Facilitating peer-led group research through virtual collaboration spaces

Authors: Setareh Chong¹*, James Chong¹, Richard Walker²
¹Department of Biology and ²E-Learning Development Team University of York
*Corresponding author


Peer-assisted small-group learning (PAL) has been used as a way of enhancing the student experience and improving performance in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects and to support widening participation (Born, Revelle & Pinto, 2002; Pazos, Micari & Light, 2010; Streitwieser & Light, 2010). PAL is based on small groups of students meeting regularly to work on problems collaboratively, and represents a departure from teacher-centred instruction, offering students the space to manage their own learning and develop higher-order skills relevant to future employment and lifelong learning. Pazos et al. note that peer-led group environments are typically characterised by high levels of student participation and interaction and problem-solving, which are encouraged through light-touch interventions by the instructor in responding to questions raised by the group (Pazos, Micari, & Light 2010). Computer-supported Collaborative learning (CSCL), first described by Koschmann (1996), uses technology as a way of mediating PAL-driven active and collaborative learning where students work cooperatively to research and find answers to problems. More recently, other CSCL studies have shown that online collaboration can improve exam performance (Duret et al., 2018).

This case study focuses on the introduction of CSC-PAL to a group of final-year undergraduates in the Department of Biology at the University of York through the use of centrally supported group collaboration tools. We used Slack (https://www.york.ac.uk/it-services/services/slack/) and Google apps as supporting technologies to help students with the development of their individual research projects. Students researched their projects and produced independent reports on their results, but were encouraged to use the online collaborative tool, Slack, as an informal platform to enhance their remote interactions with other members of the team, facilitate their communication with project directors, and improve their technical and conceptual understanding of the project work.


Through this activity we wanted to:

  1. generate a virtual self-help repository for students who needed to rapidly gain new skills that were largely unrelated to their previous degree learning;
  2. encourage more interaction and sharing of practice among these students;
  3. facilitate and support the students to analyse, assemble, and annotate the provided genomic data so that its biological relevance could be interpreted.


We encouraged the use of two online platforms, Google apps and Slack, to provide:

  1. a single reference source for the technical information required by the students that could be commented on, and updated, by many users;
  2. uniform, consistent, up-to-date advice that could be revised or updated over the course of the project;
  3. a collaborative interaction space that facilitates the rapid development of relevant teaching material.


Final-year undergraduate projects in the Department of Biology at the University of York are independent projects spanning 12 weeks over the Autumn and Spring terms. Students are expected to carry out independent research and data analysis during this time with guidance and support from academic and other relevant members of the department. Students select a number of topics based on a catalogue of titles and short project descriptions and are assigned one of their choices. Although project time is restricted to the equivalent of about two days per week, students are expected to generate their own data or analyse existing datasets, with the aim of producing a written report for assessment. They also prepare and deliver an oral presentation on their project outcome which is assessed via a viva.

Six final-year undergraduates were tasked with the assembly of previously generated genome sequences into contig assemblies (reconstructing the DNA sequence of each organism). They were provided with sequence data previously obtained for several microorganisms isolated from the soil of an allotment in York. The students were further tasked with annotating and interpreting the resulting genome assemblies and producing a written report on their findings. Genome assembly and annotation required the use of a number of different pieces of software run from the Unix command-line. Students were required to tailor the commands they used for these existing tools as appropriate for their unique needs, based on their individual projects. The main goal of each project was to identify the genes that could potentially be responsible for the production of antimicrobial activities that had been observed and resulted in the original isolation of these organisms.

Genome assembly and annotation largely rely on Unix-based open-source bioinformatics tools to analyse these large datasets. These tools had been previously installed on the departmental cluster and therefore required the students to gain a competence in command-line programming for the creation of folders and file manipulation. These skills were being introduced for the first time to the majority of undergraduates carrying out these projects. None of the students had experience with genome annotation prior to the start of the project and only two of the participants had limited prior experience of Unix. In anticipation of the technical challenges of running such a project, we decided to use online platforms to provide access to specific materials and resources that would help students to master the skills they required to carry out this work. We also anticipated that the platforms would provide a means of supporting effective peer-to-peer and student-to-instructor communication. These virtual tools additionally enabled the students to work collaboratively. Although the projects were independent in design with each student assigned to a different dataset, there was enough similarity in the required technical approaches that they would follow to ensure that collaborative learning would be meaningful.


A Google team drive was used as a repository for shared information and a Google doc was used to provide detailed, step-by-step instructions on the technical aspects of the project. The students were also invited to join an online team-collaboration medium, Slack. Students were encouraged to determine through individual research which biological aspects they would focus on in their projects, so that they could formulate hypotheses and ultimately build a coherent narrative. They were free to work at their own pace and worked almost exclusively off campus. Students worked on their projects using the online tool-set and also attended weekly face-to-face group meetings on campus with the project leaders. These meetings were used to monitor student progress, where students presented and discussed their data, raised questions on the project work, and provided an opportunity for students to present and discuss research papers as part of a journal club.

