Introducing BiologyOnTheBox

Today I am officially launching my latest project. BiologyOnTheBox is a website for sharing recommendations regarding broadcast media programmes and clips that might be useful in the teaching of bioscience. The majority of links and reviews relate to TV shows in the UK, though some relate to radio. is a site for sharing recommendations regarding TV and radio resources for use in teaching bioscience is a site for sharing recommendations regarding TV and radio resources for use in teaching bioscience

Recommendations on BiologyOnTheBox can, in principle, be used by anyone with access to copies of the original programmes. It is, however, intended to dovetail particularly closely with the fantastic Box of Broadcasts resource. I’ve enthused previously about Box of Broadcasts (BoB), including here (TES Opinion) and here (this blog). However having had a lunchtime conversation recently with a number of colleagues who had no idea what BoB was, here’s a brief intro. If you are already familiar with BoB feel free to jump down to the section on BiologyOnTheBox. Continue reading


To Whom It May Concern: Some advice for students seeking references

Reference writing takes time and effort, do your best to help your referee do the best they can for you

Reference writing takes time and effort, do your best to help your referee do the best they can for you

A number of recent events have prompted me to reflect again on the subject of reference writing.

Offering a letter of recommendation, or completing one of the myriad different online forms, is not a trivial task, either in terms of the labour involved or the potential significance of the resultant document. In this post I want to make some suggestions for any students seeking a reference from an academic, regardless of their discipline, which I hope will make the process more effective (and less fraught) for all parties.

1. Ask. Firstly, do ask a potential referee before you offer their name to the organisation seeking the reference. On one level this is common courtesy. However it also does two things to the benefit of the applicant: it forewarns the academic that they need to budget some time for writing a reference and gathering the relevant information (see 3, below); it also gives them the opportunity to suggest a more appropriate referee for the specific job. Unless there are exceptional circumstances, the first person you should ask for a reference is your personal tutor. For finalists or graduates requiring a second academic commendation the next person to ask is usually your project supervisor. Continue reading

Teaching and Communicating Science in a Digital Age (Conference)

December 15th-17th 2014 saw me at Charles Darwin House (London) for the Society of Experimental Biology’s Education and Public Affairs symposium Teaching and Communicating Science in a Digital Age (click link to see full programme). This looked like a valuable event from the outset, but I can honestly say it turned out to be even better than expected. A pdf file (35 pages) capturing the Twitter feed for #SEBed2014 can be seen via this link. [UPDATE: I have also produced my first Storify from the tweets, which removes the retweets in the PDF, and puts them into a more logical order.]

It was good to catch up with old friends, to have the first face-to-face meeting with various Twitter friends and to make other new friends. Indeed, one of the striking things about the attendees was the lack of overlap with the HEA Bioscience regulars.

It would be invidious to pick out any one talk for special mention, but I would say the two sessions from which I got the most inspiration were “Engaging with the public and schools” and “Students as creators and communicators” (CoI declaration: my talk was in this session). At least two of the presentations were primarily delivered by current undergraduates, which was also refreshing.

I made three formal contributions to the symposium – a talk on our bioethics video-production assessment, and two posters (one on the Careers After Biological Science work, and one on Biology on the Box, my more recent project developing a library of recommended television clips for teaching biology). Links to all three can be found here:

The CABS programme involves Leicester alumni giving talks about their diverse careers which are then made available online.

The CABS programme involves Leicester alumni giving talks about their diverse careers which are then made available online.

Biology on the Box is my latest project, developing a library of recommended TV clips and programmes for teaching Biology

Unconditional offers: a self-defeating policy?

In the UCAS admissions round for 2013 University entry, The University of Birmingham triggered a seismic change in recruitment policy when they introduce unconditional offers to strong candidates on the basis that the applicant made Birmingham their firm, rather than insurance, choice. Many competitor institutions thought Birmingham ought to be reprimanded for breach of admissions etiquette. Far from this being the case, Birmingham was actually named University of the Year 2013-14 in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide. Judges praised their “bold – and successful – approach to recruitment”.

