Teaching animal nutrition through product development and design

Abstract to be presented at #SEBCST16

Students enrolled on Veterinary Physiotherapy, Animal Therapy or HE Equine courses at Writtle University College share an introductory animal nutrition module in the second semester of their first year. In order to encourage development of both subject-related and transferable skills in their curriculum, this module includes coursework which asks the students to analyse a new animal feed in the laboratory, after which they are required to design a package and a commercial video for this product. This was a group exercise.

The assessment was supported by lectures on nutrition for various life-stages in dogs and horses and legal requirements for packaging, lab practical sessions to help understand the nutritional values, and workshops to support the design process and use of various software packages involved in video editing.  At the end of the semester, student groups were asked to present their commercial video, submit a hard copy of their package and were questioned on various nutritional aspects of their product. They received peer feedback and staff feedback on their work, covering both product design and subject-specific matter.

Student feedback on this assignment was positive. They enjoyed the opportunity to be creative and demonstrate their understanding through product design. Some students went as far as to role-play their commercial video or create a 3D model a feed package. There was a good spread of marks, and staff feedback was very positive.


Excellent article on research productivity at teaching institutions

By Terry McGlynn, Small Pond Science: What limits productivity at teaching institutions – http://wp.me/p39vm4-2iA

Organised crime against the academic peer review system

This is what I think about when I hear “organised crime”.

The following is an excellent read on how the academic peer-review system was abused and cheated, and how a journal editing team takes responsibility, investigates and is completely transparent.

Cohen et al. (2016) ‘Organised crime against the academic peer review system‘. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 81(6), 1012-1017. DOI: 10.1111/bcp.12992

It is a pity this happened, but by going through this route, the academic community can learn from their mistakes, and hopefully make the chance of this happening again smaller. You can never completely prevent these things from happening, because organised crime will always try to find new ways of cheating the system. However, as the authors quite rightly state, a select minority should not be allowed to make life more difficult for the well-intended majority.

Thanks to Terry McGlynn at Small Pond Science for posting about this.

I participated in HEA ResearchWebinar 10

HEA Research Webinar 10

Due to enormous marking loads, reflection on this webinar will follow later, but I couldn’t resist highligting the supporting information, which can be found here: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/research/research-webinars

It was a very informative webinar, and the toolkit should be of use for future CPD events: I am planning to do a follow-up of the CPD session on systematic reviews for undergraduate dissertations I delivered earlier this year and this will help with evaluating.

I feel these reflective questions are also useful for HE teaching sessions

CPD: Making the most of Moodle

During the past week I have followed a bitesize online CPD event  offered by Writtle College’s Centre for Academic Standards, Teaching and Learning (CASTLe). The course was a collection of five daily short-ish activities focussing on various aspects of Moodle, the VLE used by the College.


Although i was familiar with some aspects, and have used quite a few features of Moodle over the past few years, it was mainly very useful to discuss with colleagues the merits of embedding video, using forums to engage students and the pros and cons of various menu styles. It it good to discuss these things in Moodle forums, because we don’t get to sit down much to discuss ideas and concerns due to heavy workloads. In a way, it was nice to be a Moodle-using student for a few days.

It has made me think more about the design decisions I have made and will be making in the future: I am currently working on the course-level Moodle page for a new course I am developing, and have started using a lot more advanced features. Not just because it is nice to show off (admit it, that’s why we all want fancy VLE pages), but mainly because well designed pages engage students more, and effective page design will cause less work for academics.

I have a few ideas which I would like to discuss further with colleagues, and which will require a meeting with our IT team to make happen. For example, I discovered today that it is now possible to link external blogs with Moodle. This means students could post to their blog via Moodle. Although this does not immediately sound exciting, it is because I plan on getting students to develop a course-level reflective blog which lasts for the full four years of their course, and which is integrated with the assessment for various modules.

These are exciting times. When I finished my degree in 2009, none of this existed, whereas now, only 6-7 years later, we work on the ever blurring border between virtual and physical learning and teaching, and have new challenges to fully engage and submerge into the subject the 21st century student.

My badge

I will post more on this in the future. For now, I am enjoying the badge I earned for completing the CPD (yes, I admit, a certain degree of gamification in Higher Education is appropriate, and to be honest, just plain cool!) and try to make sense of the ideas racing through my head. I need a white board… and a cold beer! Happy weekend all!

Don’t judge a scientist by their degree grade

Originally publised in The Biologist (link), written by Francis Hooton.
(Hooton, F. (2016) ‘Don’t judge a scientist by their degree grade’. The Biologist 63(1), p7)

A survey of Fellows of the Royal Society reveals many distinguished scientists might struggle to get a research post nowadays

Many people, for many reasons, have failed to get the grades they are capable of, or messed up their degrees completely.

