Blog Learning & Teaching

Seven steps to MCQ heaven

MCQ Title ImageHere are some details of a workshop that I’ve developed to help teachers and instructors think about INCLUSIVE AND EFFECTIVE multiple choice question (MCQ) development.

I would not by any means consider myself an expert because there are so many nuances and technicalities to writing good quality questions that do not discriminate, and that actually test knowledge and understanding and not just examination technique.

This guide is licensed under CC-BY-SA and I fully advocate people developing their own versions and examples with their programme and teaching teams.

Right mouse click the links to download them and have fun.

MCQ Training Guide Doc

MCQ Training Guide PDF

Academic work hours DS106

When I am in charge….if I make it….

OMG. This Minion really does look like me. I shudder to think when I am in charge what I will actually look like? But you know what, I don’t care. I’ll be in charge and sorting out this unholly and ungodly mess.








I hate just to turn out a blog post unsubstantiated and ill referenced, but sometimes I do think plain and simple opinion is important.

I wonder at what point education innovation in the UK is going to entirely come to a halt. It can’t be far off if it hasn’t already done so.

I have spent an amazing day with education researchers from around the UK being trained. But we were peering over our vol-au-vents and thinking well this is all great, but there is no funding for me to do this.

What on earth is seriously happening to the UK Higher Education Sector. Come on.

I can’t entirely blame the organisations involved who previously dished out vast sums of money to support pedagogy and technology projects, training, networks and research. But I do look back feeling quite enraged at things like CETL (Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning) a few years back that dished out some £350 million pounds to the sector. WHAAAT? Around half of that investment is no longer visible or of any permanent use to the sector. But gosh, what we could do with a few pounds right now.


OK so these organisations are busy licking their wounds but the fact that they haven’t stood up with the HE sector to lobby for support is unfathomable. What however seems to have happened is almost instantly they underwent significant institutional change and reorganisation to reposition themselves as commercial ventures. OK that may be impressive, but personally I feel utterly let down by them, and like many others, having worked on and supported work in the sector for decades, I feel utterly betrayed. In some quarters, entire repositories of educational materials have gone. Do prospective students and families realise what an absolute mess the whole thing is in?

So what is it with UK Higher Education? We are supposed to be players in a global market, to be widening our entry gates, to be ensuring students have grande employability opportunites, to be keeping up with increasing and insane demands of the NHS and professional bodies (yes I deal with three on one single course of 15 sutdents per year). So really, how can we evaluate and address simple questions without money? I’m not even talking about full economically costing to buy me out for one hour a month, that is ridiculous. But to put it simply for me 1) I DO need to feel some sense of value on what I am doing by my institution, 2) I need some fair reimbursement for the extensive time I put in (outside of work) working in YOUR HIGHER EDUCATION SECTOR and  3)  I wouldn’t mind the odd financial reimbursement for the training or odd conference here and there that increasingly I pay for myself. I am 47 and am still renting a house. We talk about the NEW generation of people experiencing difficulties, but there is a whole generation who are still struggling?

But size of money isn’t everything
I’m not saying research investment is the be all and end all. I’ve worked in industry and know that throwing millions of pounds at projects does not necessarily produce inventive steps or life-changing results. UK universities that receive funding to produce results targeted toward certain outputs and impacts – that by definition cannot be robust research. Money increasingly goes to more polarised body of institutions and I hate to hear of money simply being wasted because they received so much and it is the end of the financial year. This is WASTEFUL to the UK overall. This knocks blue-sky research. Bashes creativity. We have a generation of researchers now (well, the ones with the jobs), who entirely think about the outcomes of their work rather than even thinking what would be interesting, what if we combined these theories…..innovation has come to a crashing halt.

University problems
OK so I moved from scientific research to education a few years ago. If we think that about half of UK universities aren’t bothered with learning and teaching at all, so the investment isn’t going to come from these institutions, then there is practically NO money for very fundamental EDUCATION research from anywhere else.

1 There is little money for education research and investment.
2 There is not much money to invest in developing education.
3 Nobody is interested in your child, or investing in what their needs are to gain a fruitful education.

I really can’t see how enough of the UK is going to compete globally for very much longer
I absolutely do think a university education is tremendous. But it isn’t fair, it isn’t equal, and great parts of it does not work. I bite my tongue talking to prospective students and parents in talking about education when I know the majority of my time and that of colleagues is administration, sorting out timetables, I count bus tickets, I input data, we verify administration decisions, I spend an vast amount of time requesting rooms or car parking. I might say these things flippantly, but when students need accommodation then I am on the case. But I do think, why am I doing this when I do absolutely know people who would be far bester than me in doing these things. Please sir – we want to teach!!!! Don’t start me on workload administration – my 9 year old niece would do this for me. Charmingly, one of the senior faculty members who introduced the scheme (that I do not condemn overall) did not even realise we inputted the same data year on year.

