The Research-Education Ecosystem

In this exciting debut blog post, Professor Neil Gow, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Impact,  explains how he sees the University’s Research and Education strategies interlinking.

Professor Neil Gow

‘A considerable part of the appeal of my joining Exeter last year, was its complementary strengths as both a research intensive university and an institution with a strong educational tradition – evidenced by writing for this Education Incubator blog!’

A significant challenge for me in my second term at the university is to work with a broad team of colleagues and staff members to begin to frame the next Research and Impact Strategy.

This will be a highly consultative exercise involving volunteers, workshops, site visits, a range of user groups across the entire university and on-line questionnaires that engages with academic and professional services staff, students, early career researchers, established senior researchers, collaborators and translational partners.

A fundamental principle in this exercise will be to recognise the intimate interdependence between our teaching and research programmes.  As a concept we might describe this interdependence as a “research and education ecosystem”.

We know that the ability to deliver the best educational opportunities generates graduates who go on to generate high quality research at the university and beyond.  The excellence and world-leading nature of our research programmes magnetises students to come to our university from the UK and abroad to undertake undergraduate and postgraduate scholarship programmes.

This is a true circular economy in which the currency of knowledge, skills and cooperation underpin our core values, global reputation as well as the financial stability of our institution.

Staff who teach and inspire new generations of graduates are also engaging with our research programme and feeding their expertise into the research community.

Researchers who teach become more effective communicators and can help instigate an understanding of how knowledge is created as an emergent property of research and scholarship.  This ecological interdependence recognises that we are one community engaged in the discovery of knowledge.

The new Research and Impact Strategy will support and develop this ecosystem and use it to ensure that we gain the maximum value from our outstanding staff and student community.  This mutual strength enables us to address the grand challenges of the world and to deliver a distinctive educational experience through collaboration.

I am looking forward to receiving your inputs into the development of the Research and Impact strategy, which you can do by sending your comments to our on-line site that enables anyone to input their thoughts at any time.

Professor Neil Gow is a globally-renowned microbiologist. Find out more about his work at the University of Exeter here


New ideas & new courses supported by Student Digital Champions

Innovation in Education

There’s lots of exciting educational innovation happening this term 🙂

Firstly, our new FutureLearn MOOC, Building Your Career in Tomorrow’s Workplace, starts on Monday 14th January. It includes contributions from a number of Exeter staff, business partners and Student Digital Champions. We aim to encourage learners to think beyond “standard” (i.e. 20th Century!) career pathways and consider the much wider range of options that are opening up in the digital economy.

The objective of our short open course is to equip learners with the knowledge and skills necessary to reach their intended career goals in workplaces which require increasing levels of flexibility, adaptability and commitment to lifelong learning. Certain jobs may disappear but entirely new opportunities will become available that currently don’t even exist.

For example, developments in fields such as robotics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence are proving to be highly disruptive to society and to ourselves…

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Mathematics Group Projects on the New A-level Mathematics 2018-2019

What impact, if any, does the new reformed A-level have on the mathematical mindset of students? Dr Layal Hakim explains how her students were inspired by a related Incubator project to investigate this important issue. 

As part of the module ECM3735, lead by Dr Barrie Cooper and Dr Layal Hakim, two groups (out of a total of 15) of eight students each conducted a project analysing the effect of the new A-level on their transition to studying mathematics in higher education.

I was inspired by Dr Matt Finn’s Education Incubator project in 2017-2018 where a detailed analysis of the new A-level in geography, English, and biosciences was carried out. Dr Finn’s workshop on the 10th of July 2018 was very enjoyable and I gained many insights. Particularly, I was wondering: How will the new A-level mathematics have an effect on the students who want to study a mathematics-based subject at university?

The students’ interest in this project, when it was pitched in the beginning of the Autumn term, was very high. The larger number of students wanting to take this project required the module leaders allocating two groups for this project. Students were drawn to the idea of researching into a topic that is currently new and innovative.

Many mathematics students are passionate about higher education and how the mathematical mindset of students changes over time according to the topics they are taught, as well as how they revise.