Yet throughout history, people have pursued scientific investigation or engineering, often through the help of others, with poor grades or having never studied science formally at all. These people have gone on to develop world changing technologies or made great breakthroughs in our understanding of the natural world.

Eminent examples include three Copley Medal winners: Michael Faraday, who did an apprenticeship, and had no degree; Charles Darwin, who got an ‘ordinary’ degree in theology; and James Joule, who had no degree. John Walker, who won the Copley Medal and the Nobel Prize, got a third class honours degree due to illness; and Admiral Henry Jackson, who invented radio communication between ships, did not have a degree.

Is it possible that these pioneers in science would struggle to get a research placement today, where research councils demand no less than a 2:1 BSc honours degree? (Exceptions to this entry requirement do occur, but only where laboratory leaders are well funded and know the student.)

I decided to look more closely at the degree grades of Fellows of the Royal Society (FRS) who worked in the experimental sciences*. It is, of course, difficult to compare the grades of people studying centuries apart, because degree terminology has changed significantly. But of nearly 300 surveyed, 18% achieved third class honours or worse, and even more had ‘ordinary’ degrees (the definition of which has changed over time, but generally means a pass without honours).

Contrary to the general belief that 70% to 80% of experimental scientists at FRS level have first class honours, I found the figure is closer to half (54%); 10% of these distinguished scientists never did degrees, and almost a third (30%) have a second, 2:2 or lower. Many of the most well known scientists on my list got the lowest grades.

The findings have important implications for decision making when offering PhD places and research jobs: clearly degree grades are not a reliable indicator of research ability and potential. A similar study to mine by Liam Hudson in 1960[1] reached similar conclusions, and although his sample was a fairly small cohort of Oxbridge graduates, his message has clearly been ignored.

A more thoughtful approach needs to be adopted by academics, industry and the research councils when selecting and interviewing students for research jobs. The system should mean students who have potential and are motivated, but have lower grades, can still get jobs, while those with firsts who are not suited to research are prevented from entering the system.

Students being interviewed for PhDs or research jobs could be given some new data to analyse or problems to solve. Those who have research ability, creativity or can think laterally are more likely to come up with interesting analyses or solutions; those who memorised their way to a first might not. If the quality of undergraduate research projects and theses are considered too, degree grades could almost be ignored.

I am told certain institutions such as Imperial College do employ similar sounding methods, but in my experience of meeting PhD and research supervisors I have never been given a problem to solve or take away to work on.

And do employers or academics do enough to understand a student’s motivation? Those with a first who just want to get their PhD may not be as valuable as those with worse grades but a dedication to a life in research.

The UK faces a skills shortage in science and other STEM subjects. Why would any academic institutions want to turn away people who could be very good at research? Looking at some of the great scientists of the last two centuries, it would be madness to shut the door to their potential modern day equivalents because of a couple of percentage points on their degree.

*Download a full breakdown of Francis’ survey data 

Full details of the survey methodology can be obtained by emailing the editor, Tom Ireland.

1) Hudson, L. Degree Class and Attainment In Scientific Research. The British Psychological Society51(1) 67-73 (1960)

About 30-40% of the names in the survey replied to email. The rest were obtained from Royal Society biographical memoirs, Science Vega videos and other biographies. Thanks to Frederick Vine FRS and Steve Busby FRS for their help and support and to all the Fellows who replied. Thanks also to the Cambridge and Oxford student offices, and to Dr Paul Johnston at Glasgow Ecology and Tropical diseases department for helpful discussions and statistics advice. Special thanks to Donald Grierson FRS for help, criticisms and discussions and to Dr Steve Catterall and Professor Paul Barlow at Edinburgh University. Thanks to all Fellows of the Royal Society who replied to email.

Francis Hooton is doing an ecology research internship with the University of Glasgow. He has Asperger’s syndrome, which affected his original biochemistry degree from the University of Aberdeen. After being diagnosed and given the appropriate support, he completed a master’s in biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Nottingham University.

Writing inspiration

Yesterday I spent most of the day preparing the first draft of a manuscript. This invariably meant that my wife and son had to entertain themselves. They went on a hike with a friend and afterwards the four of us went for lunch at a local pub.

I was struggling quite a bit before I went for lunch, but a good craft ale, some soul food in the form of a great burger, and ofcourse the lovely sunny day, gave me lots of inspiration and motivation to finish the paper. I left my wife, son and friend at the pub and by the end of the afternoon the first draft was ready.

