Chronicles of Athena: Chatty Theenie

I’m training Athena how to use Augmented and Assisted Communication tools (talk buttons!) Want to know more?

Have you heard of Hunger 4 Words? Christina Hunger is a speech pathologist who has started using Augmented and Alternative Communication techniques to help her dog communicate. You can read about Christina and her lovely dog Stella over on Christina’s website here.

Needless to say, I was immediately fascinated.

Christina has a great introductory post here which I recommend you read to verse yourself in AAC. Athena certainly is able to express herself, often with different vocalisations, but often with behavioural cues. And she’s pretty good at understanding what we mean with our vocal and behavioural cues. Things like ‘food’, ‘play’ and ‘bedtime’ are all easily communicated between us.

We know that Athena will learn a behaviour – she has a whole host of ‘tricks’ that she will do (despite me being a terrible trainer). So why am I interested in button pushing? Well I want to know if Athena can generalise and predict.

If Athena knows what ‘ball’ is, can she press ‘ball’ to tell me that’s what she wants, even if she can’t see it? Would she ever be able to press ‘food’ + ‘ball’ to tell me she wants her puzzle-feeder filled? Would I ever be able to say ‘food’ + ‘ball’ and would she be able to say ‘no’ + ‘food’ + ‘hedgehog’?

To be honest, I don’t believe she ever will. I think that’s a step too far for a cat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen scientific evidence that a cat can conceptualise of two different futures and choose one or the other. I think they’re more reactive than that. But one of the things I love about social media is how it can give us access to larger sample sizes, to more information, to more examples of what’s possible.

So I’ve started Theenie on her AAC journey. If you’re interested in following her, she has her own Instagram now!

Lessons in Course Design

By some counts (i.e. the number I list on my CV) I’ve led the design of about thirty higher education courses over the last few years. I asked Twitter what would be the most useful format for talking about those lessons . . .

This is that blog.

By some counts (i.e. the number I list on my CV) I’ve led the design of about thirty higher education courses over the last few years. And even I have to have learned something by the end of it. I asked Twitter what would be the most useful format for talking about those lessons, and Twitter was very keen on a personal blog, because they wanted the dirty truths.

This is that blog.

Broadly speaking, I have three takeaways from my work on course design. They overlap, of course, because life is messy, but these are what I’ll be taking forward in future. Respect the need for the course, accept that courses will always be co-creations, and while you must try to innovate, you must also recognise why innovation is so difficult. Respect. Accept co-creation. Acknowledge the hardships of innovation.

Respect the Course

At the risk of turning you off this blog post immediately – this was one of my big lessons that made everything ‘click’ the moment I grasped it. On Edinburgh’s Teaching Matters blog I’ve talked about the course design process that really drove this home for me – but at all stages of course design, from the early planning to the third year review, I have found it very useful to go back to why we want the course in the first place.

There are some corollory lessons to this one. If your reason for the course is ‘we want the money’ or ‘the king on high said make it so’, it becomes much harder to find a single cohesive thread that should tie the course together. One of the earliest courses I designed very much came from an edict on high (so high it was impossible to refuse), so the team and I discussed what was missing from elsewhere in the programme. That course became a place to teach the skills that we didn’t have the time to teach elsewhere, and I was very proud of it.  

Having a reason for what you’re doing helps you make the big decisions. How do you decide on an exercise if you need to compromise on timing? If you have a central motivation that drives you, you’ll find it a lot easier to distinguish between the two.

Accept Co-Creation

This one may be more personal. I hate co-creation. I mean, if anyone is listening I love it and team-work is one of my great strengths, but generally I hate it. I think this is particularly difficult when designing a course.

Have you ever given somebody else’s lecture? It’s difficult. Even giving your own lecture, a year later, can be difficult. Lectures are so much a product of you at that moment.

I am a huge defender, and a huge proponent, of the looser aspects of stagecraft that make a lecture. When you see students aren’t following and you stop and regroup – that’s good. When you get diverted away from the beaten path by a really interesting question – that’s good! Teaching adults should not be about sticking rigidly to a lesson plan that anyone could pick up and run with. It needs to be personal.