The new reformed AS and A-level mathematics course has been put into practice from September 2017. Prior to this change, there were gaps between the topics taught at A-level mathematics and the topics taught in the first year of a high-rank university such as the University of Exeter. For example, these “gaps” could be in the form of studying a topic on a basic level at A-level, then starting it at a much more advanced level at Exeter; or they could be in the form of not having any knowledge on how to construct proofs at A-level, then expecting to understand and reconstruct proofs at university level with only little preparation.

gender equality is a persistent and pervasive problem. education is a key means of tackling gender inequality as it is only through shifting social attitudes, and creating greater awar

As part of these projects, students have researched and identified what changes have been made to the A-level curriculum in mathematics, and whether these changes bridge the gaps between A-level mathematics and first year university level mathematics. They have specifically concentrated on the curriculum and topics taught in the restructured Stage 1 courses of the Mathematics degree at Exeter. They have also researched into the question: what impact, if any, does the new reformed A-level have on the mathematical mindset of students?

The projects were 10-weeks long. During these weeks, the students researched into the topic, studied the structure and content of the new A-level and new Stage 1 Mathematics, collected data in the form of questionnaires sent out to A-level students, Stage 2 students, and academic staff in the Department of Mathematics, and met with myself, as I was their supervisor, on a weekly basis to discuss their findings and ongoing performance.

On Wednesday 12th December 2018, a mini-conference took place, where all 15 ECM3735 groups presented their work to members of the department, as well as students and staff from Exeter College. Being inspired by his work, I invited Dr Matt Finn to attend. The students presenting were thrilled and honoured to see him there, as they were aware of his influential work in pedagogy. The presentations went very well. Group A sent their report to Dr Martin Greenhow of Brunel University, a senior lecturer in mathematics and an ongoing researcher in the pedagogy of mathematics in higher education. Dr Greenhow was impressed with the thorough research carried out by the students and provided the students with detailed comments and feedback. Both projects on the new Mathematics A-level will submit a summary of their report to the peer-reviewed research journal MSOR Connections.

The two project titles as well as the abstract are given below.

Project A:

The Effect of the New A-level Mathematics on Mathematics at the University of Exeter

Abstract: The Mathematics A Level and Stage 1 Mathematics course at the University of Exeter both underwent structure and content changes in hopes of providing students with a higher standard and level of education. Throughout our report, we have analysed the successes and failures of both and have conducted our own investigation into whether these changes were sufficient. We produced our own questionnaires to get firsthand feedback from the students who have participated in the new A Level, and also completed statistical analysis to determine whether they feel confident to transition into undergraduate study. Similarly, we collected and analysed data from the current Stage 2 students at the University of Exeter to see if the old A Level syllabus prepared them for the new Stage 1 course. From this, we performed statistical analysis in order to draw conclusions about the improvements to each course. Additionally, we interviewed educators of mathematics to ask about the importance of abstract mathematics. Ultimately, A Level students still feel unprepared in the same areas that students in the past have felt – mainly pure Mathematics and programming. We also concluded that students who completed the new Stage 1 after completing the old A Level were satisfied with the course structure changes but were not prepared for the new Stage 1.


Project B:

Does the Reformed A-Level Provide the Optimal Transition to Higher Education Mathematics?

Abstract: In September 2017 the government introduced new Maths and Further Maths A-Level syllabi. The purpose of this report is to investigate whether the new Maths A-Level optimises the transition into higher education mathematics. This report details the gaps and overlaps between the new A-Level and new Stage 1 at the University of Exeter, as well as analysing how the mindsets of students change when transitioning from A-Level to university mathematics. We shall also highlight how the new changes to Stage 1 at the University of Exeter have helped students, as well as possible improvements that could be made. This report analyses the immediate effects by extensive literature review, interviews with influential figures in mathematical education at both the A-Level and university level, and three different questionnaires sent out to A-Level students, Stage 2 students and Academics. The results from these questionnaires have largely been analysed on SPSS. From these results we have been able to conclude, that the new A-Level provides a better transition into higher education mathematics than the previous A-Level. In addition to discovering the advantages the new A-Level has provided, we have been able to investigate the areas where it is still lacking. We can determine that the new A-Level makes students more disciplined in their study and develops a mindset more conducive to the pedagogy of higher education mathematics, as well as introducing topics and approaches answering questions expected at degree level mathematics.