I’m going to leave it for a few days and then have another look at it, but I am pretty happy as is. I might need to go to the pub more often, perhaps Rachael Cayley () over at Explorations of Style needs to do an article on it…

New book: Making Sense

Making sense cover.jpgIn an attempt to freshen up my materials on academic reading and writing for my undergraduate students, I obtained a copy of Northey and Aderkas’ Making Sense: A student’s guide to research and writing.

What appealed to me was the really back-to-basics approach of the book. It is aimed at students, and covers topics like planning to write, errors in grammar and usage, misused words (anyone remember the effect/affect mystery?), but also addresses the use of illustrations and working in groups.

I am slowly making my way through the book, but so far I must say I am impressed. It is a very accessible textbook, written in a clear and easy to understand manner. It uses lots of examples of good and bad practice and even discusses how to approach writing for exam questions.

All that is left now is to start updating my notes and hand outs. If only I had unlimited time…

Northey, M. and von Aderkas, P. (2015) Making Sense: A students guide to research and writing – Life Sciences (2nd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-901028-8. Find it here.

HEA Fellowship

After completing my PgCert in Higher Education Practice, I have finally upgraded from Associate Fellow to Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA).


Although it is only a minor change on paper, a click of a button really, it does reflect my experience as a teaching academic. FHEA to me means that I have been recognised as meeting the D2 standard of the UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and learning in higher education. I feel more confident in my practice after completing PGCHEP and obtaining FHEA, and I hope it will positively reflect on me as a higher education practitioner for my EdD application which will be sent off in a few days.

Hopefully, in a year or two, I will be in a position where it is appropriate to apply for Senior Fellowship. However, in the mean time, lets just get through the current semester… Upwards and onwards!

Reflecting on my professional development during PGCHEP

Since enrolling on the PgCert in Higher Education Practice (PGCHEP) at the University of Essex in 2010-2011 I feel that I have made significant progress in terms of my teaching ability and my knowledge and understanding of working in an academic institution. However, the journey has been a rather unconventional, if not odd one.

I started a full-time fully funded PhD as a graduate teaching assistant in September 2010, only to give that up in January 2012 after being offered a full-time lecturing position. For a while I tried to combine a full-time lectureship with a part-time PhD, but I quite quickly realised this was not feasible. The academic workload did not allow for sufficient time to be spent on my research, which meant I was not able to meet the deadlines for part-time PhD students. After giving up this project, it took me a while to find something else, but in 2013 I started a new research programme, with the idea of working towards a PhD by publication. Initially, this went very well: I managed to recruit undergraduate and postgraduate students on the programme and was successful in applying for various grants. However, in July 2014 I was asked to take on a course management role in return for a promotion to senior lecturer. I accepted the offer, and as a result have had to reduce the amount of time I spent on research. I simply did not have enough time in the lab to be developing research ideas into papers.

Simultaneously, my teaching role has undergone tremendous change in a short period of time too. As a GTA I started supporting and teaching practical sessions. I enjoyed doing this, so quite quickly I was given more responsibility and started lecturing undergraduate students. When I became a lecturer, I started in the middle of an academic year. I rather was dropped in at the deep end, which meant I did not have a lot of time to develop teaching material or prepare for lectures. This mean that initially, I taught my first semester using other colleagues’ material. This was a difficult process and in retrospect I am not sure the students really benefitted from those lectures. However, as time went on I found time to develop lectures further by making notes in my powerpoints at the end of a session with things I wanted to change. This meant that I could amend the lecture before it was due for the next cohort of students.

I also learned some useful tips and tricks at a two-day HEA seminar for new academic bioscience staff, and during various PGCHEP workshops. I developed my lectures, and in turn, I had much more engagement with my students at the start of the 2012-2013 academic year. I moved from “recycling” other peoples’ assessments to writing my own, and I become much more aware of constructive alignment theory from attending PGCHEP sessions and reading some good papers. My module feedback has generally been good, with students often commenting positively on how I organise modules. For example, I have the habit of routinely providing key papers on Moodle rather than relying on students to find them. I then support this by giving students the URLs of search strategies for certain topics, so that when they use the link it returns a useful collection of further papers. This means I can be sure my students know which papers I want them to read, and where to find further material. By doing this, I have agreed with students that the papers provided are discussed in the lectures, and in turn they become “fair game” for exam questions (especially at level 6). Students seem to appreciate this, and I have noticed that my level 6 students are happy to refer to key papers in context of newer findings in their exam answers.

