Imperial College London

Student-staff collaborations to enhance the remote learning environment


Graphic illustration of people using virtual screens

Chemical engineering undergraduates and teaching staff have designed several projects to enhance collaboration in virtual spaces.

A group of undergraduates have teamed up with Chemical Engineering Teaching Fellows on several projects to enhance the virtual learning experience. They have focused on trialling tools for collaborative learning, both within and outside the curriculum, ranging from assessed activities to informal group-learning. 

“Our student-staff collaborations have produced some exciting new initiatives that will enhance virtual learning for students now and in the future." Dr Clemens Brechtelsbauer Director of Chemical Engineering Education

Their projects have produced a range of digital tools that undergraduate and masters’ students can utilise to collaborate with their teachers and peers online. Some of these innovations were presented at the recent Advance HE STEM 2021 conference, the theme of which was ‘Rethinking STEM Higher Education'.

Dr Clemens Brechtelsbauer said: “Our student-staff collaborations have produced some exciting new initiatives that will enhance virtual learning for students now and in the future. While their work began before the pandemic and the move to virtual learning, the change in circumstance has enabled us to accelerate our work and apply it to real-life settings.” 

Imperial Chem Eng Wiki

The Imperial Chem Eng Wiki site was created by Chemical Engineering undergraduates Thomas Nok Hin Cheng and Pierre Walker. Their vision was to create a site where they could consolidate learning materials for their modules, including lectures notes, and facilitate the sharing of learning resources in a communal online space.

"The ChemEng wiki has grown more rapidly than we had initially anticipated and has become a unique aspect of the undergraduate experience at Imperial." Thomas Nok Hin Cheng Chemical Engineering undergraduate

Thomas and Pierre launched the Wiki in February 2020, just before the first UK national lockdown and the start of remote teaching. They trialled it with second-year students who were revising for their summer term exams. In a follow-up survey, 95% of respondents said they found the Wiki useful and thought it helped them retrieve information and consolidate concepts.

One student commented: "I found it was much easier to search through topics on the ChemEng Wiki than using normal lecture notes. It was easier to navigate through and because of how well put together it is, I think it is good as a supplement to my own notes when revising.” 

Since then, the Wiki has been scaled-up to include all first-year to third-year modules of the MEng Chemical Engineering course and rolled-out to the full undergraduate cohort. The editorial team has also grown to include thirteen students, with more expressing an interest in contributing. Work is continuing to produce content for the final year modules, and the project was recently recognised with a Department of Chemical Engineering Student Contribution & Citizenship Award.

Thomas Nok Hin Cheng said: “The ChemEng wiki has grown more rapidly than we had initially anticipated and has become a unique aspect of the undergraduate experience at Imperial. Undoubtedly this would never have been possible without the continued support from the teaching staff and the department.”

Pierre Walker added: “I’ve always found peer-learning to be a powerful tool when consolidating one’s understanding of a topic. As such, we hoped that the ChemEng Wiki would serve as a platform where this tool could be enhanced and shared throughout the entire student cohort within the chemical engineering department.

“We couldn’t be happier with the enthusiasm of students wanting to contribute to the wiki and we hope that this wiki will remain an important entity within the learning environment at Imperial for years to come.”

Remote team-based learning

In recent years team-based learning has become an essential component of undergraduate education, as mounting evidence supports its value in active learning and knowledge retention. Undergraduate Ming Jiun Ng worked in partnership with Teaching Fellow Dr Vijesh Bhute and Senior Strategic Teaching Fellow Dr Marsha Maraj to understand how team-working can be embedded into the virtual learning environment.

They surveyed students on which platforms they preferred to use for remote working, how their team communicated, and how their projects progressed over time. To understand the difference in communication across and within teams, they also analysed individual approaches to deadlines and preferred working schedules. 

They found that students primarily used Microsoft Teams for regular meetings but relied heavily on personal messaging for regular communication. A surprising finding was that students reported that setting regular meetings was important for staying updated with their teammates, and that the individual preferred working schedule was not as important a factor in remote teamwork. 

Teaching staff have used these findings as recommendations and actively encourage remote teams to set clear deadlines and regular meetings to ensure they collaborate efficiently whilst working remotely.

Online assessment platforms (WeBWork)

Assessment and feedback are crucial elements of any education as they enable students to identify and learn from their mistakes. However, providing individualised feedback in Mathematics-heavy engineering courses can be time consuming, which presents a significant challenge for teachers. Remote learning also makes it more difficult for them to identify the areas that students are struggling with, and to better support them in these areas.

A team of seven undergraduate students worked with Teaching Fellow Dr. Vijesh Bhute to implement an online assessment platform known as WeBWork, to make this process easier and more interactive for students.

The team manually curated over 1000 questions for pre-sessional Mathematics, first-year and second-year Mathematics courses. Additionally, they reflected on their own experiences and coded several new questions to bridge the gap in difficulty level in current assignments to make the student learning more effective. These problem sets were delivered to students in the academic year 2020-21 and have provided a great tool for students to enter equations and receive instant feedback on their work.

Their work was presented at the conference by project member Ellen Player, a third-year undergraduate from the Department.

Ellen and Vijesh also worked on a separate project to improve the accessibility of second-year Mathematics lecture notes, by bringing them online and making equations screen reader accessible. Several new features, such as colour coded sections and drop-down menus for examples and solutions, have transformed the static online textbook to a more interactive and accessible learning resource.

Developing a bespoke online CAD course to support design-based modules

Chemical Engineering education requires students to develop a wide spectrum of skills, one of which is producing engineering drawings.  As part of their Year 3 Mechanical Design Project, students have traditionally produced hand-drawn, two-dimensional drawings.  While this approach has several benefits, the ability to produce and read computer-aided drawings has become the industry standard. 

"Introducing this online CAD course has provided an opportune and flexible means of increasing the design capabilities of our students and embedding industry-ready skills."  Dr Marsha Maraj Chemical Engineering Teaching Fellow

In the past, the capacity for teaching computer-aided design (CAD) software within the module has been limited by a condensed timetable and access to physical space and teaching rooms.  The move to remote learning in Autumn 2020 however presented an excellent opportunity to move past these limitations, as students could engage with CAD training and software asynchronously without room allocation and timetabling constraints.

Undergraduate students Pierre Walker and Nikolaos Kalogeropoulos worked closely with Senior Strategic Teaching Fellow Dr Marsha Maraj to develop a bespoke series of training videos and exercises for the Year 3 Mechanical Design Project module.  These were trialled before rolling out to undergraduates with initial feedback from the students indicating that they found the training to be helpful and relevant to not only the current module, but also to other design-based modules within their programme. 

The student voice was an essential element of this project, helping to create a more authentic learning experience, and highlights the importance of student-staff collaborations.   

Dr Marsha Maraj said: Introducing this online CAD course has provided an opportune and flexible means of increasing the design capabilities of our students and embedding industry-ready skills. 

"Students have responded very positively to the addition of the course and have provided valuable feedback as to what worked well and what could be improved. Partnering with students in this way and having students co-design content serves to further transform and strengthen our programme."

Next steps 

These student-staff collaborations have led to transforming the delivery of content and assessment in a more engaging and helpful manner. Moreover, several students have shown interest in improving these resources further for the benefit of their peers in the future and on-going work to strengthen these projects are planned for the 2021 Summer period.


Sara West

Sara West
Department of Chemical Engineering

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