The effectiveness of our approach was measured by monitoring the engagement levels of students with the provided online platforms through (i) the number of comments posted, (ii) a reflective survey at the midpoint of the project, (iii) an exit survey at the end of the project, and (iv) a focus group interview held after the exit survey and project work had been completed to gauge student perceptions of the group-based working practices and use of the collaboration tool-set. Student performance in the viva presentation and their written reports were also considered.

Student experience

Prior experience

Students had experience of undertaking group projects in their second year of undergraduate study, but these final year projects were more in-depth and they had greater choice over the research topic that they were going to investigate. Out of the cohort of six students, five participated in the first online reflective survey. 80% of these had no previous experience with Slack. One student identified as a previously frequent user of Slack. In the face-to-face interviews conducted at the end of the project all participants indicated high confidence with the use of group tools to manage project work, due to prior familiarity with social media (Facebook) and team-building platforms (Google Drive) which they had used previously in a similar way ‘to plan meetings, just to discuss things that we have do in the projects’. This experience was not assumed though, and students received a formal induction on how to use Slack – what it was for and how to use it for messaging and raising questions, before embarking on the project work.

60% of the students who responded to the survey were familiar with bioinformatics at the start of the project, but none of them had prior experience of genome annotation. Three students indicated some experience with peer learning, the remaining two had little or no experience with peer learning.


We monitored closely the levels of student confidence in various aspects of their project work across the module, including use of the command line, genome annotation, use of online tools and peer-learning all increased over the course of the project. This was achieved by inviting students to complete two separate online surveys at different points in the completion of the project work. The results are illustrated in Figure 1 below.

Chart displaying overall increase in student satisfaction between the start and the end of the project.

Figure 1: Student confidence levels with the project tools and working practices.

The symbols in the figure represent the confidence level of individual students at the start (brown) and at the end (orange) of the project. The lines represent the mean of each category that we surveyed (n=5).

All students found Slack ‘indispensable’ or ‘very useful’ and felt that its use expedited communications and problem-sharing and problem-solving in relation to their individual projects. As one participant observed: ‘We needed a forum to talk to people – it did that perfectly’.


Early on in the project students were posting questions as comments on the Google Doc instructions as well as asking questions on Slack. This required instructors to monitor multiple sources in order to best support students. As time progressed, students naturally tended to pose their questions on Slack, which simplified the management of support requests.

‘It (the project work) was all individually led, but became more cooperative as it got towards the end – the whole difference is in the write-up and how you report it’

‘We all came to the point where we all had the same problem.’

The ability to receive ‘push’ notifications from Slack and the inherently private nature of this centrally managed platform provide it with advantages over other online group interactions such as Facebook. This system enabled a faster response time and highly effective teaching/learning interactions that were less disruptive to instructor working patterns and enabled a highly agile approach to student mentoring. Slack was also more effective than email as it provided an opportunity for group learning without repetition of questions or answers and enabled the group to pose questions and solve common problems. As the projects progressed and student confidence increased, individuals were more likely to post their questions to the group channel rather than sending direct (private) messages.

‘If someone had an issue – three of us would be struggling too!’

‘We were encouraged that there were no silly questions. The [Slack] undergraduate channel was for low-level questions. I had a lot of questions!’

Asking the students to reflect on their progress through a mid-point survey allowed us to adjust our teaching provision. For example, students indicated a desire for more detailed guidelines about their project write-up. We ensured that this was explicitly provided. On assessing the project reports, it became clear that there had been an inadvertent focus towards technical coding and bioinformatics issues that distracted some students from integrating a detailed consideration of the biological context of their results.

Transferable lessons learned

Students developed Unix command-line competence in managing software for their project work. Through their performance of the project work they also developed group interaction skills, learning how to problem solve together and share lessons learned from their individual working. The provision of a virtual workspace for collaboration and ideas-sharing certainly helped in this regard – facilitating the development of soft skills such as problem-sharing and problem-solving within groups.

‘We were working as a team; although we have different projects, we have the same problems and were solving them as a team.’

Next steps

The skills gained by students in these types of projects build confidence in their abilities to learn new computational skills in a relatively short period of time. For the next iteration of projects using this approach, we will add an entry survey to more explicitly assess the skills and concerns of incoming students. We will challenge the students to discuss and consider the biological importance of their projects at an earlier stage and seek to ensure that they include these considerations from the outset. One way to do this will be to provide research papers for presentation in journal clubs that focus on relevant biological challenges. Students will be encouraged to post questions to Slack from the outset.

Want to know more?

  • For more information about this peer-assisted small-group learning activity, please contact Dr Setareh Chong at: setareh.chong@york.ac.uk
  • If you would like further information about the collaborative tools featured in this case study, please contact the E-Learning Development Team at: vle-support@york.ac.uk


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Published April 2018.