Tag Archives: learning

All work and no play – not what a university education is all about

The university landscape in the UK has seen dramatic changes since 1992 when the former polytechnics were encouraged to apply for independent degree awarding powers and moved, from what had, until then, been an almost entirely teaching and training role, to invest more in their research capabilities.  At around the same time there was a push to massively increase the number of students receiving a university education; when I was an undergraduate in 1973 about 7% of us went to university, now it is closer to 50%.  As a result class size has risen as there has not been a proportional increase in the number of university teaching staff and there has, at least in the biological science areas that I am familiar with, been a tendency to replace whole organism practical classes with computer-based alternatives.

Another thing that has changed in the last few years has been the scrapping of maintenance grants and their replacement with student loans and the introduction of tuition fees.  Maintenance grants, which I was lucky enough to receive, were means tested, universally available and paid directly to students.  Tuition fees were paid by the respective Local Education Authorities and did not feature in a student’s world.  We had no idea how much they were and no need to know.  Now students take out loans for both their fees and maintenance, saddling them huge debts for a large proportion of their working life or forever.  My daughter who was lucky enough to only experience the £3000 tuition fees, is on course to pay her loan off next year at the age of 33.  Those who pay £9000 per annum are looking at much longer debt-ridden lives.  Now that universities compete for students, and students rightly or wrongly, see themselves as paying for their education, the culture of universities and their view of students has, and not very subtly, changed and probably not to their benefit.  The managerial staff now see students as customers and not learners and this puts pressure on the academics to deliver courses that students like and not courses that students need.  Academics will know exactly what I mean 🙂 More positively, it does mean that most academic staff who stand in front of students have at least some teaching training and many now have a formal teaching qualification.

A particularly cynical recent development has been the ploy of selling the idea that shortening the time that students spend at university will benefit the students financially without reducing the quality of the degrees awarded.

“The two-year degrees will cost the same as a three-year course, meaning annual fees for them will be higher. Ministers are expected to table a bill to lift the current £9,000-a-year cap on tuition costs so that universities can charge higher annual rates.

The Department for Education has stressed that the fast-track degree would carry the same weight as the current undergraduate model. Universities will be able to charge more than £13,000-a-year for a three-year degree cut down to two years. Annual fees for a four-year course trimmed to three years could rise to £12,000 a year. The proposals will apply to institutions in England.

The fee hike would be strictly limited to the accelerated courses and universities would have to prove they were investing the same resources in the fast-track students as in those studying for a conventional degree. Education ministers think that the reduced timeframe will appeal to those who are in a hurry to get into, or return to, the workplace.

Those who take up the new qualifications would forgo the traditional long summer and winter breaks in exchange for the faster pace of the degree. Although the fees for each year could increase, it is thought the system would appeal to students keen to cut down on living and accommodation costs.

The promotion of two-year degrees was a manifesto pledge from the Conservatives. Universities minister Jo Johnson is expected to tell a meeting of Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ body, on Friday: “This bill gives us the chance to introduce new and flexible ways of learning.”

You can read the full article here.

The Conservative Party, whose MPs are largely Oxbridge educated non-scientists, are very much in favour of this.  They obviously remember their days as students with few lectures, long vacations and plenty of time to spend on the river or in their elite dining clubs, with careers in politics already assured, regardless of degree results.  Proponents of the two-year degree, and note, that we in the UK already have the shortest university degree system in the world, obviously have no idea of a) how universities work, b) how students learn and c) what a university education is all about and d) science.

To put it succinctly and in words that politicians may understand, although as many of them will have gone to ‘crammers’ to ensure their entry to their elite Public schools, they may not.  A university education is not just about learning facts and passing exams.  Students need time to listen, read, think, experiment, digest, learn, analyse, evaluate, criticise, synthesise and importantly, make contacts* and even more importantly, enjoy life.   When I interview students for a PhD position or a place on my MSc course, I am looking for well-rounded individuals with a zest for learning and life, the ability to think critically and to get on well with classmates and colleagues.  I would most definitely NOT consider taking on a two-year biology graduate to do a PhD or job and I think that this would go for the majority of my colleagues.

Many universities already have four-year degree courses on offer and many more are setting up and planning new four-year courses. They and employers, recognise the value of that extra year in education, be it in an industrial placement or an extended research project.  In my experience, graduates from four-year courses are much more rounded, both as people and as scientists and this is already apparent in their final year of study.

There is now some disquiet from a member of the House of Lords, Lord Adonis, that universities are planning on charging more per year for running two-year degrees than they currently charge for three-year courses. He sees this as a ‘rip-off’.  If, however, as the government claim, that the two-year degrees will be the equivalent of the current degrees then that implies the same amount of resource will be devoted to them, so why should they be less expensive?  You can’t have it both ways. Quality comes with a price.

