Science & Education News Digest: July 2017

Welcome to Learning Science’s News Digest for July 2017.

This month we learned about potential new changes to TEF and the pay-packets of vice-chancellors, and the finalists of the Global Higher Education Excellence Awards.

We cover a study on the thinking processes of chemistry students, and a report on how students feel before uni vs during or after. There is news, although it’s not entirely new, that the proportion of first-class degrees is greatly increasing at some institutions.

In science, it appears that frogs benefitted greatly from the event that killed off the non-avian dinosaurs, and we discover a “charming” new particle.

If you know of articles, case studies or events which may be of interest to us – send us the link via Twitter or email.


Higher Ed Policy / News

Global Higher Education Excellence Awards finalists announced (HEA)

The Higher Education Academy has announced the 2017 finalists for the Global Higher Education Excellence Awards, “the first global award to recognise and celebrate institutional commitment to the pursuit of teaching and learning excellence”.

The three focal domains for judging are: Excellence in the leadership of teaching and learning, excellence in teaching, and excellence in student support.

The finalists include a number of Universities we are working with: Aston University, Plymouth University, University College London and the University of Bristol. The overall winner will be announced at an award ceremony on the 4th September.


Jo Johnson to announce v-c pay curbs, TEF changes (THE)

The universities and science minister, Jo Johnson, claims to be introducing a series of changes that will affect higher education institutions. Among these, universities will have to “publicly justify” any vice-chancellor salary over and above what the Prime Minister is receiving (currently £150,402). The average v-c pay in 2015/16 was £280,877.

Johnson is also set to announce plans to include graduate pay in future TEF iterations, and to pilot subject-level assessments rather than judging entire institutions as a single unit


Education / Technology / Pedagogy

Thinking processes associated with undergraduate chemistry students’ success at applying a molecular-level model in a new context. (Journal of Chemical Education)

This study looked at transfer of learning - how students can apply the knowledge they’ve learned effectively into new contexts. This is challenging to teach in science topics due to the large amount of shallow, factual knowledge present in curricula too.

It centred around 28 chemistry students who were asked to make mental “models” of various molecular structures and processes, using written notes, pictures and symbols to represent this. They did this before and after a relevant taught session. The students were then given a transfer problem and asked to solve it as best they could.

The three “thinking processes” which were found to positively affect ability to deal with the transfer problem were:

  • Constructing molecular-level models that were consistent with experimental evidence

  • Engaging in accurate metacognitive monitoring

  • Using evidence to justify model refinements

These were better predictors of transfer ability than how scientifically correct their pre-teaching model was.

The researchers state they “did not explore causal relationships”, but “suggest that integrating activities that promote the key thinking processes identified into instruction may improve students’ understanding and success at transfer.”

The study was run by academics in Colorado and Rochester, New York in the United States.


Student Life

University first-class degrees soaring (BBC News)

There has been a significant increase in the number of first class degrees offered by universities over the last five years. At some universities, the number of these top awards had doubled or even tripled. On average, 24% of students are now getting first class degrees.

The findings are based on Press Association analysis of Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data.

The reasons why are likely to be different for each institution, but a number of factors for this “chronic grade inflation” has been proposed. Some say it is because universities have “every incentive” to boost the number of firsts to raise league table rankings or as an incentive for prospective students. Others believe it is due to a “concentrated focus on enhancing all aspects of our education provision”.

The increased £9000 fees and consumer-culture of HE has also been flagged as a potential cause. However it’s worth noting that grade inflation was also reported on in early 2013, when the higher fee-paying students were only just starting their degrees.


University applicants set for shock to the system (HEPI)

A report, produced by HEPI and Unite Students, is called “Reality Check: a report on university applicants’ attitudes and perceptions”.

It focusses on the discrepancies between the expected experience a prospective student thinks they will have, and how university life actually plays out. The report covers scheduling differences, such that 60% think they will have more time in lectures compared where to their schools days. However this is actually only true for 19% of students. It also looked at emotional and mental health: for example only 37% of respondants with a mental health condition planned to, or had already, informed their university.

These findings, and further research, could increase understanding of what students are expecting from university, and where these preconceptions come from. Bringing new students’ ideas closer in line to reality before starting uni might help smooth the transition, allow students to better adjust and perhaps even reduce incidence of mental health issues during the first year.

Cool new science!


Extinction event that wiped out dinosaurs cleared way for frogs (University of Florida)

Out of ashes of the dinosaurs, metaphorically speaking, hopped a whole bunch of frogs!

Frogs have been around for about 200 million years, but most of the diversity we have - 6700 species known so far - is much more recent than that.

The ancestors of about 88% of living frog species today appeared 66 million years ago, just after the mass extinction event that killed the dinosaurs!

This surprise finding came from an international team of researchers who analysed hundreds of frog genomes to construct the most detailed family tree. By studying the lineages, they could predict where the major shake-ups were.

The research doesn’t tell us what exact conditions allowed frogs specifically to thrive in the wake of the non-avian dinosaurs, but they aren’t the only ones. After all, we have the same mass extinction to thank for our own existence - as the small, scurrying mammals did very well out of the brave new world.  

CERN physicists find a particle with a double-dose of charm (NY Times)

A new entry in the physics particle zoo has been revealed by CERN! The newcomer goes by the name Xi-cc++ (say: ka-sigh-see-see-plus-plus) - and it’s doubly charmed.

The new particle is a baryon - comprised of three quarks, much like a proton or a neutron. However two of Xi-cc++’s quarks are charm quarks, which are much heavier than the more common up quark which completes the new trio.

The existence and key properties of Xi-cc++ had already been predicted by the Standard model. However it’s uneven mass distribution means Xi-cc-++ could be interesting to study in terms of the strong force which holds these particles together. It’s possible the up quark is even orbiting the charm quarks like a planet around a binary star!


We hope you enjoyed this issue of News Digest, from Learning Science. If you know of articles, case studies or events which may be of interest to us – send us the link via Twitter or email.