Dissertation drafts: A prime candidate for video feedback

I cannot imagine that there are many involved in the delivery (or receipt) of Higher Education teaching who have not had their experience profoundly altered by the Covid pandemic. After two years, and as aspects of pedagogy start to return to “normal”, what are some of the changes that we are going to keep, despite the fact that they were originally forced upon us?

For me, a strong case has been made for the use of video when delivering feedback on a long piece of writing, such as a final year dissertation.

Talking students through their project draft is always a milestone moment in the academic year (we offer students an entitlement to one read through, but only one read through of their text). In the past, dissertation feedback meetings have often involved me talking a student through potential changes for 60-90 mins. I would normally have provided them with a photocopy of my annotated version, but the process was typically more one-way and didactic than most project meetings over the course of the year.

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A (very old) primer on Xenotransplantation

Lots of Twitter-chat today about Xenotransplantation, following the news of a Genetically-altered pig heart into a human recipient. Here’s a Bioethics Briefing I wrote on the topic back in 2004. At the time the rejection issues effectively ruled out this approach. However, the advent of Genome editing using tools such as CRISPR has radically altered this. I don’t have time today to write a fuller update, but this document still sets the scene in a reasonable way.

I wrote (or commissioned) a series of Bioethics Briefings for the Learning & Teaching Support Network

Advice on email etiquette (for students)

Practical advice for students is one of the recurring themes on this blog, see for example:

A recent tweet alerted me to a resource on appropriate email etiquette, authored by Dr Matthew Hale of University of Detroit Mercy on his Digital Pedagogy YouTube channel.

The contents of the video will resonate with the experience of academics in many institutions who regularly receive less-than-appropriate emails from students. The video (9 mins) is packed with much practical wisdom, including:

  • Err on the side of formality (think “letter” not “text message”) unless you have good reason to assume you can be more informal.
  • Contact ought to be via your official University account. Hale makes this point based on the inappropriate nature of some people’s chosen monikers in their email addresses, but there can be other reasons why this is sound advice. We, in fact, made it a rule a number of years ago that we would only respond to replied from bona fide university addressed when we were receiving messages from a bogus student.
  • Use the subject line wisely to highlight the nature of your enquiry.
  • Include the academic’s title and make sure you have spelt their name correctly [this is a common bugbear for me, I regularly receive emails for Wilmott, Willmot or Wilmot rather than the correct “double-double” version].
  • Aspire to brevity and clarity in your message
  • Always re-read the message before sending
  • Appreciate the quantity of emails that academics will receive (often hundreds a day) and therefore be realistic about the time-frame on which you might expect a response, especially if you are sending your message outside of normal working hours.

The above summary does not include Hale’s final top ten “Don’ts”you can find those towards the end of the video.

It looks like there are several other videos that students will find helpful over on Hale’s Digital Pedagogy site, including his own take on requesting a letter of recommendation.

Take-home messages from “Practical Pedagogy”

On Monday 13th September I joined several hundred academics for the “Practical Pedagogy” conference. The virtual event (held using Teams) was organised by Chris Headleand from University of Lincoln. The programme was jam packed with interesting stuff.

With three parallel sessions all day (and no scheduled breaks) there were inevitably choices to be make about which sessions to attend. However, for the most part, I was pretty pleased with the selections I made. What follows are some reflections/notes on a few of the stand-out presentations.

First up, Liz Mossop, Deputy Vice Chancellor for Student Development and Engagement at the University of Lincoln, offered us Some New (Academic) Year Resolutions. These included:

  • Cast the net wider – in terms of engagement with broader demographics, and ensuring that we are in listening mode not just broadcasting to them.
  • Rethinking decision-making – one ‘bonus’ of the pandemic was the need for institutions to be agile in adapting to the new circumstances. Let’s not slip back into the mire of “university treacle” in which even minor changed get bogged down in bureaucracy.
  • Evaluate communication approaches – clear communication (Centre to staff, Centre to students, staff to students, etc) is vital, but was not always a strength during the pandemic.
  • Influence what I can, let go of what I can’t – this is a crucial one for me. I can only change the things that are within my sphere of influence, to try and alter other things is a waste of time and saps our emotional energy. If we focus on the things we can change, sometime the impact will percolate to the things we could not initially affect.
  • Focus on *who* we want to be, not *what* we want to be – this is true at both the institutional and the individual level. Our values are ultimately more important than our activity.
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Can Active Learning Close the Attainment Gap? – A journal club report

At a recent meeting of the University of Leicester Biological Sciences Scholarship of Teaching & Learning (BS-SOTL) group, I led a journal club discussion of the paper Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math, by Theobald et al, and published in March 2020 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1916903117). With one exception, the authors are based at the University of Washington in Seattle. They had conducted a meta-analysis of published papers on the relative performance of what they term Minoritized Groups in STEM (MGS, that is racial or ethnic minority and/or low income students) versus those from better represented backgrounds (non-MGS). Their comparisons employed a Bayesian, Individual Participant Data (IPD) statistical approach which, I gather, is considered the gold standard methodology for meta-analysis.

My slides from the session can be found on Slideshare (though, for full transparency, the uploaded version have been tweaked a little to incorporate better reflection on one of the images which emerged during the meeting, courtesy of evaluation by one of my colleagues. The slides can also be see here:

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8 Things (Science) Lecturers Need to Know About the Students Arriving at University this Autumn

At the end of April, the regular #DryLabsRealScience online Community of Practice meeting was given over to presentations about the experience of current Year 13 (A level) students. Three secondary school Science teachers (two in person, and one in absentia) provided fascinating, and at times depressing, insights into the students who are going to be joining university courses in Autumn 2021. The following reflections and observations inspired by the event may prove useful in shaping our plans to offer them the best opportunity to flourish.

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Time for #Sweetification?

I was recently preparing for a review session, to offer clarification on points arising from earlier teaching videos. One of the students asked if I could explain what I mean when I had said that Glycine was the only achiral amino acid found in proteins.

My first thought was to reach for the trusty MolyMod kits and make some models. Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought to include one of these in my earlier smash-and-grab raid on my office when I’d popped in to grab things I might need for teaching from home. What was to do?

Inspired by a talk I’d attended a few years back, in which Nessa Carey had used Dolly Mixture as epigenetic markers, I decided sweets might be the solution.

A trip to the local cornershop netted some cocktail sticks, a bag of Liquorice Allsorts, and some Starburst Haribos. It turned out that the latter was a crucial addition, when I discovered that the Allsorts contained precisely three of every variant, and I’d need four of one for my purposes.


Initially I assembled two mirror-imaged models using the most visually-distinct Allsorts I could find, but using a Starburst fried egg in one position as I knew I’d need to have two of those per molecule to answer the specific question and demonstrate why glycine is not chiral. Continue reading

On the vagaries of workload models

Recent discussion of the “mutant” algorithm blamed for the 2020 A level prompted me to undertake a sideways rumination on the vagaries of workload models. I am not reflecting here on the TRAC (Transparent Approach to Costing) data collected annually by universities, and which has a whole hornets’ nest of its own issues (some of which are discussed by David Kernohan in this 2019 WONKHE article). I am thinking instead of the ways in which institutions increasingly attempt to align the work undertaken by an individual to the criteria stated in their contract.

A case for the importance of documenting workloads can be made on the grounds of parity and fairness. Sadly, the reality is that forensic bean-counting rarely captures the nuances of real-life working. Continue reading

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