But with that, comes the difficulty of accepting the other personals in the room. As someone who prides herself on her communication, I am sometimes amazed at how explicit I must be when describing a teaching activity to another. So vice versa, I try to work hard to understand how someone else plans to teach something. This might be something we all need to work on, or just me, but there needs to be more acceptance of how courses arise out of everyone.

And by this I also mean accept the co-creation of the students. My somewhat looser philosophy of the class-plan has also been informed by the different classes I’ve seen. I am still not sure exactly why the same broad cohort, the same rough course, the same timetable slot, can all sometimes result in a wildly different group of students (there’s a study in this!).

It would churlish to express this as ‘no course plan survives first contact with the enemy’ – but recognise that the course you design in your head will not be the same course you actually teach, because your students create that with you.

What Price Innovation?

This final point may end up a blog in itself. In a QAA event this week we talked briefly about student led teaching awards. There’s often a category of innovative teaching. When recruiting staff, I have pushed away from assessing their teaching in terms of its ‘innovation’. What counts as innovation? Is it if I haven’t seen it before? Or if the whole panel hasn’t seen it before?

This year we ran a brand new teaching exercise at the vet school which I don’t think is particulalry innovative. I’ve been doing stuff like it, in other contexts, for years. But the students hadn’t seen anything like it, and they loved it. We’ll undoubtedly be talking a lot more about it in the next six months as we unpack our evaluation.

However, that evaluation will likely underplay the sick feeling I had that morning, my racing heart and the sheer amount of work it took to get us there. Innovation takes a lot work, and a lot of risk.

We ask for innovation when we teach, even though we greatly penalise those whose teaching ‘doesn’t work’. Therefore innovations must always be a sure thing. I feel very safe in my role, comparative to a lot of early career academics, and even I feel frightened when I see that sea of blank faces. Or worse, read that angry comment that the assessment was confusing, or there was no point to the teaching.

I have tried much more that hasn’t worked than has. I’m thinking particularly of an assessment this year where I tried to play about with how some things were weighted (partly due to the discussions we had in the co-creation phase – see ‘accept co-creation’ above, even when the urge arises to assign blame) and I am reverting back to tradition immediately.

I think there is often a push, particularly when you are in that early excitement of design, to do something eye-catching and startling. Think about yourself before you do this. You are the one who needs to run the course.

Sometimes innovation will be hard and painful but still needs to be done, perhaps because it’s the whole reason your course exists. That’s a battle you will need to have. So make those choices strategically.

And if you are in the position to support innovation, anything you can do to reinforce the idea that failure is not going to mean immediate unemployment would be greatly appreciated by those on short-term contracts who probably sacrificed a paper to try something new.

Respect the course. Accept co-creation. Acknowledge the hardships of innovation.

The Gold Standard

This a blog about assessment and urine. I promise there’s more of a point than the punny title.

This is a blog about assessment and urine. Please stay . . .  

I was very proud of myself this morning for collecting a urine sample from Athena. She seems to be suffering from cystitis, which is common in cats in her demographic. By a bizarre coincidence I happen to have a UTI this week as well, which is a common occurrence in my demographic. The upshot of this is that on Wednesday I saw a GP deal with my case very effectively, and a vet deal with Athena’s case very effectively. Both practitioners impressed me.

In medical education we have a concept, Miller’s Pyramid, which describes the different levels of ability in a practitioner.

  • You know
  • You know how
  • You show
  • You do

Obviously the ‘doing’ is the most important part. Both my GP and my vet did an excellent job of doing, with a lot of similarities in how they handled their respective cases. Both were good at providing detail, providing treatment options, making me feel consulted, and both were respectively gentle with their patients (although I will say Athena was less grateful than she could have been). But large parts of that ‘doing’ is subjective, involving my feelings and Athena’s feelings, as best we can know them.

Let’s take a less medical example. An excellent question for a statistician might be:

Calculate the likelihood of a cohabiting 32 year old woman and 4 year old spayed indoor female cat presenting with cystitis on the same week.

A statistician would need to investigate the prevalence of these conditions in these populations and then calculate how often these populations intersect. We might then ask them to comment on the factors which may make this an under/over estimate, and see if they show enough awareness of the real world to realise that I’m probably more sensitive to Athena’s problems when I’m in pain myself.

