Tag Archives: education

Blended learning in physiology – merging new technologies with traditional approaches

By Louise Robson, @LouisescicommDepartment of Biomedical Science, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom

Learning and teaching in physiology has undergone something of a revolution over the last 30 years, and as someone who had their very first teaching experience back in 1989 (running tutorials as a PhD student) I speak from experience! One of the biggest changes has been around digital technologies, bringing benefits and challenges to both students and staff. However, while there are challenges (e.g. information overload), for me the benefits far outweigh any challenges digital technologies generate.

I teach ion channel physiology, and aim for students to not only understand the ideas and concepts in this area, but also be able to apply these to novel experimental data. For this reason, I use data handling and interpretation exercises in my modules, i.e. students utilise mathematical approaches, interpret their data and draw on data from other sources. One thing that certainly hasn’t changed is that students struggle with mathematics, and I suspect I am not the only academic to observe a sea of white faces when I have equations on my slides!  However, my modules are very popular, despite the complex mathematics. The reason for this is my blended learning approach to teaching, matching traditional teaching with digital technologies.

lc guide dark_page_1

Figure 1:  Top tips for students on using lecture capture. Click here for more details: https://osf.io/edmzf/ (E, Nordmann et al, 2018).

In this approach, recorded lectures introduce calculations underpinning physiological mechanisms,  so that students can revisit to help their understanding. I have been using lecture capture for several years, and my experience is that it enhances learning. I have observed an increase in academic performance in my final year modules, and the types of questions students ask are more insightful. They utilise the captures to get to grips with the lecture content and their higher level questions are then often about the published literature. Of course if you are providing captures it is really important that students understand how to use these. Work by a cross-institutional group of academics, of which I am a member, has recently provided top tips for students and staff on using lecture capture, also presenting these in a student-friendly infographic format, Figure 1 (E, Nordmann et al 2018). his work highlights an important but often forgotten aspect of learning and teaching, share your ideas and experiences and collaborate with others.  

The best way to learn is to do, and my students complete formative data handling workbooks that reinforce lectures and provide additional guidance. This allows students to develop skills in a low risk environment, and feed-forward and improve for the assessments. Problem solving classes require students to apply their knowledge and skills, providing an opportunity for personal feedback. I also provide dynamic maths videos for them to view. Using a variety of approaches allows students to work in the way they find most beneficial (one size does not fit all in education). The final module session tests knowledge and understanding using the interactive Lecture Tools platform, allowing students to test knowledge and understanding. This blended approach provides an enhanced learning experience for the students, and is clearly appreciated by them, as they have voted me best Biomedical Science Lecturer at Sheffield several years in a row.  

Many of you reading this article may be in the early years of your academic careers, and while there is lots of advice on developing your research profile, there is often less structured support on developing learning and teaching. So here are my top tips:

  1. Get experience early on.  I started as a PhD student and continued to gain experience as a postdoctoral researcher.  
  2. Seek advice from experienced individuals.
  3. Identify the key developments in learning and teaching, and give them a go.
  4. Evaluate what you do.  Some things will work (but not everything).  Don’t forget ethical approval if you want to publish.
  5. Document innovation as you go.  In research, outputs are easy to define.  In learning and teaching, it’s not so easy!
  6. Always think about what is best for your students (note, it’s not always what they want).
  7. Share your ideas and collaborate as much as possible.  

I hope you have found this article useful, and that you have been able to identify some ideas for your learning and teaching development (if you want more information, just ask)!    


E, Nordmann, CE, Kuepper-Tetzel, L, Robson, S, Phillipson, GI, Lipan, P, McGeorge (2018). Lecture capture: Practical recommendations for students and lecturers (pre-publication): 10.31234/osf.io/sd7u4

The Comprehensive Spending Review

Despite calling science a “personal priority”, George Osborne’s summer budget this June saw it barely mentioned. However, having reviewed public finances and received spending projections from all government departments, 25 November saw the release of the Comprehensive Spending Review, and this time around Osborne’s plan for science in this country was spelt out. Despite warnings leaking from Whitehall that the best the scientific community could hope for was five more years of a flat-cash settlement to the science budget (further eroding the sector’s value due to inflation), the Chancellor surprised by promising real-terms protection to the £4.7 bn annual resource budget. He also stuck with the previously-announced £6.9 bn capital expenditure over the next five years. Innovate UK keeps a flat-cash guarantee to its £165 m funding, though some grants are being converted to loans, the extent of which is unclear. There is some concern that, with the low rate of inflation, the actual degree of increase to science funding will be lower than many hoped. This also does not change the UK’s position as the lowest investor in scientific research among the G8 nations.