Dr Layal Hakim leads an Education Incubator project on Continuing Student Development, which focuses on providing support for students of mathematics through the Maths Cafe initiative. To find out more click here or email Layal. 


Humanities in a Digital World: Progress Update

The ‘Humanities in a Digital World’ project began in September with the aim of finding out what digital skills Humanities students need to enter the current job market – and to think about how we can provide them here at Exeter. The first stage of the project was data-gathering, which was done with the help of two interns from the Student Campus Partnerships scheme. Here one of our student interns, Libby Jones, reports on our progress so far:

libby jones
Libby Jones, Student Intern on the project

‘Having established as a team the aims of the project, we got on to working! We knew initially that we would write two surveys – one aimed at Exeter Humanities graduates and the other aimed at employers of Exeter Humanities graduates, both with the objective to discover the most useful digital skills for today’s workplace.

We decided to focus first on the survey for the graduates, which we sent out via the Humanities alumni newsletter in mid-November. Trying my best to keep it both short and still informative, I drafted a five-minute survey which would principally identify the digital competencies the graduates had used since leaving Exeter, and any digital training they wished they had received during their time here.

Once that was complete, we set our attention on the employers’ survey, from which we wanted to ascertain the skills they most wanted to see in today’s graduates, and whether universities are doing enough to ensure their students obtain them. I worked with Helen Birkett, one of the project leaders, and Steve Wallers from Employability and Graduate Development to identify the best employers to target, and after finding a time that best suited everyone, Steve kindly agreed to email out our employer’s survey to his contacts.

Then, all that was left to do was wait for the results to come in …or so it seemed! After realising that the number of respondents was looking much lower than we had initially hoped, we decided to ask other employers via LinkedIn as well as students completing postgraduate degrees to share their experiences with us. This proved to be a fantastic decision, and the data collected from these two groups turned out to be really useful in gaining a deeper insight into the digital skills most relevant for today.

Once all the data was in, my fellow intern Hasnul began to compile a report which showed that, generally, alumni and postgraduates would have liked to see more training given about data analysis and web development during their time as undergraduates.

Being a student researcher on this project, I very much enjoyed seeing the project go from an aim to a realisation, and being part of the data-collecting process. Knowing that the work being completed on this project will go on to shape future teaching at the University is incredibly exciting and I can’t wait to see the results when this phase of the project is taken forward.’

Now that stage 1 of the project is complete, it’s time to begin stage 2. This involves monitoring some digital skills training sessions provided by the Digital Humanities Lab to assess how much training students need and thinking about the ways in which this training might be provided most effectively in the future, e.g. through online learning etc. We will also continue to analyse the data from our surveys, including conducting follow-up interviews with some of their participants – again with the help of student interns. It’s great to be working with people drawn from the very group who will benefit from this research – and to get their insights on our work as we move the project forward.

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The Digital Humanities Lab, University of Exeter (Photo by Estelle Caine)

The ‘Humanities in a Digital World’ project is led by a team of three scholars from the department of History: Helen Birkett, Richard Ward, and Sarah Jones. If you are interested in this project and would like to get in touch, please e-mail Helen (



Reimagine Education Awards – San Francisco, November 2018.

In this post Dr Sarah Dyer, Director the Education Incubator, reflects on her visit to California to explore innovation in higher education. 

The Education Incubator has been challenging academics at Exeter to reimagine learning in higher education since its launch in 2017. Our Incubator Fellows have responded by running innovative projects that have the potential to improve student outcomes. Their projects have explored how the university should reconfigure learning spaces. They have developed and evaluated digital tools, providing rich interactive resources in maths and science education. This year a fascinating project is exploring how VR technology can enhance the study of ancient didactic poetry, and another team of academics are developing a module which will equip students with digital skills to succeed in the contemporary workplace shaped by technological innovations.

Shortlisted for an International Award

November 29-30th I attended the Reimagine Education conference and award ceremony, held this year in San Francisco. This was a fantastic opportunity to see how others are responding to the challenge to embrace the new possibilities afforded to education by digital innovations, and develop education that equips us to thrive in the Knowledge Age. Attending this conference  allowed me to spread the word about InVEnTA: Interactive Virtual Environments for Teaching and Assessment, an Incubator project, which was shortlisted for the ICT Tools for Learning and Teaching Award. There was a fantastic response from the audience with questions and expressions of interest. I also had many fascinating conversations about the Incubator model with educators working in schools and universities.

Collaboration – the key to future success

The conference included presentations from educators, edtech initiatives and projects, representing school, higher education, and informal learning such as private tutoring. A theme that emerged was the use of technology to enable peer learning and collaboration. The overall prize award winner was Peerwise, a platform developed at the University of Auckland, enabling students to create assessment questions, feedback and rate each other’s questions. It neatly encapsulates sound, evidence-based educational principles (about social and active learning) and contemporary mores and experiences (of user generated content) to create a valuable and adaptive education enhancement.

Future possibilities

Other presenters provided thought-provoking takes on emergent drivers of innovation and on worthwhile approaches to education. I was most interested in hearing about the institutional structures that support innovation and change in educational practices.

Professor Suzie Derbyshire spoke about Queensland University of Technology’s Real World Learning 2020 vision. The vision is facilitated through curriculum review and staff development, including an explicit focus on investing in and rewarding innovation, and building a culture of tolerance towards risk and the possibility of failure, which true innovation requires. As an example, modules can carry ‘innovation flags’ which identify changes of practice for those reviewing student feedback, thereby taking account of fluctuations in feedback during the innovative process.

Ben Nelson spoke about Minerva Schools at KGI, of which he is the founder. A university, only established in 2013, and therefore able to imagine the ‘University’ anew. Although it has halls of residence, there are no teaching buildings as all classes are online active learning seminars.

These examples provide a springboard for thinking through how we can create environments that support and reward educators.

Bringing the learning to Exeter

I combined attending the conference with other visits. I went to Stanford’s D school, where I was hosted by their Director of Teaching and Learning Carissa Carter, who showed me around and introduced me to their fellows in residence. I really enjoyed seeing their teaching spaces, and discussing educational design, and frameworks for innovation. The latter topic was one I also explored when I met with Ben Werdmuller, who has been involved in supporting entrepreneurs through a media start up accelerator. Again, communities of learners, the need to support failure, and core values transfused our conversation. My task over the coming months will be to integrate my learning from these conversations in to the Incubator model.


Playful Learning – a project update from Joe Francis at Truro Knowledge Spa

Incubator fellow Joe Francis, Clinical Skills Tutor for the BMBS Medicine programme, reveals his plans to deploy gamification to revolutionise clinical skills pedagogy #EduPLAYtion

It’s been an exciting start to this incubator project! We are aiming to investigate playful learning strategies and gamification, using our findings to implement these innovative learning strategies within the Universities BMBS medical curriculum and beyond!

The project thus far has been split into three distinct phases:

Phase 1

Initial Scoping Research Study (October 2018 – March 2019)
This research aims to better understand utilisation of the Moodle and Google Suite online learning environments by our current year 1-5 BMBS Medicine students. Data will be gathered through both quantitative and qualitative questions posed within an online questionnaire.

Phase 2

The EduPLAYtion Faculty Learning Community (January – July 2019)

A monthly learning community starting Wednesday January 30th initially for 6 months. This exciting set of workshops aims to start a transdisciplinary conversation about playful learning and the incorporation of such pedagogies into current curricula within higher education.

Phase 3

Development and Implementation of a Resource (January – July 2019)
Using data from the scoping research alongside evidence and experience-based opinion gained from the EduPLAYtion learning community, Clinical Fellows and a student committee, a co-design strategy will be used to develop a gamified learning resource with the aim of trialling this in the summer.