Even with this example, which uses lovely objective maths, there isn’t a true ‘right’ answer for doing. You might use different estimates, for example, or you may bring in other information (such as the fact cystitis may be associated with stress, in cats, and possibly in women). The best you can do is give your estimate and outline your thinking as to why this is the case.

At the same time, it’s MSc marking season. We say the gold standard for an MSc is to be of ‘publishable quality’, but in line with #PeerReviewWeek18 (yeah, that is unbelievably a thing), we scientists can’t decide that amongst ourselves. A recent study has shown that as readers, scientists are reasonably good at guessing which papers will not be replicated, and yet we still allow those papers to be published – we are the ones who peer review them after all.

My GP and my vet were responsive to me, and both were very accepting of the ‘grey’ areas in diagnoses. My vet deeply impressed me by strongly recommending a painkiller for Athena (who is currently snoozing very comfortably on my left leg), and my GP was extremely good at parsing my confused jumble of “I’m not sure if this is a symptom or if I’m just overly-anxious today”.

When I was asked to collect a sample of Athena’s urine I thought back to when I used to perform similar tasks in the wildlife hospital I worked in over ten years ago. Then, the assessment criteria (that I perceived anyway) was to perform the task quickly, with economic use of resources and with a minimum of fuss. But this morning I wanted to do it calmly, inflicting as little stress on Athena as possible, and still get to my first meeting on time. Similar task, two different sets of criteria.

The same task in different contexts requires different definitions of ‘doing’ – and good practitioners are adaptable. But funnily enough, this week has made me a lot more confident in ‘assessing’ practice. You recognise good care when you get it, not necessarily because it ‘works’, but because afterwards you feel better. Athena and I feel better today, and even if our respective problems aren’t fixed, we’re better for having seen good health professionals. Vice versa, the next time I think a paper isn’t publishable, I’ll remember that I’m capable of recognising quality when I see it. 

And just an observation, it’s those ‘softer’ skills that my practitioners used to demonstrate their excellence . . . 

Anything You’d Like to Share With The Class?

The first university of Edinburgh Learning and Teaching Conference was on the 20th June and I enjoyed myself immensely. There’s lots I want to reflect on from the conference, but it will likely come in dribs and drabs. One of the ways I am trying to practice some ‘academic kindness’ is to not beat myself up about not blogging more. It’s been surprisingly difficult for me to get back into the habit post-book.

But the first thing I want to talk about after #UoELTConf18 is the Twitter conference. I can’t tell if it’s been the switch of disciplines, or just the technology and the users maturing, but I am absolutely loving the conference hashtag over the last few years. For the last couple of conferences I’ve been to, I’ve had just as interesting (if not more interesting) discussions on Twitter as I have had in the sessions.

At AMEE, last year, I expanded my followers list exponentially, and love seeing how medical education at large talks. That community introduced me to things like Bawa Garba case, and a new take on many ethical considerations. At the last few QAA conferences I’ve been to, Twitter has been used to collect questions from the middle of a crowded auditorium, and from more junior colleagues. I’ve been able to question speakers over my allotted time, and in a way that feels (to me) to be respectful and non-pressuring to the speakers.

I also retweet whatever someone tweets about my work – and I’m always interested to see what people choose to share or take away from one of my talks. For example, this is Jen Ross’s take away from our paper at the conference


Now I think that’s a fair and concise (thank you, 240 character allowance) summary of what I took twenty minutes to say. But sometimes I’m surprised by what people choose to share of my work. Sometimes I think: “But that wasn’t important at all”, or “You missed the cool bit!”. The more I communicate science, the more I think I’m a very poor communicator. I hope this is the Dunning Kruger effect at work, but then that leads me to wonder that if you’re aware of the Dunning Kruger effect, and think you’re not very good at something, does that mean you’re actually not very good at it . . . ?

I digress.

One of the other fun new things about #UoELTConf18 was that my other talk was a Pecha Kucha. Twenty slides with twenty seconds per slide. I had to write a Pecha Kucha talk differently, and think very carefully about the content of my presentation, as opposed to the style of my presentation.

