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’ 

Hidden Curriculum, Higher Education

Hidden Curriculum? New student-staff collaboration is set to shine light on invisible barriers to learning.

In this post Associate Professor Anna Mountford-Zimdars reports on how she is working collaboratively with students as partners to explore the cultural power embedded in the University of Exeter’s very own curriculum. 

Building the team

Our  Incubator project on the hidden curriculum has been off to a fantastic start. We received a lot of interest from students to work on this project – overall, we received 30 applications.  We shortlisted 15 of these and were able to recruit an amazing eight co-researchers. Two of these co-researchers are graduate students and six are undergraduates,  all are in humanities and social science subjects.

Rebecca Munday, a third year sociology student and Welfare Officer for the LGBTQ+ Society, tells us what motivated her to join this project:

“I was attracted to this project particularly because of the emphasis on disabled students and others from diverse cultural backgrounds, and the desire to understand what academic struggles they might face. 

As a disabled student, I care deeply about others in the same position, and seeing that work was being done to acknowledge issues that could be holding back brilliant students – due to their identity – meant a lot to me.

I wanted to be a part of potentially helping a lot of students who deserve extra consideration, and I’m really hopeful that this project can make a difference for them.” 

We have already run two project team Development Workshops with the students. These meetings involved team-building, setting strategic project goals, and developing research skills that our students will use in the next phase of the project.

It was a great co-learning experience – who was teaching whom? I think the academic project leaders learnt as much or more from the experience as the students.  So, this is promising to be a genuinely collaborative projects that will lead academics and students alike to know more at the end.

What next? Focus groups and scenarios

We are developing scenarios on uncovering the hidden curriculum with our students.  We will finish developing these in January and then undertake research with other students and possibly academics.  We have ethical approval in place.

You can watch George Koutsouris, the project PI, give a talk on the hidden curriculum and this project here (drop in a 22min 30secs on the pantopto playback). Enjoy – and let us know if you have any comments or suggestions on the project!

Education, Higher Education, Project

Gender (in)equality – engaging secondary school students to take action. By Dr Emma Jeanes.

In this post Dr Emma Jeanes discusses a recent workshop, ‘Achieving Gender Equality for Young Women’, that she held on November 10th as part of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science. This event was attended by pupils from Torquay Boys Grammar School and Exeter College. 

Gender Equality workshop
Groups break out to discuss gender (in)equality
The event - inspiring students to take action

The day-long event held at the Queens Court Hotel in Exeter, addressed pupils’ understandings of gender and equality. We  provided empirical evidence to help them explore the nature and extent of the phenomenon, and tasked the students with developing projects to tackle gender inequality.

Through means of presentations, short videos, posters and discussions we tackled questions such as ‘what is gender?’ and ‘what is (in)equality?’ before exploring the multiple ways in which gender inequality exists in our workplaces, at home, in politics and society more widely. We explored some of the feminist arguments that seek to explain the nature and cause of inequality, and possible solutions. We also explored the gendered nature of language and the challenges of tackling unconscious bias.

The challenges of gender inequality emerge at societal, macro-institutional, organisational and individual levels.

Indeed, for young women it is often the ‘confidence gap’ that holds them back as much as external barriers, as evidenced by my recent ESRC-funded study ‘Overcoming gender barriers to leadership experienced by school-leaving girls’.

The staff and students engaged in lively discussions that carried on over lunch. The students created a poster highlighting gender stereotypes and what we can do to tackle them.

Gender Stereotypes poster
Fantastic suggestions for tackling gender inequality

They also wrote a letter entitled ‘Keep it Simple’ that set out the importance of equal treatment regardless of gender from birth and throughout one’s life. This reframed gender equality around notions of ungendered choices rather than necessarily that of balance (e.g. the proportion of women in STEMM subjects).

The students took home various resources:

  • an information pack
  • a postcard for them to complete with key learning points and actions for the future
  • their own projects devised during the workshop to share with their fellow pupils and teachers.

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 awaren

The event also showcased work resulting from the University of Exeter’s Gender Inequality Grand Challenges programme from June 2018.