What were other universities to do? In the 2013-14 recruitment round a number of further institutions decided to also make unconditional offers, with or without strings attached. It is predicted that in the coming year even more institutions will adopt the practice. This development worries me, a lot, and here’s why.

What has the Red Queen got to say to admissions tutors?

What has the Red Queen got to say to admissions tutors?

Firstly, there is a evolutionary theory known as the Red Queen hypothesis. In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen informs Alice that “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”. This could easily be applied to the recruitment trend. If it reaches a point where the majority of universities are making unconditional offers then there will no longer be any selective advantage over competitor institutions – the benefits of making unconditional offers will have been lost, but the detrimental aspects (e.g. accepting students who have failed to fulfil their academic potential) will remain.

Secondly, I am concerned about the impact this development will have on the integrity of grade predictions offered by schools. Back in the 1990s, in a previous incarnation, I taught A Level Chemistry. One year, after I had made the grade predictions for my group, I was contacted by the parents of one student. “You’ve predicted a C for [let’s call him Johnny]. He won’t get offers for his chosen course at university if that’s his prediction, so please can you change this to an A”. I declined their appeal on the grounds that it was just delaying the inevitable; Johnny wasn’t going to get an A so better to face up to the disappointment now and select a more appropriate course.

Now, fast forward to a world with unconditional offers. Provided that Johnny has a sufficient crop of A* grades for his GCSE, those predicted grades start to have real currency. If Mr Willmott the Chemistry teacher can be cajoled into upping Johnny’s prediction from a C to an A then there is a real chance he can blag an unconditional offer and treat the C he ultimately gets as though it was just a bad day at the office.

If we continue down the “unconditional” route, teachers are going to be put under immense pressure to inflate their predictions because the natural safeguard we’ve had against this previously (i.e. when results day reveals Johnny does not have adequate grades to fulfill the conditions of his offer) will no longer be there. Unscrupulous schools have everything to gain by over-inflating their predictions; the league tables will show that they got more students into top Unis. The Universities themselves, however, will have an increasing number of first year undergraduates who do not necessarily have the academic foundations necessary for the courses to which they have been admitted. It is even possible that the students themselves may suffer if the course turns out to be too much for them.

[As is always the case, this blog post reflects the personal opinion of the author and should not be considered as the views of the institution where he works or any of the varied bodies on which he serves.]

The perils on anonymity in educational research

The promise of anonymity can undermine the value of data

The promise of anonymity can undermine the value of education data

From time to time I am asked to comment on other people’s unpublished research. As part of the evidence offered in the manuscript, it is quite common to see analysis based on anonymous questionnaires conducted before and after a pedagogic intervention. In this post I want to raise some concerns about the significant limitations that arise from the unnecessary anonymisation of survey data.

Why offer anonymity?
Firstly, however, it is worth examining the allure of anonymity. From conversations I’ve held with colleagues, the main attraction of anonymisation is the perception that removal of identifiers will free participants to provide full and frank contributions, secure in the knowledge that there can be no personal come-back.

I want to argue here that there are important research benefits from *avoiding* complete anonymity, except in the vanishingly rare occasions where it is vital that contributors cannot be recognised.

1. Keeping identifiers allows for richer analysis. If you can match pre- and post-intervention data it is possible to report on changes relating to individuals which may have been masked by analysis of the cohort as a whole.

2. Keeping identifiers guards against inappropriate comparison of whole cohort data. There is a temptation to take all of the available pre-intervention data and compare it with the complete set of post-intervention data, thereby ensuring that a minimum of data is “wasted”. I believe that this is wrong-headed and to illustrate this point, consider the following scenario in education research. Continue reading

Video production at Leicester: Winners and “LoS”ers at the BFI


A Special Jury Award was received in recognition of the consistently high quality of in-house entries over a number of years

A Special Jury Award was received in recognition of the consistently high quality of in-house entries over a number of years

On my way home from the St George’s Day extravaganza in Barcelona (about which I hope to write a fuller post in the near future) I managed to squeeze in attendance at this year’s Learning on Screen awards, held for a fourth time at the British Film Institute on London’s South Bank.