It’s not groundbreaking to recognise that different formats need different material content, but watching how Twitter can transform my own conference experience has made me think a lot more about the purpose of a conference presentation, and what good content can and cannot make up for.

What my take-home message for all this? Well I have a few. First, I have really started designing my slides with the idea that they should stand-alone, as much as possible. That’s not to say that each slide is made for sharing (see take-home point two), but a combination of simplicity, visual appeal, and a clear idea of what slide is meant to do has helped me a lot recently.

Two – I am clear when I don’t want slides to be shared. I have a little graphic I use to indicate when I would rather a slide not be shared on Twitter, i.e. because I feel the data is confidential, or inappropriate to have an isolated question around. I forgot this in a recent slide deck and reminded my audience verbally instead, and they were very happy to acquiesce. As an aside, I think this might also be something we lecturers might want to consider as lecture recording becomes more wide spread. There’s no harm in a visual reminder sometimes.

And third, I’m going to try and generally remember that improvement happens when you push yourself. Without being a little self-critical, I can’t get better. And if someone picks up on the ‘wrong’ slide once or twice along the way, well they might have just been looking for something else entirely.

Gie Us a Grant?

I’ve just submitted a little grant proposal! (Everyone go ‘woo!’)

One of the things I talked about in the grant proposal was my outreach activities. I like to think of my science as quite transparent. But I am definitely less good at talking about the grant writing part of science.

Why is this? Well firstly, grant writing involves asking for money, and that’s not a terribly pleasant activity for many of us. In addition, there are often privacy concerns. Funders might not want to disclose how much money they award versus how much they were asked for. Projects of a sensitive nature (which this one might be) also require careful thought before a science blogger starts talking about the 100 grand bid they just put in.

Still, most research funding comes from public money, so all parties have a responsibility to talk about finances, and how we spend that money responsibly.

For my part, this grant is asking for some of my time, some travel costs, and some research costs. Altogether, this amounts to less than £50,000. To me this is a small sum for a research project, and I’m interested to see if there’s any feedback on the costings, either from the grant, or from you guys.

Money in academia is a hot topic right now – so I want to do my part for making this more understandable. If this gets funded, and the funders agree, I’d love to do a full breakdown of how I came to that total. And then you guys would be able to judge for yourselves whether it was money well spent . . .

The Finnish Lesson

For the record, I managed two whole plenaries in AMEE before I was overcome with opinions and had to blog about it.

First things first, AMEE 2017, an International Association for Medical Education, has been a bit of a revelation for me. Sitting in a crowd of 3800 medical educators, when you’ve only been on the job for fourteen months, is a bit overwhelming. But this has been one of the friendliest, most accessible conferences I’ve ever attended. It’s been a delight so far.

But I want to talk about the Finnish Education system here. Our second plenary of the conference was by Pasi Sahlberg, whose talk was titled “What can medical education learn from the Finnish experience of educational change?

First off, it’s important to talk about the conference crush. It’s a thing that happens when you hear another researcher talk and their passion and excitement, and their insight into a topic, just sets your heart racing and before you know it you’re having idle fantasies of working in another research group. It happens to me about ten times a conference. I got a case of it listening to Sahlberg talk about the Finnish education experience. In about 15 years they managed to make massive improvements, and top the global league tables in many arenas of literacy. They improved so much they surprised themselves.

I think Sahlberg will be posting his slides on his website, but I quite enjoy taking my own things away a talk. The highlights to me were:

  • Teaching must be respected (in Finland you need an Masters degree to do any kind of teaching)
  • School systems should not be competitive with one another for ‘clients’
  • Value play and failure
  • The society you teach in needs to have high equity


Whether or not this is what Sahlberg intended to communicate, this is what I walked away with. There are so many questions that come tumbling out when I think about this. For us in Scotland, I really worry about the equity in our educational society. Any three students in my lecture could have paid three different fees to hear the same material. That worries me greatly. With the changing politics of the UK, we risk losing many of our hard-earned gains in society.

Sahlberg presented a slide which talked about ‘Global Educational Reform Movement’, and how it had spread (like a g.e.r.m.) from the UK in the eighties, and moved forward. I can’t be the only person in the room who was thinking about dear old Maggie Thatcher. Whether education must always be political is an interesting question (one opinion, one more). I have always been a political creature, and I believe there is politics in all we do. I found Sahlberg’s slides very convincing that we must create certain kind of systems in order to promote better educational outcomes.