Two of the participants from the Grand Challenges teams supported the event. Cathrin Fischer (second year, Flexible Combined Honours), presented and led a discussion on the role of language in gender inequality. Jemma Rimmer (second year, BA Geography) provided feedback and guidance to the groups during the afternoon group session.

Gender equality is a persistent and pervasive problem, and education is key means of tackling gender inequality, as it is only through shifting social attitudes and greater awareness that we can create a more gender-equal society.

Continuing research impact - engaging audiences online

The theme of the event supports my Education Incubator grant funded project, which is developing a Gender Equality Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).

The MOOC, targeted at 16+ adults (but open to everyone), seeks to increase understanding of gender (in)equality – what it is, how it is sustained, and specific types and consequences of inequality in the workplace, home and more widely in society – and what can be done to effectively challenge and overcome gender inequality.

The ESRC Festival of Social Science event provided a good base for developing this project, and also highlighted the ambition to increase awareness of gender (in)equality in secondary education.

The MOOC project, led by myself, is supported by two student interns, Jemma Rimmer and Lauren Castle (final year, BA English with study in North America), who will be involved in all stages of the project, from honing the concept, to creating and presenting the material.

It is anticipated that the MOOC will be available late in 2019, and will offer free enrolment.

If you would like to known more about Emma’s work on Gender Equality you can contact her here.


Utilising Digital Tools to Enhance Learning in the Laboratory. Highlights from Dr Nicky King’s Presentation.

AccidentsWalking into a university laboratory for the first time can be terrifying. Your practical instructions appear to be written in code. You smile at your laboratory partner prodding a thriving Staphylococcus aureus petri dish, and wish you had taken that gap year in South America.

In my first microbiology laboratory session, I managed to spill a vial of E.coli (luckily not 0157:H7) over my hands and set fire to my laboratory coat. In the following weeks glass shattered if I looked at it, experiments were ruined by my poor pipetting techniques and I was constantly losing data written on scraps of paper.

Wondrously, I did graduate and now recognise these were all valuable mistakes to make. However, could there be more efficient ways of learning good laboratory practise than setting fire to oneself?

Dr Nicky King says ‘yes!’

The Talk - Smart Worksheets and Simulations

On Wednesday 7th November, Dr King organised a talk on Streatham campus to showcase the recent results of her Education Incubator-funded project, which used Learning Science smart worksheets as a resource for Bioscience and Natural Science practicals. The project has also introduced Learning Science simulations for students to undertake prior to laboratory sessions.

Students may have little or no laboratory experience, turning simple experiments into laborious processes, taking hours.

The pre-laboratory simulations can replicate techniques that students need in the first few weeks of laboratory practicals, such as ‘How to handle a pipette’. The simulations give students the opportunity to make mistakes without wasting resources and damaging equipment, while increasing their confidence. Many students have been using these simulations before laboratory sessions and, encouragingly, re-visiting the simulations after the laboratory session to reinforce their learning.

Scientist holding tube with boiling fuming liquid over burner, lab experiment

Dr King has worked closely with Learning Science to develop fantastic interactive worksheets, where students can input their practical data and work through calculations online. The interactive worksheets inform the students of any mistakes they have made in real-time and, for the cost of a mark, show the solution.

An issue I found at university was the delay between performing the practical and the deadline for the calculations. Ten days after a laboratory session, I had certainly forgotten the key elements of the practical and the meaning of my data. However, these work sheets allow students to input their data in the laboratory or immediately afterwards, cementing students’ knowledge of the practical.

Student Feedback

So what do students think?

  • Responses have been very positive, in particular the worksheet’s detailed feedback. This allows students to manipulate their own data, learn from their mistakes and complete calculations instead of becoming stuck and giving up completely.


  • Engagement has been high, with many students repeating both the simulations and worksheets. Laboratory sessions have been more efficient, with students successfully completing titrations, a difficult practical, on the first attempt.


  • Lecturers have noted that students appear to be more confident in the lab, ask fewer questions about “Which button does what?” and focus more on the science being taught.


  • Worksheets are automatically marked in real-time, dramatically reducing lecturer marking time. As the worksheets explain where the students have gone wrong, lecturers have noted a decrease in student queries, demonstrating the effectiveness of the resource.


