Learning and Teaching Approaches in the School of Biological and Molecular Sciences

David Thurling



Why call it the School of Biological and Molecular Sciences? Why not use something shorter and simpler for a name? After all, how often have I had to spell ‘molecular’ over the telephone to someone requiring our address, or been unable to fit the name into an address box on a form? Internally we are simply known as BMS.

The reason for this name is that over the years we have embraced a range of sciences and the name was an attempt to reflect this. Today we offer BSc. and MSc. courses in subjects including Biotechnology, Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, Biomedical Science, Human Biology, Exercise & Health, Biology, Nutrition, Public Health & Nutrition, Science & Society, Environmental Sciences, Environmental Biology, Conservation Biology, Ecology, Environmental Assessment & Management, and Environmental Management & Technology.

BMS, formerly the Department of Biology (and at one time part of the School of Science, then Department of Science), has an established track record of commitment to teaching, having developed three of the original seven fields in the Modular Course when it began in 1972. The architect of the Modular Course, on which so much of Brookes’ reputation has been built, was David Mobbs who served for a time as Head of the Department of Biology. Since those early days BMS has continued to develop its courses and to offer new ones. The excellence of the teaching on these courses was recognised with a score of 23/24 in the QAA Subject Review.

The research environment

The range of courses and commitment to teaching within BMS might imply a teaching focused school but the converse could be argued in that BMS has always been a major research school within Brookes. It is now the smallest school and yet it has 14 postdoctoral assistants, around 70 PhD students, and 13 visiting research fellows. A recent mock RAE identified at least eight staff as being of international standing. Since the last RAE the School has been awarded almost £5 million in research funding. BMS also supports three not‑for‑profit enterprises (The Oxfordshire Bioscience Network, The Environmental Information Exchange, and The Bioinformatics Forum) and hosts the Pond Conservation Trust.

Having such a long-established research tradition has meant that all staff have been able to keep abreast of developments in their own specialties hence keeping teaching materials up-to-date, something which is essential in a fast-moving subject. Inevitably a high level of research activity means that some staff have to devote most of their time to research whereas the focus for other staff is teaching. Wherever possible, opportunities are taken to get ‘researchers’ to present their work to students even if there are not specialist modules on their research topics. Science is a practical subject so the most is made of opportunities for undergraduates to undertake projects using research equipment and facilities. Several undergraduates have published papers based on their projects. Another research–teaching link is that provided by research students who are encouraged to gain teaching experience, primarily through demonstrating in practical classes and on field courses and giving first-year tutorials, and also by lecturing about their personal research.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the strong science research ethos in BMS, staff have not undertaken pedagogic research. It has been the School’s policy to focus on traditional, subject-based research. This is beginning to change with staff looking to give a research dimension to teaching ideas and initiatives through pedagogic research. Staff interests with potential for this are assessment, quantitative skills teaching, and year 1 student attendance and participation.


The wide range of courses on offer has already been highlighted but some of these are worth a more detailed mention. A key feature of all these is the emphasis on practical work, both laboratory and field, and the acquisition of practical skills required for employment.

Extended Sciences

This provides a degree course for students who lack the conventional entry qualifications or who are returning to study later in life. The grounding provided by the extra Foundation year, which emphasises the development of good study practices, has resulted in the achievement of excellent degree results, including ‘firsts’, by many of these students, some of whom have gone on to undertake a PhD.

Science & Society

This new combined honours course is offered collaboratively with other schools. It provides students, both with and without a post-GCSE science background, with an opportunity to consider the nature of science, its impact on society and the role to be played by society in influencing science. The course can be combined with science and non-science subjects. A basic module with the same title is compulsory for Science & Society students but is available to all Brookes students. It ran last year for the first time, taken mostly by BMS students, and was well received with students recognising the importance of considering the issues surrounding science.

BSc. Biomedical Science

This new course is a joint initiative with the Oxford Hospitals Trust. It is available as a three- or four-year course, the latter incorporating a year training in a local hospital. Those already employed in local hospitals can take the course part-time on a day-release basis. The course has been designed with a range of graduate opportunities in mind including hospital laboratory employment, graduate medical school entry and PhD research. It is hoped to obtain Institute of Biomedical Sciences accreditation.

BSc. Equine Science and BSc. Equine Science & Thoroughbred Management

The equine industry is worth in excess of £900 million in exports, much of this in the thoroughbred and bloodline sectors. We offer two courses in this area – the three-year BSc. Equine Science and the four-year BSc. Equine Science & Thoroughbred Management (including one year of placement). Both are joint ventures with Abingdon & Witney College. As well as the amenities and facilities of Brookes the courses also use the College’s stud farm for practical teaching.

MSc courses in Environmental Assessment & Management and Environmental Management & Technology

These two well established courses are taught in collaboration with planning staff in the School of the Built Environment. In recent years these courses have attracted an increasing number of international students including recently several sponsored by the Nigerian oil industry. These courses have excellent employment records with employers seeking out potential employees from the courses.


For some time the School has been forward looking in non-traditional approaches to delivery of its courses. E-learning is complementary to our broad and varied means of delivery and assessment. We do not believe that e-learning should replace face-to-face teaching within our courses but should supplement it to enhance students’ learning and provide a flexible and accessible route to learning materials. Mixed mode course provision with good quality e‑activities and e-facilities, along with high quality traditional teaching methods, is seen as the way forward for our students’ learning. The key to our approach is appropriateness.

Facilities provided to date include computer aided online assessment, active spreadsheets and bespoke programmes, internet-based resources from other institutions/organisations to provide an interactive learning environment, and web-based notice boards and online lecture notes. We are eager to pursue other approaches to the delivery of our courses, though we do not want to incorporate these simply because they might be different or fashionable, but only when we see benefit to our students’ learning, to staff–student communication, or when it is likely to assist staff in efficient delivery of material.

All BMS modules use WebCT. Two uses are to evaluate the mathematical skills of students and to train them in library research skills. The library research exercise is being updated for incorporation into an openly available course on Writing and Library Research Skills which will feed into all first-year, first-semester modules. Other uses of WebCT are interactive content, discussion groups, notice board, repository of course materials, and assessment. For quantitative skills teaching we are developing WebCT diagnostic tests to identify the more able students and thereby exempt them from workshops, allowing us to devote more time to those needing extra help.

An e-learning team is being established in the School to champion e-learning and, in addition to group training sessions, one-to-one sessions involving the learning technologist are being held along with drop-in workshops. Evaluation of the effectiveness of e-learning is the next priority.

Teaching innovations

Although lectures and practicals (laboratory- and field-based) still form the basis of BMS teaching, staff have adopted a number of innovative teaching methods, although they have not always recognised them as such. This may in part be associated with the School’s former policy of not engaging in pedagogic research and therefore not much is made of these methods and they rarely get publicised, even just outside the module in which they are used. Some of the earliest innovations involved computer simulations of biological systems and forms of virtual field courses. Staff still use simulations, both commercially available and self-designed. Staff have experimented with alternative teaching methods such as the Keller Method which uses no lectures but is based on frequent ‘surgeries’ and multiple choice questions (MCQs). Its use was discontinued after a couple of years mainly because it involved more work for staff and less material could be covered.

With a long established history of ICT usage it is not surprising that spreadsheets feature prominently in many aspects of teaching and module administration. They are used as a means of producing simulations but also to generate automated assessment exercises where each student gets a unique set of data and their attempts and results are automatically logged and can be monitored. They are also regularly used for collating results from practical work, in one case while walking in the French alps. This is a unique field course involving Exercise and Health students in a vigorous eight day walk on Mont Blanc during which they make a number of physiological measurements on themselves to determine their energy intake and expenditure. These data are recorded on a laptop for later analysis.