Sahlberg also highlighted the value of play, briefly, and the value of what he called ‘small data’. These are subjects close to my heart. As someone with a big-data PhD, I now spend a lot of time on small data, and explore qualitative ways to evaluate what we do, because sometimes that’s the best method you can use to answer the question you’re interested in. I like these two elements because they are both things that are sometimes frowned upon in the environments I work. When I did my M.Sci, I had this feeling that I wasn’t allowed to get emotional about the animals, I wasn’t allowed to have fun in my job. Where did this come from? No one ever told me this, but it was part of my culture nonetheless. I still struggle a little with this.

This blog is called ‘Fluffy Sciences’ because I want to kick back against the ideas that ‘soft’ things, play, small data, feelings, are less valuable. What we do is massively complicated, asking questions like “how do we change a whole community in order to improve our education”, and not recognising how valuable that is results in any old person doing teaching, being given no support, and students who are treated as commodities, not people.

Here at AMEE, it’s incredibly empowering to be around so many people who recognise the importance of education research. Let’s hope that we can all take that confidence back with us to our schools as a beacon.

Purity, Application and Function: The Real Problem in Science


Science is in crisis.

We’ve been hearing this from a wide range of fields, from students to professors, and perhaps most alarmingly, from two of the world’s largest democracies rejecting evidence based policy to elect anti-science policy makers. The culprit is claimed to be peer review, or badly understood statistics, scientists being too wrapped up in public engagement, scientists not doing enough public engagement, the terrible way we treat our science teachers, our devaluing of degrees . . .

I don’t think it’s any of these. I think the real cause of the scientific crisis is specialism.

Before going any further I want to point you towards two comics in the venerated xkcd. Purity and Degree Off. As an interdisciplinary scientist who named her blog ‘Fluffy Sciences’ I open many of my lectures with these concepts. I used to open with Purity long before Degree Off was posted because it makes such an important point. The culture of science has a deeply ingrained problem with application. The more applied a scientist is, the more we look down on them. A mathematician is worth a dozen engineers because at the end of the day, the mathematician can be taught to do anything the engineer can. As the mathematicians say, everything comes down to numbers eventually.

I am not immune to this belief. I’ve spent a lot of my scientific career fighting my own applied nature. When I was specialising in behavioural ecology I maintained that I was interested in the broader – and more serious – sphere of ecology. When I started working in ethology I clung to that behavioural ecology badge like a shield. When I realised I was getting deep into interdisciplinary territory I started reaching for the word ‘ethology’. If I had an ology I’d be fine. Interestingly, in my interview for my current role I was asked what attracted me to educational research. My answer was that I liked working at the coal face, I liked being able to quickly see the impact of a change.

My answer was honest, and applied, and reader? I have never been happier professionally than I am in my current role.

Recently I feel as though I’m hearing the same thing, over and over. Whether it’s what I have been writing in my application to the Higher Education Academy, whether it’s listening to how the Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare MSc has changed over the years, or whether it’s listening to Dr Chatterjee’s SEFCE plenary on functional medicine, the problem that each person describes is the same: the specialists are only interested in teaching their subject, not the skills that the world desperately needs.

Chatterjee’s talk was interesting precisely because it set off many of my little professional bugbears. Chatterjee preaches Functional Medicine, a holistic approach to a medical problem that advocates multiple small harmless changes as a first line of treatment. In theory I love the sound of it, its very similar to the approaches I advocate for welfare assessment. But Chatterjee spoke of several case studies, he couldn’t evidence sustained behavioural change for his patients, and I was desperate to ask how such a change could be implemented in a health system which needs measurable metrics both for the assessment of new medics and the quality monitoring of existing medics. These are all serious questions for advocates of functional medicine.

During the talk I tweeted my thoughts, as I often do, and I tweeted that my quantitative heart and qualitative brain were at war when thinking about functional medicine. My heart, which truly loves the comfort of describing things mathematically, rejected functional medicine’s case-by-case approach. My logical brain, which sees the value of qualitative science, understood that the real goal was not making numbers perform on a chart, but changing the intangible and immeasurable experience of the patient.