So what happens next?
OK so it is well established that academic hours are huge, but nobody does anything about it really. Academics have always worked long hours but usually writing papers and because they are engrossed in their research. I work weekend to stick boring numbers into a workload system. Because I have to compile over 200 documents for an NHS programme review. A complete and utter waste of time in terms of real value given to students. And this brings the notion of ‘hyper stress’ – immense stress by the shear volume of tasks, and things like data input if you are tired, dyslexic or whatever, do take a huge amount of attention-to-detail and skill to undertake correctly.

This worries me totally. I’ve had an amazing day today at a research workshop in London and I am tired of the conversations that show that we will do the research anyway. We all sat there thinking about the important work needing to be done, and with few exceptions, and verified by coffee and lunchtime chats, well, we’ll do this anyway. We will work evenings and weekends to make sure the concerns we have with international students, widening participation, making sure young people get the best out of their university experience……..we will make sure these get addressed. Not because of any UK sector leadership that used to come from the HEA or Jisc, or from our institutions…

…but because of us.

Is this a form of torture?
The situation has become so bizarre that you start to think that you are living some crazy dream. Is this a form of torture? I’m in my mid-40’s and driven to at times work around the clock for a job I’m allocated 2 days a week for? Because I’m under allocated on a system (despite having a fantastic boss) I still have to take on more. I’ve never been so physically ill in my life. But is this some joke? Is someone going to leap out from behind a lamp post and say you silly thing?

Part of some big master plan!
Perhaps I should just admit defat and stop caring. Is this what is intended? Am I supposed to just put all PowerPoint slides on Blackboard and assess every student by multiple choice questions? Because frankly, with no money for innovation, with no realistic look at what academic staff do, that is where we are.




Blog Learning & Teaching Study skills

Enhancing Projects and Practicals in Biosciences

Here are some really nice reports from the HEA Bioscience Centre on enhancing undergraduate science dissertations and laboratory practicals. In recent years, academic departments have seen growth in student numbers, and the cutting back of resources and access to laboratories. Yet, we are still supposed to maintain a high quality education! The documents below compile ideas from universities across the UK on how to cater for undergraduate science dissertations and laboratory practical classes.

Undergraduate research projects

Student Research Projects: Guidance on Practice in the Biosciences. By Martin Luck. Available:

Interesting information on the wide range of projects available from laboratory, to fieldwork, data analysis and literature reviews. We need to be mindful of the IBMS requirements for projects that must contain an element of data and statistical analysis. For fieldwork-type projects I have had students design questionnaires, and for data analysis students can carry out a “mini-systematic review” and meta-analysis of pooled clinical research data. Literature reviews are a challenge to do well and meet IBMS criteria I think. (Feel free to comment below!).

Universities run both individual and group projects. Some universities separate project choices based on year 2 performance. Projects are allocated in different ways:

1) Staff provide list of titles.
2) Students develop projects based on their own ideas.

In my experience, it is nice to allow students to develop their own ideas in line of what their career aspirations might be, but it is hugely time consuming to supervise them on an individual basis.

Useful resource for students

All my project students use this as a basis for their work. It takes them through every step of their project.


Improving Laboratory Practicals

The Bioscience Centre held a workshop on practical work back in 2008 and there are many good ideas in their report, and in the labwork notes for new staff.

Workshop on 1st year practicals. Available:

Labwork notes for new staff. Available:

  • Move away from recipe-led practicals.
  • Move away from practicals with no further analysis / discussion.
  • Flip-practicals: students watch videos / materials prior to coming into the lab.

For example at De Montfort, students used to work through our Virtual Analytical Laboratory for 4 weeks in their first year before coming into the lab. It enhanced their confidence no end, and staff reported it saved time going over common things.

In histology we would have a 4 hour wet practical and a 2 hour dry microscopy / observation class where students would peer-mark each other’s observations. They would grade their slides according to NEQAS standards. At level 3 students would design their own practicals and work in self-designated groups.


Linking research and teaching

Linking Teaching and Research in the Biosciences. By Heather J. Sears and Edward J. Wood (2005). Available:

This was raised as an item to explore in one of our staff meetings. We assume that our research and teaching is linked, but as the report says, “the link could be exploited more effectively for the benefit of staff and students”. Raising the profile of our research would give Biomedical Science a distinct identity and move it away from Healthcare Science.