Project progress to date

So far Phase 1 is well under way and speakers for our Faculty Learning Community are being organised with some exciting presentations surrounding digital badging, the hidden curriculum and the physiology of play currently lined up for the New Year! Follow us on our blog site to hear all the latest updates!

In addition to these exciting developments, our project has thus far allowed us to collaborate with the FXPLUS Academic Development Team, specialist scholars in Playful Learning and higher education providers from around the country. This positive momentum will only continue as we begin our FLC curriculum.

Our next steps will be crucial to the project as we aim to begin collecting our research data and disseminating findings from our workshop collaborations, which we hope to utilise to inform the current Education Strategy Consultation.

Follow @josephfra on Twitter for the latest updates on this project using the hashtag #EduPLAYtion

Alternatively, visit our blog:

Success for All

Peer impact – the story so far! by David MacDonald

Incubator Fellow Dr David MacDonald, Senior Lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School, speaks candidly about securing ethics approval and his project’s next steps.

The unwitting 'pilot study'

It’s been an eventful start to the peer impact project.

First of all, trying to convince a cohort of Year 1 BSc. Medical Sciences students to attend additional classes on top of an already crammed teaching schedule, and all for a good cause.  In the end, bribery was needed (in the form of a £10 gift voucher) – 89 students signed up as study participants in a flash!

Suddenly, a cold sweat – was this ethical?  Better ask the Medical School’s ethics committee.  This involved having to fill out a monumental form and having to wait for a month to be told that in fact it wasn’t ethical.  Can’t blame anyone else apart from me – seeking ethical approval is not something that can be rushed through.  Lesson learned.   Thus, hence forward, this part of the project shall be known as a ‘pilot study’ until ethical approval is in place for the actual proper studies planned for Term 2 (fingers’ crossed!).

So what is it that this project is aiming to achieve?

In a nutshell, solid qualitative evidence that participation in peer programmes has a measurable impact on learning gain (or not as the case may be.)  See graph below for a possible outcome – wouldn’t this be lovely?

grap 1

The ‘pilot study’ participants have been busy attending Introductory and review classes delivered by later year peer mentors each week (or not, depending on which of the four protocols they have been assigned to each  week – see study design below) and completing pre- and post-session MCQ quizzes, which is what we are using to measure  learning gain.

graph 2

Positive signs from the start...

The peer mentors have really shone throughout, having created all the session resources and delivered engaging sessions with enthusiasm. Here are some example quotes from participants who attended their sessions:

“[The Peer Mentors] did a fantastic job at inspiring us and gave clear, concise explanations, whilst also instilling confidence in us that we too would grasp the concepts!”

“All three students explained everything extremely clearly, were confident in presenting the content and encouraged us to engage with questions which helped my understanding”

Our data analyst is busy number crunching the weekly quiz response data as I type, so I can’t yet inform you how learning gain differed between each of the four protocols that participants rotated through each week. However, I do have some data based on participant responses to weekly evaluation surveys I managed to persuade 39 of the participants to complete – response data below.



Overall feedback is positive -the participants on the whole found the peer-led sessions valuable, but will these ‘good sensations’ translate into solid, quantitative evidence of their impact on learning gain?   It also sounds to me that the participants preferred the review sessions to the introductory sessions, which is something we can feed forward into the study design process for Term 2.

What’s next?

Well, in Term 2 Dr Gihan Marasingha will be leading a similar study within a year 1 mathematics module and Dr Tim Fawcett will be leading a study in a year 1 Psychology module.  Together these will be offering a cross-discipline analysis of the impact of peer programmes on learning gain.

An abstract we have submitted to the ALDinHE (Association for Learning Development in Higher Education) conference, which is being hosted by the University of Exeter on the 15th-17th April, 2019, has been accepted for a paper presentation, so some preliminary data to share with a wider audience then would be fantastic.

For information on David’s project follow the link and scroll to 2018/19 ‘Success for All’