We specialise early in life. Maths is separate from English in school. You can be better at one subject than the other. I think back to my early years at university. In first year I had three courses, biology, chemistry and archaeology. Learn the facts about biology, this fish does that, this dinosaur likely moved like this. Learn the facts about chemistry, hydrocarbons are stable, lab safety is important. Learn the facts about archaeology, these people lived then, this is the evidence they leave behind. Facts that can be regurgitated in multiple choice questions (a very efficient and useful method of assessing knowledge). Then in second year, 8 separate biology courses. In third year, four separate biology courses, in fourth year another four separate courses. All these courses that are set up independently, assessed independently, and brought together at the end with a dissertation project. 

This approach is a relic of university history where expert lecturers stood up to regurgitate everything they knew about their subject. We know that this is not the best way to teach (1, 2, 3) , and indeed even that it prevents students from making connections between subjects. Yet we persist in creating these divisions. Why?

In some respects it comes back to the need to measure success. It is always easier to measure something when you break it down into smaller chunks, and students need to be measured and to be told how well they’re doing. No student wants to study for four years and then have everything assessed at the end (well as a student that would have suited me perfectly but I don’t think I was normal). So there must be some break down of both the information and skills. The question to me is: what’s the most important thing you want every student to be able to do?

In the first year of your science degree what do you need to know? Do you need to be able to say that parrot fish are able to change sexes in single sex environments? Is it important for you to name every type of bridge structure? These may be reasonably interesting facts, but what is the application? In the last five years I have never been in a situation where that sort of knowledge wasn’t accessible via the small device in my pocket. We have out-brains now that deal with fact retention. Fact retention is the least important part of my role as a scientist.

Not only is fact retention not important for me, as an actual academic who works in research, but most of the students I teach are not going into the hallowed halls of academia. The zoologists are becoming bankers, the engineers becoming salespeople . . . regardless of what you think of it, the undergraduate science degree does not mean you will become a scientist. For those people, what’s the most important thing I could teach them? What’s the most useful thing for them to learn?

It is not the parrot fish.


Imagine a first year science degree where the first year looks like this:

Introduction to Science

By the end of this year you will be able to:

  • Identify an appropriate sample frame for a range of populations
  • Distinguish between interview and focus-group data
  • Discriminate between positive, negative and historical controls
  • Describe a manipulative study
  • Describe an observation study

Those learning outcomes are all assessable via variants of multiple choice questions, but also easy to evidence in class, providing excellent opportunities for both formative and summative feedback. This meets our need to measure and give feedback for our students. I would be delighted to even work with an MSc student who could do all of these, but they are still basic skills that any psychologist, chemist, physicist or biologist should really be able to do. Not only that but the banker and the salesperson, the people with the degrees who have no intention of ever doing research. These are skills that the world needs.

You could use examples from many different fields while teaching this subject. You could show how a focus-group responds to a new bread recipe, bring in some accessory knowledge from everything from agriculture to chemistry (Learning Outcome 2).  You could look at the testing of a bridge’s strength and compare that with observation of the bridge in use (Learning Outcomes 4 & 5). Even those students who do want to become scientists are interested in the how of the world, and all of these examples are interesting and worthwhile learning a little bit about.

Specialist knowledge is important, but specialists are by definition an expert in one thing. We need more people with more general knowledge. Science needs to get over its specialism fetish if it hopes to help the world move forward. Science needs to get over its specialism fetish if it hopes to help itself.

Being a physicist is not better than being a stamp collector. We shouldn’t be teaching students otherwise.

“Degree Off”, XKCD – CC Attribution, Non Commercial

MOOCs as a mechanism for behavioural change

Have you always wanted to hear my opinions on MOOCs but been unable to bring yourself to search through the MOOCs tag of this blog (or read the papers, or look at Twitter, or . . . never mind).

Well it’s good news for you! The Human Behavioural Change for Animal Welfare conference did a great job recording all the talks, including yours truly. The full set of talks can be found here, but I would highlight Melanie Connor’s talk on the Duty of Care projefct and Anna Saillet’s talk on maintaining behavioural change.

You can watch yours truly here: