Does attendance at lectures matter? An accidental case study

There is a lot of discussion in the University sector at the moment about student engagement and attendance at lectures. I know that several institutions (including my own) have ongoing pedagogic projects trying to ascertain why there has been a decline in the number of people turning up for face-to-face teaching sessions.

I was faced in March with the dispiriting spectacle of turning up to give one of my second year lectures and finding the room considerably under-populated. The attendance monitoring system suggests that there were 66 out of 185 students present, so that would be about 36%, so a smidge over a third (and this is before we get into the rising phenomenon of “swipe-n-go” students who log their attendance… then don’t!). Yes it was the last lecture in the entire module, yes there were probably looming deadlines in other modules, but part of my frustration at the level of absenteeism was borne out of the fact that I knew that my 15 mark Short Answer Question for the summer exam was based on the content of this session. I was therefore intrigued to see how the students would get on – would there be reams of blank pages (the outcome that leaves academics with mixed feelings – disappointment at missed learning, offset by a guilty acknowledgement that their marking burden is reduced)? Continue reading

Why I take exception to “Exceptional”

Emerging from our University library a few days ago I was struck by the sunshine glinting off a vinyl banner located near the main entrance. In keeping with many institutions, our campus and nearby roads, are home to many such signs used as opportunities to convey motivational messages to current students or to celebrate past successes for the benefit, primarily, of applicants we are hoping to persuade to make us firm choice for their education from the start of the next academic year.


The observant will note: (a) this was not taken on the sunny day mentioned in the text and (b) my thumb is intentionally obscuring the name of the student quoted

As I looked more closely, I registered the phrasing on the banner – “The teaching is exceptional”, it declared, attributing the quote (by first name only) to a recent graduate. I recognised the name, she is a studious Asian woman, who had completed one of our bioscience programmes a year or two ago. Continue reading

What design tells you about priorities?

I’m intrigued by an apparently accidental case study in design priorities arising from two different posters produced to advertise the same forthcoming lecture. Despite initial appearances, the two posters in the photo both promote a keynote speech by Professor Mary Dixon-Woods on Evidence for Improving Quality and Safety in Healthcare.


To my mind, the design on the right clearly conveys the content of the lecture (the interesting bit). This crucial information is almost entirely lost in the left-hand version, which massively over-emphasise the series of talks in which the lecture is to be given. It is entirely speculation, but I suspect this emphasis reflects the priorities given in the design brief.

Anyhow, I am looking forward to an engaging presentation from a former colleague.


Where’s the flippin’ flipping?

There’s a lot of discussion at the moment around the notion of “flipped teaching” or the “flipped classroom”. The common thread is the requirement (or opportunity) for students to do some kind of course-related work on their own, away from the classroom setting.


However, there’s a problem. Some people may think I’m being picky, but I believe that sloppy usage of the phrase “flipped teaching” is significantly muddying the waters. Specifically, I worry that the notions of flipped teaching and “lecture capture” are being conflated, to the detriment of careful examination of both.

In recent days I’ve had cause to read two different articles purporting to be about flipped teaching. In both cases, the work described a comparison of attendance at a live lecture versus watching a recording of the lecture. These are investigations of the potential impact of lecture capture, but they are NOT flipped teaching. Flipping the classroom requires that there is still some face-to-face classroom task. Advocates for this approach, of which I am one, would argue that the point of moving some of the activities out of the face-to-face session is to require (or at least encourage) students to have engaged in some preparatory work that makes the subsequent contact time richer and (probably) more interactive than a traditional lecture would have been. But there has still got to be some real world encounter between an academic and their students.

Now there is clearly overlap between lecture capture technology and flipped teaching. Tools such as Panopto can be efficient ways to prepare short videos to be watched before the face-to-face session. But not all flipped classroom preparation is necessarily video based (it might, for example, involve reading something instead). Equally, giving students the opportunity to watch a recording of a lecture they missed is a valuable catch-up tool, but this is not flipped teaching per se.


When a PhD doesn’t lead into “academia”

Tucked away toward the back on each issue of the journal Nature is a regular column offering diverse views on Career development. It is often an interesting read. In the 2nd August 2018 edition, the focus was on the thorny topic of attitudes towards PhD students who do not follow the traditional route into postdoctoral research and (potentially) a lectureship.

academiaIn his article, Philipp Kruger, an Oxford research student in the latter stages of his Immunology PhD, challenged the persisting notion that a decision to pursue alternative career paths after completion of a PhD was tantamount to “failure” (interestingly the original title, still the title for the PDF version, was You are not a failed scientist which has been altered to the slightly less accusatory Why it is not a ‘failure’ to leave academia for the online version).