Finally, it is not just the students, what about the staff involved with delivering the new degrees? One of the selling points of a university degree in the UK is that a significant proportion of the teaching is, or should be, delivered by research active academics.  If this does go ahead, and I cannot see a lot of the research intensive universities doing so, I suspect that the staffing will tend to fall upon teaching only faculty with the more research active staff contributing to the longer degree courses.  The ‘long vacations’ are when those faculty members with dual teaching-research roles, do their thinking, writing and research.  The new proposal would definitely result in a two-tier system to the detriment of both the students enrolled on them and the staff tasked with their delivery.

If we as a nation, want well-rounded and productive graduates, then we should seriously be looking at extending the length of degree courses, not shortening them

Perhaps MPs should take a look at their own ‘term’ times.  Think how much work they could get done if they gave up their long vacations 🙂




Filed under Uncategorized

Can hawkmoths remember being attacked?

As our summer holidays are usually in the south of France or Italy I expect to see a plethora of insects whilst sitting on a sun-lit patio with a glass of wine or beer to hand. I am rarely disappointed, this year (2015) swallowtails being very common. Also present, although not as abundant as I have seen in some years, was the European hummingbird hawkmoth, Macroglossum stellatarum, perhaps my favourite moth. Given that they were foraging so close to my watering hole, it seemed a great opportunity to use my new camera. I was able to capture images of the swallowtails, who obligingly remained still at the crucial moment I took the picture.


Swallowtail butterfly, Super-las-Illas, France, August 2015

I was however, unable to get a decent still shot of the hawkmoths so had to resort to the video mode.


Hummingbird hawkmoth, Super-las-Illas, France, August 2015. For the live action version see here

It was whilst trying to get a successful shot of these incredibly active insects that I thought I might catch one and slow it down in the fridge and thus be able to get a nice close up picture. As usual I had forgotten my butterfly net (one year I will actually remember to pack it) so had to improvise with a T-shirt and stick. Needless to say this was not very successful and I only managed a glancing ‘strike’ on my chosen victim. Not surprisingly he/she flew off. What was surprising was that the flower bed remained hawkmoth-free for about an hour or so. Once they returned I had yet another unsuccessful attempt at capturing one, and again noticed that they disappeared and did not return for another couple of hours. Intrigued I repeated my unsuccessful capture attempts (deliberately this time) over the next few days and found this behaviour repeated. So, no problems if I stood there and filmed/watched them, but if I tried to catch them, off they went (I was unable to see where) not to return for a couple of hours. I hypothesised that they must be able to ‘remember’ being attacked and that this was a predator-avoidance mechanism.

I knew that adult lepidoptera in general are able to ‘remember’ host suitability for oviposition sites and alter their concept of a good quality host depending on the suitability of the previous host plants that they had landed on and the number of eggs left in their reproductive tract.

Host acceptability model

A very simple model to illustrate the trade-off between host plant acceptance, egg load and time in lepidoptera. I thought I had published this figure somewhere but apparently not 🙂

Adult lepidoptera such as the green-veined white butterfly, Pieris napi (Goulson & Cory, 1993) and the Monarch Butterfly, Danaus plexippus (Rodrigues & Weiss, 2012) are also able to remember (retain) learned information about suitable feeding resources e.g. those flowers that are likely to give them the most nectar and this is also true for the hummingbird hawkmoth which is able to remember flower preferences even after hibernation (Kelber, 2010).

Although adult lepidoptera have a number of predator avoidance mechanisms, e.g. mimicry, aposematism, unpalatability or innate behaviours (e.g. Roper & Redston, 1987; Bowers, 1980; Greig & Greenfield, 2004; Stevens, 2005) I have been unable to find any reference to them being able to ‘remember’ being attacked and then avoiding the area for some time afterwards. There are, on the other hand, many papers about predators learning to avoid distasteful lepidopteran prey but nothing about adult lepidoptera learning to avoid predator-rich areas. This would seem a ‘sensible’ trait to evolve so I am surprised that no one seems to have tested its existence. Please let me know if you have ever come across any references to this sort of behaviour or feel free to conduct the experiment formally.


Agnew, K. & Singer, M.C. (2000) Does fecundity drive the evolution of insect diet? Oikos, 88, 533-538.

Bowers, M.D. (1980) Unpalatability as a defense strategy of Euphydryas phaeton (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae). Evolution, 34, 586-600.

Goulson, D. & Cory, J.S. (1993) Flower constancy and learning in foraging preferences of the green-veined white butterfly Pieris napi. Ecological Entomology, 18, 315-320.