Some specific research goals were mentioned with funding promised to work towards them, such as the 100,000 Genomes project and combatting antimicrobial resistance, while the research landscape in general will be reshaped in the image set out by Sir Paul Nurse in his review of the Research Councils. This will involve the creation of an overarching body called Research UK which sits above the Research Councils and facilitates better efficiency and governmental engagement. Concerns have been raised about the watering-down of the Haldane Principle due to this new structure, which contains a ministerial oversight committee. However, it is hoped that advice will flow both ways and lead to a government far better informed around scientific trends and developments.

The Chancellor gave broad outlines in his speech, and while the Spending Review document provides some more detail there are aspects where uncertainty remains over the fine print. The science budget now includes £1.5 bn over five years going to the Global Challenges Fund, which was previously administered by the Department for International Development. The restrictions on allocation of this funding are not known. Further, while the science budget was protected by a ring-fence through the last parliament, changes may have brought other costs into this budget making it need to stretch further. Answers to these points of uncertainty will come along in due course, with many organisations in the science policy sector poring over announcements concerning the implementation of the Spending Review.

The Higher Education Green Paper

On 6 November, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) released its long-awaited Green Paper setting out its intentions to change practices and structures around higher education. The paper, which can be downloaded here, covered a number of topics, introducing many key changes. Its overall emphasis rests on the marketisation of higher education provision, driving up teaching quality to make courses seem more attractive.

  • The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) are to be merged into a new body called the Office for Students (OfS), functioning as a regulator for universities. OfS will have a responsibility to act in the interests of students by ensuring stable, effective governance of universities and value for money in degree provision, as well as ensuring baseline quality in student learning and experience and widening access to higher education.
  • Measures are being introduced to improve teaching quality, primarily the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Initially this will be a pass/fail exercise based on successful QAA assessment, but in future will have multiple levels, each allowing a greater rise in tuition fees for qualifying institutions. The TEF will be metric-based and focus on student outcomes, diversity/inclusion, retention and other available data in its first incarnations. Despite opposition to the idea, it seems likely that TEF scores will be linked to the ability of universities to raise their course fees, with a higher grade allowing a higher rise (capped at the rate of inflation).
  • Student assessment will be encouraged to use a Grade Point Average (GPA) system, allowing greater distinction to be drawn between students leaving with the same classification of degree.
  • Changes will be made to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) to modernise the process and reduce the burden it places on universities.
  • New higher education institutions (HEIs) will have a faster, simplified process to become recognised universities with access to funding and no student caps. Processes will also be in place for HEIs to leave the marketplace with minimised impact on students. Plans must be in place to allow students to complete their course elsewhere or receive compensation if a degree course is discontinued.
  • Universities may become exempt from Freedom of Information requests, bringing them into line with private higher education providers.

BIS are consulting on the changes laid out in the Green Paper until 15 January 2016. After this point, they will release a White Paper detailing proposed legislation, then, assuming this passes through Parliament, it will become law. These changes are going to affect all research and teaching staff in universities. They will affect all forthcoming students and their families. They will affect some past students through changes to loan repayments! It is imperative they are sensible, proportionate and well-informed. The Society is seeking input from its members on their views towards the proposals, focusing mainly on the Teaching Excellence Framework. You can read a short summary produced by the Royal Society of Biology of the questions in the Green Paper relating to the TEF proposals here. We would be interesting in hearing views on this aspect of the Green Paper or any of its other proposals; please contact policy@physoc.org with your comments. We will be accepting comments until Friday 8 January; after this point the responses received will form the basis of The Society’s submission to BIS.