My administrative roles have also evolved quickly over time. When I just started lecturing I became the year supervisor for first year students. This meant I was responsible for the academic (and to a degree pastoral) care for all first year students. I quite happily engaged with this and enjoyed the interaction. I strongly feel that investing time and energy in developing an academic relationship and engagement in the first year will benefit not only the students, but also me during year 2 and 3 of their case. It makes teaching more interesting and it becomes easier to get reliable feedback on my performance and the student experience.

Early on in my lectureship, I was asked to observe the Periodic Degree Scheme Review (PDSR) for the HE Professional Floristry scheme. I found it very challenging, as at the time I did not really know what I was doing. However, during the PDSR event I quickly learned the benefit of the process. This resulted in me volunteering to be on the Course Development Review (CDR) panel and the Course Validation panel for the then new BSc (Hons) Equine Behaviour programme, and I became a core member of the Veterinary Physiotherapy course development team. This meant I have had experience from both sides of the course (re)validation process, and I have had time to fully develop this. As a result, when I became course manager in 2014, I also became the coordinating author of the HE Animal scheme PDSR.

I found this a very challenging project for a number of reasons. Firstly, the HE Animal scheme is one of the largest in the College, and I was responsible for rationalising the scheme’s offer of 13 courses to 7. Secondly, it meant I had to coordinate and lead a team of very busy academics who have a varied level of engagement with course development, and who are at times rather adverse to change in both content and assessment methods because it affects their workload. Thirdly, I quickly realised that inventive course design and innovative assessment can easily be undone by institutional partnership politics which are out of my control. Especially this last reason has caused me to seriously doubt my interest in course development and course management and has even led to me applying for a job outside of academia.

So where does this leave me now? My research is not really going anywhere, I have an extremely busy teaching load and my interest and motivation for course management and course development have seriously been challenged. To start with, I have accepted that I have no interest in becoming a “research scientist”. Instead, I am comfortable with being a science (education) practitioner, which to me is distinctly different. Working at Writtle will always mean that research comes second to teaching, but this does not mean I can’t do research. I will have to be good at enabling students to do research, and mainly work on small industry-linked projects. In addition, my research interests have shifted from lab-based research to desk-based evidence-based animal health research. Finally, I have found that, through doing my maths support research project, I have developed a genuine interest in higher education practitioner research. As a result, I am in the process of applying for a place on the professional doctorate in education (EdD) programme at Anglia Ruskin University. My research area will be evidence-based decision making in course management, with the hope of making a difference to the College, as well as it’s students.

Teaching-wise, I still have a full teaching load. However, I have found that over time it becomes easier to update lectures, and preparation takes less time. I have had to write new modules, and have overhauled assessment strategies as part of the HE Animal PDSR. However, the new and updated modules now include a larger variety in assessment methods, and overassessment has been reduced. Finally I now regularly assist newer members of staff with queries regarding assessment and administrative duties. I found that, since becoming course manager, I am asked for advice more often, but I am now also responsible for problem-solving and overall course administration, which includes reflecting on course years in the Annual Review of Courses (ARC). Although I enjoy doing this and find it very useful, the fact that the ARC needs approval of the same person who frustrated me so much during the recent PDSR made this a challenging task.

Finally, I am happy to say I have not given up on course development. I have been tasked to write the new four-year integrated masters course in bioveterinary science. I agreed to do this since it is the very first Writtle-only award after the College obtained Taught Degree Awarding Powers, and I have been awarded 0.2 FTE remission from teaching duties for it. To date, my course outline plans have been approved by the College’s Senior Management Team and Academic Board, with colleagues I have successfully applied for a significant grant to support investment in resources for this course, and I am fully responsible for the development of the course. Because of my experience during the HE Animal PDSR, I am now more comfortable coordinating a team of academics, and in taking initiative and making course-level decisions when I feel it necessary. This has made the course development more enjoyable. I strongly feel I am writing a very innovative programme, with built in short courses and professional workshops, professional accreditation and benefits to students lasting long after their graduation. The fact that the Validation event for this course is not subject to partnership agreements has made me confident that there is no political bias and the course will be judged on its academic merit.

In summary, my main aims at the start of PGCHEP were to expand my teaching toolbox, to find more ways of varying my teaching style, move away from traditional lecture format and develop my research skills. I feel that I have come a long way in meeting these aims and have quite quickly gone beyond them and progressed to developing other areas of my career. Looking back at the initial reflective and planning exercises for this course I can firmly say that I am progressing well with meeting the short term and medium term goals, and have even made some great leaps in some of my long term goals. I am very happy with the opportunities that PGCHEP has afforded me in terms of opening the way to a more pedagogic way of thinking, as this has developed my career in many positive ways. I am looking forward to starting the EdD and the contribution it will make to my practice. Upwards and onwards!