Greig, E.I. & Greenfield, M.D. (2004) Sexual selection and predator avoidance in an acoustic moth: discriminating females take fewer risks. Behaviour, 141, 799-815

Kelber, A. (2010) What a hawkmoth remembers after hibernation depends on innate preferences and conditioning situation. Behavioral Ecology, 21, 1093-1097

Rodriques, D. & Weiss, M.R. (2012) Reward tracking and memory decay in the Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus L. (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae). Ethology, 118, 122-1131

Roper, T.J. & Redston, S. (1987) Conspicuousness of distasteful prey affects the strength and durability of one-trial avoidance learning. Animal Behaviour, 35, 739-747

Singer, M.C. (1984). Butterfly-host plant relationships: host quality, adult choice and larval success. In The Biology of Butterflies (ed. by R.I. Vane-Wright & P.R. Ackery), pp. 81-88. Chapman & Hall, London.

Stevens, M. (2005) The role of eyespots as anti-predator mechanisms, principally demonstrated in the Lepidoptera. Biological Reviews, 80, 573-588





Filed under EntoNotes

Exams – the easy option?

Having spent a considerable amount of the last month or so invigilating and marking exams, not to mention doing my stint as external examiner for the MSc in Conservation Management at Writtle College I have started to think about what is that we expect to achieve by setting exams.  In fact, I have even begun to wonder if we need exams at all.  Do we just set exams because that it is the way it has always being or do they tell us something that other assessment methods can’t?

I have used the word easy in my title, which at first sight might seem a little contradictory.  After all, as an examiner, there is the annual slog of producing ‘novel’ questions, together with a model or indicative answer, against which to mark, and then there is the curse of marking X number of scripts in a very short time, making sure that you grade the answers according to whichever criteria your department or institution has opted for. Not exactly a stress-free occupation and made worse by the fact that inevitably there is an incredibly short turnaround time required so that the students don’t have to wait too long to hear their fate.  Marking is definitely one of my least favourite things.

Joys of marking

We should also of course, not forget the stress and anguish that most students will have gone through to produce the scripts that you, with a strict time limit to observe, will inevitably spend less time on than they deserve.

Why do we use exams, and in this case I mean the traditional, sit down and answer questions in a room full of other aspirants, mostly all perspiring nervously and hoping against hope that the topics the revised will be on the face-down script in front of them.  The easy answer is that they tell us, the teachers, how much the student has understood of what they

Exam hall

have been taught and how good they are at retaining that information and  regurgitating it on to a piece of paper.  We would also argue that it tells us which students are also able to interpret and analyse what they have been taught and put it into context in a stressful situation.  From that, plus usually some coursework and a dissertation or research project, we can then assign (in the UK at least) an arcane grade (First, Upper Second, Lower Second, Third, Pass or Fail or at MSc level, Distinction, Merit, Pass or Fail) that then determines the future of that student.  On the student side, a written exam  favours those with good memories, the ability to shrug off stress and write quickly, legibly and coherently.  That said, after some 40-odd years of sitting and setting exams, I find that I can pretty much tell what final degree result a student will achieve just from teaching and interacting with them in class, without actually seeing any written work.

So why do we need exams, why not just go for a less stressful approach?  Well obviously that would not work, because occasionally, even I am surprised by a result and more importantly, how would you assess  if the student had attained the required learning outcomes?  So you definitely need some form of assessment.  In other words, some form of coursework testing, which arguably reflects the situations we face in real life.  Coursework gives students the chance to be analytical, synoptic and reflective, to read around their subject and to meet deadlines.  There are also arguments against this form of assessment.  These include, marking (coursework actually requires you to give some feedback), direct cheating by copying and pasting from sources; plagiarism software helps, but doesn’t tell you if there has been collusion.  In addition, it penalises the bright but lazy.  I revelled in exams; coursework, which luckily in my degree, didn’t count towards my final degree, was, sad to say, something I expended only the minimum of effort on.   It tended to get in the way of my social life.  What are the plus points for exams?  They are a good quick test that puts students on the spot, trains them to learn, to cope with stress and to time manage.  On the other hand you might argue that what it really tests is memory, stress resilience and the ability to write with a pen.  On the negative side, there is a great tendency for students, and I was no exception in my early years as an undergraduate, to analyse past exam papers and reduce the pressure on their memory centres, by question spotting and by avoiding revising any material from lecturers that they didn’t like or who are known to be hard markers.  Thus you end up with students who may have passed their exams but have gaping holes in their knowledge base.  You can argue that a written exam allows us to test synoptic and analytical thinking, but this could be tested just as effectively with coursework, as synoptic thinking is certainly not restricted to exams.  A huge downside is the marking element.  Do we do the students justice?  Almost certainly not.  A typical final year exam might require the student to answer three questions in three hours, so forty minutes per answer.  If you are lucky and have a relatively small class, of thirty students, that results in 90 scripts in less than perfect hand-writing.  You then probably have two weeks to turn the scripts around, including them being moderated, or second-marked by a colleague.  Practices differ between institutions, but, in my experience, there is always some element of moderation/quality review, either by marking a sample of the scripts or in some places looking at very single exam answer.  Suppose you allow a mere ten minute per script, that will take you 15 hours if you went at it non-stop.  Some of my colleagues have several hundred scripts to mark – how can they possibly do them justice?  How much rest do you give yourself between batches, how many scripts can you mark before your analytical ability is eroded? Should you go through and re-read every script after you have finished marking all the scripts?

