that they find the traditional practical sessions boring, non-challenging and leave no room for them to be creative when it comes to applying these practical skills.

Introducing Practice Practicals
In order to address these issues in LSM3225, I introduced the concept of “Practice Practicals” for one of the topics during the module’s practical sessions. The term Practice Practicals simply means that students acquire technical knowledge and skills through the process of formulating and executing their experiments independently. Practice Practicals aim to give students the opportunity to participate actively in formulating their experiments in order to develop the ability to solve a real-life problem. The concept of Practice Practicals is based on active learning, a model of instruction which aims to engage learners in two ways: doing things and thinking about the things they are doing (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). It is hoped that through active learning, learners will engage in higher-order thinking tasks such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (Renkl, Atkinson, Maier & Staley, 2002).

The objective of the practical session, which adopts the Practice Practical approach, is for students to attempt to develop a rapid and reliable real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) diagnostic assay¹ based on an SYBR Green DNA dye-binding fluorophore2 that detects the mosquito-borne Chikungunya virus. It is hoped that by the end of the practical sessions, students will be able to achieve the following learning outcomes:

  • acquire practical competence and accuracy in formulating, planning and carrying out experimental procedures including measurement, use of apparatus/equipment (logistics) and recording of results
  • write a clear scientific report which should include the theoretical background, experimental description, presentation and analysis of results, as well as an interpretation and evaluation of the experiment
  • communicate the data they obtained from the experiments effectively.

Two different cohorts of undergraduate students (n=240) participated in this study, which was conducted over two academic years, from AY2011/12 to AY2012/13.

The implementation of this approach began with giving students some initial guidance on the objective of the experiments, in the form of a list of guiding questions given during the first practical session. These questions (see Table 1) would help to facilitate students’ to think in greater depth about their experiments for the practical session.

Table 1. List of guiding questions to help students think about the objectives of  performing the experiments.justin1

The students were then placed in groups of 8. Each group had to formulate the experimental protocol and come up with a list of infrastructures (reagents, equipment and other materials) to support their experimental approaches. More importantly, the groups had to present their ideas in front of the whole class. During the discussion session, we observed active class participation and engagement from the students as the different groups presented their diverse experimental approaches. We then translated the best idea presented into actual practice for the rest of the class.

The following flowchart (Figure 1) provides a summary of
how the Practice Practical session (“Practical 1” in the flowchart)
was implemented:

justin2Figure 1. Flow chart of the Practice Practical session

Survey Findings
An evaluation of the effectiveness of Practice Practical session was done through a short survey (see Figure 2 for a sample) which students had to complete after they had submitted their laboratory reports for assessment and grading. They had to indicate their level of agreement to a series of statements on a 5-point scale, ranging from “Strongly Agree” to “Strongly Disagree”. The survey form also included two short questions in which students had to give their comments about the strengths of the Practice Practical session and possible areas of improvement.

Figure 2. Sample of the survey form.

200 students (83% of the total student cohort from both academic years) responded to the survey. The following are key findings based on an analysis of the survey results:

The Practice Practical session was interesting and students felt comfortable sharing their ideas
According to the survey results, 66% of the respondents agreed that the Practice Practical session (“Practical 1” in the survey) was interesting and stimulating. This is an encouraging response as students can be shy when it comes to participating in class discussions or sharing their ideas (Shim, 2006). However, in this case, only 1.5% of the respondents indicated that they felt uncomfortable about sharing their thoughts and opinions during the discussion portion of the practical. Indeed, I noted active class participation amongst students during the group discussions. Students also recognised the benefits of having these discussions during the practical:

  • “We rarely get to voice out our thoughts and opinions during practical classes, and this was a good way to stimulate us to think more about the practical. I have enjoyed this approach of conducting real-life experiments!”

The Practice Practical session stimulated students’ interest in the subject matter
In addition, 72% of the respondents mentioned that the Practice Practical session helped stimulate their interest in the subject and it encouraged them to read more about the topics and the relevant technologies. For example, students mentioned in the qualitative feedback portion of the survey that they will read about the topic on the Internet before coming for the practical class. This response is a good indication that self-directed learning is taking place amongst students due to the session. According to Lim and Geertsema (2013), self-directed learning provides the learner with the opportunity to take the initiative and be responsible for the learning process. Some students also felt that the Practice Practical session encouraged them to think independently and in greater depth about how they were supposed to formulate their experimental approach:

  • “I like the way we were asked to formulate the experiments before practical as it gives us the opportunity to research deeper into the topics.”
  • “Students were encouraged to formulate the experiments which make it interactive (not-spoon feeding). It enhances students’ learning experiences.”
  • “It wasn’t like the practical before that we are not given the opportunity to formulate our experimental approaches. This has definitely enhanced my learning of the topic.”
  • “Encourages students to think about their experiments and do some research on the practical objectives.”

The Practice Practical session enhanced students’ independent research and technical skills
Furthermore, the majority of students (83%) mentioned that the approach was useful in enhancing their independent research and technical skills. Some also felt that they could apply the skills acquired during the practical session to real-life problems:

  • “Practical is interesting and useful in enhancing my capability to perform research, especially in future career in research.”
  • “It’s the first time since year 1 that I had such a detail and technical practical session. I thought it was really useful because RT-PCR is so widely used nowadays. I could apply the knowledge to other modules too.”
  • “Something practical and real that is applicable to life examples, so it’s an eye-opener for me.”

Conclusion and the Way Forward
Based on the quantitative and qualitative feedback gathered, we can conclude that the majority of students responded positively to the concept of Practice Practicals, agreeing that the session they went through was interesting and stimulating. This approach was also useful in enhancing students’ research and technical skills. In addition, for future sessions with subsequent cohorts, I plan to incorporate a written component that involves getting students to write short reflective notes about their learning experience. However, while this approach is beneficial in enhancing students’ learning during practicals, more needs to be done to evaluate whether it is applicable for other Year 3 or Year 4 life sciences modules in the Department that are practical-intensive.

I would like to express my appreciation to A/P Too Heng-Phon for his helpful comments on this study and the staff of the CDTL for their support and mentorship.

1. A quantitative or qualitative test of a substance (especially an ore or a drug) to determine its components; frequently used to test for the presence or concentration of infectious agents or antibodies. (Source:

2. It is a fluorescent dye used as a nucleic acid stain in molecular biology (Source:

Bonwell, C. & Eison, J. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom AEHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1. Washington, D.C.: Jossey-Bass.

Lim, E.C.H. & Geertsema, J. (2013). Enabling self-directed learning. Journal of the NUS Teaching Academy, 3(1), 1-4.

Renkl, A., Atkinson, R.K., Maier, U.H., & Staley, R. (2002). From example study to problem solving: Smooth transitions help learning. Journal of Experimental Education, 70 (4), 293–315.

Shim, D.B. (2006). Student-led Tutorials. CDTL Brief, 9(1). Retrieved from

Print or download pdf version: Practice Practicals

About the Author
Dr Justin Chu currently teaches several life sciences modules and postgraduate modules related to microbiology, molecular microbiology and virology to life sciences undergraduate and postgraduate students at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine. He believes in the importance of engaging students in an active learning process by which they can hone their critical thinking skills. He hopes that his student will see learning as a continuous process of self-discovery in which they will develop a deeper awareness and knowledge of their environment.

Reflecting on and discussing the philosophy and practice of teaching