Always an excellent evening in its own right, particular interest for the University of Leicester contingent was focused on the General In-House Production category where Richard III: Identifying the remains had been shortlisted. 

Before the awards themselves, historian Lucy Worsley gave a fascinating talk which included insights into the making of her upcoming BBC4 series on the Georgians. With the exception of “facts” gleaned from The Madness on King George and from the third series of Blackadder, I must admit to being pretty ignorant about the House of Hanover. I now know that George I came to the throne in 1714 (the same year, incidentally, that Barcelona fell to a Spanish and French alliance) and that the kings can be caricatured as Bad, Sad, Mad and Fat.

The In-House production category was up second (after 50 Years of the National Theatre had picked up the gong for Educational Multimedia). In the running were University of Portsmouth for a video introducing their Art and Design courses, Southampton Solent University for a video The Last Taboo about sanitation in developing countries and, of course, University of Leicester for Richard III. It was a strong category, and in the end the award went to The Last Taboo, a worthy winner.  Continue reading

Making the Most of Broadcast Media (Conference summary)

On 14th January 2014, the University of Leicester played host to a day conference on Making the Most of Broadcast Media in your Teaching. The event was organised on behalf of the Higher Education Academy STEM network, and we are grateful for the financial support that enable the meeting to take place.

The purpose of the day was to promote the use of television programmes and clips in bioscience education. There has always been huge, but often untapped, potential for use broadcast media in teaching. However, several recent developments have made it very much easier to identify appropriate materials and/or obtain copies in an easily usable format.

Slides from all of the presentations on the day are available below. The intention was to combine these with audio recordings from the day. Unfortunately Slideshare have recently announced that they are withdrawing their Slidecast facility and so, at present, only the images are available.

“But we’re not a media course!”: the relevance of broadcast materials to bioscientists (and others)

To start the day, I gave a presentation outlining some of the ways in which we have used TV and film in bioscience teaching. These include clips to set the scene, to convey factual information and/or as discussion starters. Delegates took part in an activity in which a clip from the populist science show Brainiac can be used to kickstart discussion about experimental design (see here for a fuller write-up of this task).

Copyright, the Education Recording Agency and all that: you can legally do more than you think!

Murray Weston (former CEO of the British Universities Film and Video Council) talked us through some of the evolution of the UK rules governing legal use of broadcast media for education. He explained what the current rules are, but also highlighted that important changes are expected from April 2014.

Short presentations offered by delegates

The next phase of the day allowed delegates to describe existing ways in which they use broadcast media in teaching. Three case studies were offered.

1. Critical reviews of TV science documentaries

First up, Prof Jon Scott (University of Leicester) outlined an exercise in which final year students are required to conduct a critical review of TV documentaries on neuroscience topics.

2. Using cold case files TV shows to develop forensic students’ scientific approach

Dr Ian Turner (University of Derby) then described a tutorial in which video clips from cold case series, and associated resources, are used with forensic students to help them improve their crime scene methodologies.

3. Headline grabbing: Using BBC news clips as an essay springboard

Dr Steve Maw (University of Leeds) described an activity he conducts with his foundation-level students in which they write an essay on ethical aspects of a biological or biomedical mews story. More details regarding a similar task can be found here.

Looking for resources? BoB’s your uncle!: An introduction to the Box of Broadcasts

Dr Sandy Willmott (University of Lincoln) gave a demonstration of Box of Broadcasts (BoB), an exciting new resource developed by the British Universities Film and Video Council and their technical partners. BoB allows academics and students in subscribing institutions to access an enormous catalogue of previous and current television for educational purposes. Sandy showed programmes can easily be selected and how the package allows users to select clips within episodes and, if appropriate, develop playlists.

Television and Radio Index for Learning and Teaching: making the most of TRILT to know what’s on and when

To complete the day, we had a computer-based session allowing delegates to set up or develop their own accounts using the Television and Radio Index for Learning and Teaching (TRILT). TRILT allows users to check what has been on UK television (including a longer time period and broader range of channels than BoB) and to set up a weekly email alerts based on keywords of their choice.

  • Awards

    The Power of Comparative Genomics received a Special Commendation

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