  • Simulations and worksheets are not limited to undergraduate students. These resources may be useful to members of staff, post-graduate research students and masters research students who want to refresh their knowledge or learn new techniques.
What Next?

Learning Science are planning to develop new simulations in pharmacology, ecology and other sectors of biology. In fact, the applications are endless.

How do you think Learning Science could develop further simulations and worksheets? Leave your comments below!

For more information, please contact



Higher Education, Project

3 steps to maximise your project impact

Last year’s Incubator Fellow Dr Matt Finn reveals how his project team reached a wider audience with their findings and made it into The Conversation.

When student researchers introduced this Education Incubator project in April 2018 they were busy conducting focus groups with A level students, their teachers, first year undergraduate students and their lecturers. The project aimed to understand more about the reformed A levels and their impact on students’ transition to university.

Since then we’ve been analysing the data and some of the team worked at an Incubator writing retreat to bring the results together.

This post focuses less on the results of our research, which you can read about in our  University of Exeter press release  or our  article in The Conversation. Instead I consider how we have gone about getting the word out about A level changes and corresponding implications for students and their transitions to university.

Our team aimed to engage different groups through the channels of campus workshops, conferences and online media.

Interdisciplinary Workshops

First, our student researchers convened three workshops where we welcomed approximately 50 academic and professional services colleagues from the Exeter and Cornwall campuses.

This was a critical step in engaging those individuals whose work brings them into direct contact with new students. We encouraged them to think about undergrad transitions in the wider context of what is now called ‘the student experience’. This refers to the broader set of experiences a student has from their initial communication with the university before they arrive, to the new encounters they might have within their first hours on campus.

We wanted to bring people together who may not typically get to consider these issues in conversation with each other – such as professional services colleagues responsible for student communication, those from welfare services, and academics.

This approach helped us to support a wider educational culture that values, as an intellectual endeavour, the thought and effort needed for successful first-year teaching. This, in our view, necessarily entails recognising the transitions that students are experiencing. Although students have always experienced a transition to meet the challenges of university work, the particular shape and nature of that does change from cohort to cohort.

Through the sessions we tried to demonstrate how considering a student’s transition  to higher education from a subject-specific perspective can have benefits for student learning. We also explored the ways this can have a positive impact on a student’s sense of community and belonging.

The power of the student's voice at conference

Second, our team had the opportunity to present our research findings at a number of conferences, which provided the opportunity for our student researchers to present what they had been working on.

Having students present the project findings was  particularly pertinent as conference settings are often places where students are ‘talked about’ rather than ‘engaged with’. Raising the voice of our student researchers in this context was engaging and powerful.

mat and students presenting

Our conference presentations allowed us to share our project’s findings with other universities, and discover related academic work on student transitions more broadly. We are now considering options for this work to be written up as a journal article publication.

Online news channels   

Third, we have released accounts of our project in press release and as a digital article entitled  ‘Why reformed A levels are not preparing undergraduates for university study’  that is featured on the online higher-ed news website The Conversation. The press release was developed with support from Kor Communications, who guided us in identifying the key messages to deliver to the public audience. The article for The Conversation significantly extended the reach of our findings with 28 Twitter shares and 54 Facebook re-posts.

In modest but nevertheless significant ways we have tried to share our findings in different ways to enable:

  • Reflection at both the subject and programme level for educators to consider the impacts of transitions to higher education on new students.
  • Reflection at the institutional level to support culture change around the importance of a student’s first year  experience.
  • The raising of academic and national awareness about the effects we’re seeing in the wake of A level changes, calling for further attention to the more concerning aspects associated with these.

To read about the findings of Matt’s Incubator project, check out his article in The Conversation here.


Higher Education, Project

Staying positive through ‘innovation anxiety’ at the start of a new project

Good Morning Incubator Fellows!

My name is Katie and this is my first post for the Education Incubator blog (more details on me below). I’ve decided to focus in on ‘innovation anxiety’ and how it can be turned around to our favour! I hope it contains some #MondayMotivation inspiration for you as you undertake your new Incubator projects.

Project kick-off - a roller coaster ride!

Starting a new project can be exciting, right?