So what alternatives are there?  Some course modules at other universities and here at Harper Adams are assessed entirely by coursework and that raises the collusion/cheating concerns mentioned earlier.  We can detect plagiarism using software such as Turnitin™, but how can we tell that someone else didn’t write the essay, prepare the presentation or write the report and of course you still have to mark the work!  What about on-line assessment?  On the entomology MSc that I run, some modules are tested entirely by Multiple Choice Questions on-line; administered and marked by the computer – how good is that 😉  It is also a good way of testing basic entomological factual knowledge but again it is a memory test and doesn’t really test application and synthesis.  We also use short answer questions in conjunction with some on-line testing; this lets us test across a range of the learning outcomes, but again does not really allow much synthesis and analytical thought, and generates piles of marking, albeit somewhat easier, as mainly checking against lists.  One of my colleagues is very much in favour of exams, as he has rather a jaundiced view of coursework, although it can give us an opportunity to assess different skill sets; oral presentation, team work, writing skills, analytical thought and in the case of entomology, identification skills.  Unfortunately it does produce piles of marking, but hopefully also is good for deep learning which is what I think we want as an end result.

Another interesting method of assessment which I quite like the idea of, is an open book exam, where students are presented with some reading material some days or even weeks before the exam without being told what the questions will be, are allowed to take their annotated document in with them and are then presented with an exam paper with three questions, all of which must be answered.  Having observed this in practice, I have now come up with an interesting variant which I hope to be able to get approved by our exam board.  Students arrive in a computer room, they are presented with an exam paper, with, say six questions of which they have to answer three, and then allowed to use the internet to bolster their knowledge.  They are only allowed to take notes using pen and paper.  Two hours later they then move to a secure computer, with no internet access and spend the next two hours writing their exam.  This is more akin to real life, where you solve problems that you know some basic background stuff about by checking sources, getting extra information and then synthesising that knowledge into an intelligible report.  Of course it doesn’t  around the marking problem.

My friend Professor Guy Poppy at The University of Southampton, has gone on record via Twitter, suggesting that we could test students at the end of their university course with a portfolio of work and a 15 minute oral examination to check that what is there is actually their own, work, basically a mini-PhD viva.

Guy Poppy

Is this a mad idea?  Actually the Italians do all their exams orally and the Germans use a mixture of  written and oral exams.

A pleasant chat

An oral exam could be a bit stressful for shy students and might be an advantage for extroverts.  You would of course need a panel of at least three people to ensure fair play.  A typical British university final year might have 150 students in it.  So at 15 minutes a viva, which I think is probably too short, that would be almost 37 hours.  So let’s assume that the Department has sixty academics, allocates three staff members per viva, so 20 vivas can be run at once.  If we allow five minutes for marking that gives us twenty minutes per student which equals sixty vivas every hour.  So even if we decide to let the students have a bit more time to impress the examiners, we can still easily examine the whole final year in a day and the academics will only need to take part in three or four oral exams.  We used a similar system as part of the final year research project assessment when I was in the Life Sciences Department at Imperial College and that worked reasonably well.  What about consistent standards and available expertise?  You need a balanced department and also some people who have to circulate between panels to ensure similar standards, but even so, this could be a viable option.  It does not however, do away with marking the portfolio of work during the preceding three or four years, but perhaps if modules are assessed with a mixture of on-line MCQ tests plus informal use of the usual assessment methods, so not requiring detailed marking, it might actually work and encourage deep learning.

So at the end of all this I don’t really have an answer.  I find marking really tedious, but students and staff need the feedback to know if learning outcomes are being achieved.  Exams are a pain for the students to do but even more of a pain for academic staff to mark!  What I do quite like though is the idea of the short, sharp open book exam, despite the fact that it would need marking.  I would welcome any ideas and also any examples of novel easy to administer and mark test/exams and alternative assessment methods that have worked for you.

Post script

Just as I was going to post this, Meg Dufy over at Dynamic Ecology posted a great post about teaching ideas and their possible assessment methods.


Filed under Teaching matters