HEA Webinar: Postgraduate transitions – exploring disciplinary practice

Today I “attended” the HEA Research Webinar 9: Postgraduate transitions – exploring disciplinary practice. Although a lot of my time as a course manager is taken up by recruitment activity and manageing student populations once they arrive, another important part of my role is to make sure that students are aware of their options once they graduate. The leaving destinations of graduates are reported anually in HESA’s Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey, and it is something my courses and the College are benchmarked against. Obviously a graduate level job is one leaving destination measured, but another, equally important destination is further/postgraduate studies.

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The webinar revolved around the current situation in transition from UG to PG (Taught and/or Research) studies. It started off with a very clear overview of current transition numbers, which HE disciplines are better than other in progression to PG studies, and what various institutions are doing to promote this transition both internally and externally. Also, the presentation showed PG Taught studies seem to have been forgotten about in institutional policies. The data was very interetsing and makes something I am going to read up on to discuss with colleagues.

I think the main message of the webinar was that the evidence-base is very limited, specifically because HEIs are not very good in keeping and monitoring information in this area. The recommendations (see below) were very clear, and to me make sense. I have taken away some useful pointers for me as a course manager, and was particularly interested in the concept of using our PG transition numbers as an indicator of how we develop a culutre of scholarship.

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Recommendations made in the HEA webinar

The full findings of the EA research project discsussed during this seminar can be found here. I think the report makes very good reading and food for thought. There are some simple things we can do to support UG students who are interested in or would like to find out about PG studies.

The webinar was recorded, and can be found here for future watching. This was my first HEA Webinar, and I enjoyed the experience, so I will be looking out for future events. The next event is scheduled for June. I will be there, will you?

HEA research webinar ten: Evaluating teaching development in HE

1 June 2016, 12:30-14:00

Professor Pauline Kneale and members of the PedRIO team at Plymouth University will discuss their latest HEA-funded research which explores how best we can evaluate teaching development in HE. In addition to a literature review, the team have developed an evidence-informed toolkit which can be used to evaluate teaching development and CPD. It will be of interest to anyone who wants to understand how these activities impact and influence teaching, learning and the broader student experience.

– See more at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/research/research-webinars#sthash.GnuoOm06.dpuf

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Acknowledgements
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.

Biography
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.

Student entry profiles do not define their chance of success

During the Writtle College HE Open Day yesterday, one of the parents accompanying their daughter asked me why our UCAS Tariff for the new Integrated Master in Bioveterinary Science was so much lower than similar courses at other HEIs.

At the time, my answer was that  I don’t believe that the decisions young people make in their early education journey and/or circumstances in their life when they are 16-18 years old should define their chances of entering higher education and their chances of becoming a successful graduate.

When I got home later that day, I started thinking more about this, and suddenly I remembered a TED talk I was shown in one of the workshops I took for my PgCert in Higher Education Practice. The talk was by Angela Duckworth and describer her research into “grit”.

Grit, or in my words “sheer hard word and dedication”, is something that is really important in higher education, especially in the transition from secondary education. In her talk, Angela refers to work done on Mindset Theory by Carol Dweck, who has also given a TED talk on the subject:

I strongly identify with the idea of Growth Mindset in young people, especially when they just arrive at university. Some of my most successful students have come in with entry profiles which were not even close to being considered at various “elite” institutions and graduated with first class honours degrees, after which they obtained postgraduate studies places at the institutions where they were rejected a mere 3 years earlier. Similarly, I see students with stellar entry profiles who don’t make it through year 1, because for the first time in their education journey they are confronted with setbacks and they fail to deal with it.

I am of the opinion that, with hard work, dedication and an open mind (or in other words grit and a growth mindset), candidates with less than ideal entry profiles can become successful HE graduates. Perhaps not all of them graduate with a first class award, but a student who works as hard as they can, takes up all opportunities they are offered, and who is passionate about what they do and ends up achieving a 3rd class or 2:2 class award is a successful graduate in my book. Mainly because the grit and mindset they have shown during their higher education journey will serve them really well further on in their career. These students have a bright future…

I plan on showing this videos on grit and growth mindset to new first year students next academic year, in the hope that it inspires them to think about their future and how they are going to get there.

My journey into science

After reading Terry McGlyn’s post on his path to science on Small Pond Science, I thought I would share mine.

According to my parents I have always wanted to work with animals, and as far as I remember back I wanted to be a vet. I went through highschool choosing the sciences stream, completing modules in maths, physics, chemistry, biology and economics. When I graduated, I entered the lottery for enrollment to the only vet school in the Netherlands.

I was not successful in obtaining a place, with the course always having 3-4 times more applicants than places. Instead of waiting a year and trying again, I chose to go to Belgium, where there were no enrollment limits. I enrolled on the veterinary medicine course at Ghent University and spent the first year having more fun and doing little work. As a result I failed my first year.

The second time round I took it more seriously. I loved the bioscience modules, and started questioning whether being a vet was really for me. At the end of the year I decided I was still interested in animals, but no longer from a clinical perspective.

I moved to University College Ghent to study a degree in Agriculture and Biotechnology with a specialisation in animal health science. I loved every minute of it, and it inspired me to find an MSc in a related field so I could explore my interests further.

I ended up enrolling onto the MSc in Animal Biology and Welfare, which was jointly delivered at Writtle  College in the UK and HAS Den Bosch University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. This course really got me hooked on animal health science. I had the opportunity to undertake my dissertation research at the 3R Research Centre at Radboud University Hospital in the Netherlands. Being a member of an enthusiastic research group got me hooked on research and led me to apply for a funded PhD place at Writtle.

I started the PhD, and am still at Writtle now. Since starting things have not gone as originally planned. I was offered a fulltime lectureship in companion animal health 18 months into my PhD, took it, gave up the PhD, became a course manager, senior lecturer, and am now waiting to start an EdD at Anglia Ruskin University in September.

I am still hooked on research, but now share that passion with teaching. I consider myself more a researching professional rather than a professional researcher, and I am looking forward to seeing what my bioscience education future brings.

Technological developments

I was cleaning out my storage space at my dad’s house as he is moving and the place has been sold. Whilts going through boxes I came across the following tech: 

 

The left phone was my very first mobile phone, bought roughly 14 years ago. The right one is the one I am currently writing this post on. It made me reflect for a minute on how fast technology has developed, and how the practice of bioscience education had evolved. Who would have thought 14 years ago that mobile phone would become edicational tools, and students would use mobile devices during lectures to support their learning? It makes me wonder what the future brings…

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…