Enthusiasm and high hopes bubble up when grant money is approved, a new business deal is struck, or a new contact seems to promise the world [read: the funding or industry connection you’ve sought for years!]. At this moment you feel buoyant, like anything is possible, and dreams really do come true. It’s. All. Good.

But. If you’re anything like me, it’s not all plain sailing. It’s usually not long before that critical little voice pipes up in your head asking…

Do I have enough time/ resources/ contacts or skills to deliver this? Did they really understand my project proposal? Was I too ambitious? What if it doesn’t work? I don’t think I can do it! 

Kept unchecked, anxieties can snowball from small, valid concerns with project time frames or role allocation, to full-blown ego insecurity and existential crisis (you’re ready to hand back the money, quit your academic post, take a gap-year and train as a yoga teacher in Bali, or fulfill your childhood dream of opening a cafe!).

Newfound confidence can be swiftly knocked down by insidious feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt about one’s ability to deliver. Anxiety can creep up and no sooner than it arrives does the initial flourish of elation dissipate. Before you know it, you’re stuck. Panicking. And not sure what to do next. Or who to ask for help. Desperate times.

A new project isn’t always delightful. It can be unnerving. Daunting. Even overwhelming.

But is this situation unusual or necessarily negative?

Innovation anxiety - a common complaint

Innovation anxiety (or more colloquially ‘the project wobblies’) as a phenomenon is something I’ve experienced personally as a doctoral student, and witnessed in other young professionals new to the responsibility of project management. 

It is an entirely normal reaction to taking on a new challenge, especially if you’re in the field of innovation where stakes are high, resources are tight and outcomes aren’t guaranteed.  

As a former innovation grant-writer I’ve noticed that it is entirely natural for a sense of unease to manifest when the onus of project delivery is upon you, and a project monitoring officer is nipping at your heels for the monthly report.

So, how can we keep innovation anxiety at bay?

Can we turn it around to work in our favour?

Embracing the unknown - positively! A lesson from Sir Alexander Fleming.

First, at these times it is worth reminding yourself that in the field of research and innovation, uncertainty and the unfamiliar are an integral element; sometimes ideas may simply just not work out as expected, and that is a totally valid outcome.

Second, it is possible that the unexpected may even constitute an unanticipated project success. Did you know penicillin was discovered by accident? Due to Sir Alexander Fleming’s careless lab protocol, he left a Staphylococcus contaminated petri dish to fester during his two-week holiday, and upon his return noted a blue/ white mould called Penicillium notatum that had bactericidal properties – penicillin!

Sometimes, whether due to human error or pure serendipity, or more strategically when a bit of breathing space is built in for reflection, new ideas and discoveries can emerge that set us on a new path. New ways forward become visible and soon enough renewed hope is fast on the horizon. So step back. See what happens.

If you’re experiencing any ‘project wobblies’, you are not alone.

Self-doubt haunts even the most consummate academics, experienced professionals, and business folk long-in the game, yes, even your scary boss despite their brave face. When you’re feeling daunted it is the perfect time to step back, look at the big picture and assess what resources you’ll need to get the job done. Panic is a often symptom that you’re questioning your resources or ability to achieve something, so first of all, STOP. And take a break to reflect and regroup.

If any of this speaks to you, congratulate yourself, you are 100% human and you have the resources at your fingertips to make this work. Don’t drown in a morass of project panic or self-doubt alone. Get in touch!

Moving forward, together.

We at the Education Incubator are here to help.

As mentioned at the start, my name is Katie. I am a new Project Officer here at the Education Incubator. I have a variety of experience including innovation grant writing, teaching in secondary and FE sector, and I have a PhD in Human Geography from Exeter. I appreciate the pressures of delivering academic and commercial projects when there is a financial sponsor and tight turnaround.

My masters was in Sustainable Development, where I worked across various sectors to support innovation and change for an ecological future.  In my spare time I am training as person-centred Counsellor, which is flows from my interest in mental health and wellbeing. You can catch me visiting Embercombe for the odd weekend away to clear my head and reconnect in nature. 

I’m excited to be joining the Education Incubator in its second year, and hope that together we can deliver some fantastic innovative pedagogic projects. 

Don’t be a stranger – get in touch.

Best wishes,