Kruger was keen both to challenge supervisors who send out the message that completion of a doctoral degree was about “academia or bust”, and to promote opportunities for PhD students to develop a broader range of skills and experiences. Some of this will be about greater awareness of the transferable skills that are naturally being accumulated during the course of one’s research. These likely include:

  • Teamwork
  • Time-management
  • Project management (including prioritisation of tasks)
  • Written and oral communication skills
  • An ability to evaluate evidence
  • Resilience

These are skills that would be welcomed and appreciated by a broad range of potential employers.

On top of this, enterprising and pro-active students have the opportunity to garner a broader range of experiences, for example organising a small-scale conference, blogging or taking part in other public engagement activities. There are also more formal internships and placements, such as three month fellowships with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) or with the BBC.

Supervisors are encouraged not to stand against their students taking up these opportunities, but rather to actively encourage and facilitate them to do so. A “pure” research careers is not for all (not least because there are fewer postdoc positions than there are graduating PhD students).

During a decade of running careers talks for undergraduate bioscientists, I have regularly included examples of alumni who have found fulfilling roles in “Careers from Science” as well as “Careers in Science”. Several of these have actually completed a PhD between their original degree and their current role. A consistent theme has been the fact that they enjoy their present work, despite in many cases not initially envisage this being where they would be focusing their labours. Flexibility and adaptability are important skills. Kruger would encourage supervisors to engender an atmosphere where students can push on different doors and see what might open up for them.


Questions at the Edge of Consciousness: A review of “Into the Grey Zone”

Imagine (and I hope this is a theoretical scenario rather than a real experience) that a friend is involved in a road traffic accident. The collision leaves them in what neuroscientist Adrian Owen terms the “grey zone”; the patient is alive (and does not require artificial ventilation) but they are in a “vegetative” state. Their body has periods when they appear to be awake, but they do not demonstrate any awareness of their circumstances. In the absence of intentional movement, how can we be sure that they are not, in fact, conscious – hearing the conversations next to their hospital bed, maybe even experiencing pain?

ITGZFor a long while this question seemed unanswerable. However a flurry of scientific papers, published about a decade ago, demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that it was possible to communicate with some patients in an apparently vegetative state. Now Professor Owen has published a memoir Into the Grey Zone capturing his experience at the heart of that groundbreaking work. (I couldn’t wait for publication of the Anglicised version, so I actually have “…Gray Zone“, but am assured that aside from spellings and the occasional idiom, the contents are the same. I notice on social media that Owen himself refers to the book at ITGZ which not only saves a few characters but neatly side-steps the issue of the different title.)

Whatever we choose to call it, this is a remarkable and moving read – I cannot think of any other book that has simultaneously thrilled me with the clear and logical presentation of scientific experiments and moved me to tears with their implications of the experiments for patients and their families. What follows is my rather lengthy summary of the book, followed by some specific reflections. If you want to skip directly to the latter, click here.

The book follows a general pattern in which each chapter introduces us both to the individuals who had slipped into the grey zone, and to the emerging tools of neuroinvestigation which enabled Owen to demonstrate that many of these patients, perhaps 15 to 20% of those previously considered as “vegetative”, do in fact retain some level of consciousness.

The first chapter The Ghost That Haunts Me is slightly different. It features two central characters who slip into the grey zone, but neither is a patient of Owen. Instead they are his mother, who developed a brain tumour, and his former lover Maureen who suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage that left her in a vegetative state. Continue reading

“Are you my mummy?”*: Diverse notions of “motherhood” in the IVF era

Back in autumn 2017, I was asked to be a contributor at the Edinburgh Biomedical Ethics Film Festival on the Ethics of Surrogacy. As part of the weekend we watched the 2016 documentary Future Baby, and the 1990 film version of The Handmaid’s Tale.

It was during my preparation for that event that I found myself ruminating on the diverse tasks that constitute being a mother. The anniversary of IVF brings this back into my thoughts.

There are, in essence, three contributions that a mother would naturally make:

  • producing the egg which provides half of the chromosomes for the resulting child (plus nutrients and some other genetic material via the mitochondria),
  • offering the womb in which the baby will develop (whilst receiving both nutrition and epigenetic influence on gene expression), and
  • caring for the infant after birth, and as they grow on to eventually attain their own independence.
motherhood too

Motherhood can now be subdivided into different roles (cartoon inspired by Morparia original)

These phases could be summarised as the genetic, the gestational and the nurturing dimensions of motherhood (the term “social” is sometimes used in the literature to cover this third category, but I prefer to the notion of nurture). Continue reading

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