Practical skills teaching is key to any science degree but it is important that students go beyond simply following instructions to designing experiments themselves. Modules achieve this in a variety of ways. In an endocrinology module, students are asked to analyse data from a paper and to propose a theory to explain them. They then design an experiment to test their theory but, because it is not feasible to undertake the relevant practical work, they are given suitable data which they then analyse. In one ecology module students design experiments for other students to critique and carry out, and in another they prepare a mock grant application for a proposed research project. As well as conventional practical reports students also report in ways that they are likely to encounter if they go into research, such as a paper for a science journal or an oral or poster conference presentation. The last two are taken a stage further by cell biology students who mount their own symposium. Finally, an environmental sciences module has as its focus a small group environmental consultancy exercise where students get ‘real‑life’ experience of working for an external client on a consultancy brief that the client has proposed.

Student support and guidance

At undergraduate level the first-year programme has been designed to maximise opportunities for students to change courses within the School. This recognises the fact that many students have not previously been exposed to certain science disciplines and therefore may wish to revise their initial choice of course. Wherever possible scientific and generic skills teaching is integrated within modules, especially in the first year. A system for returning written work via personal tutors, along with feedback sheets completed by module leaders, is designed to provide as much individual support as possible for students at a stage when there is a need to build confidence and to encourage good study habits.

This year sees the introduction of a new scheme known as PASS (BMS Personal and Academic Support System). It is a programme of activities involving first-year students and personal tutors running throughout the first year. As well as ensuring that students develop a range of skills it will provide a starting point for Personal Development Planning (PDP). Included in the scheme is a system for monitoring student attendance and performance on modules and alerting personal tutors to any problems so that support can be offered. It is hoped that an electronic system can be developed for reporting things such as absenteeism and automatically alerting personal tutors. This scheme has been developed in response to growing concerns about student failure and retention issues.

Science in the community

We recognise that if we are to encourage more people into science we must reach out into our local and regional communities and get involved with schools as they continue to share with their pupils the excitement of science. An enthusiastic team of technical support staff, along with academic colleagues, is working closely with local science teachers to help support areas of the curriculum, such as gene technology, that are difficult to resource or teach in many schools. For example, recently the Oxford Trust had more than 40 local children in our laboratories extracting their own DNA and going away with an unusual souvenir locket! Recently a team of five academics ran a day of workshops for the entire Year 9 of one of our Special Relationship schools – pupils examined how the dinosaurs became extinct and actually did measurements to recreate aspects of the event. This summer over 30 Year 10 pupils from another of our Special Relationship schools attended an environment summer school during which they learned in the field about butterflies, pollination, and landscape and climate change.

We regularly provide work experience placements and summer vacation ‘taster’ projects for students in our research and teaching labs, working ever more closely with organisations such as the Oxford Trust and the Nuffield Foundation. Finally, much work by teaching and non-teaching staff has gone into Open and Visit Days where potential students can meet current students and staff, learn about our courses and research, and have a look at our laboratories.

Learning and teaching development and quality assurance

Prior to 1996 there was a BMS Research Committee to oversee and encourage research activities but no similar focus for teaching. It was therefore decided to establish a school Learning & Teaching Committee, the first of its kind within Brookes. Now all schools have something similar. The membership was largely self selected in that individuals with a particular interest in teaching offered their services. Fortunately these individuals represented most disciplines and activities within the School so only a couple of members had to be recruited to plug the gaps in representation. The membership also includes a representative from the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), a technician and, when forthcoming, undergraduate and postgraduate student representatives.

When schools became required to have a group responsible for teaching quality assurance BMS decided to make this a function of the Learning & Teaching Committee on the basis that any consideration of teaching matters should also include quality issues. For the same reason it was also decided to retain the existing committee name. The Committee’s membership has been changed slightly in that the Assistant Dean of BMS, who was already a member, is now there in an ex officio capacity because of his responsibility for quality matters, and the School’s link person in the Academic Policy and Quality Unit (APQU) is also now a member.

Having OCSLD and APQU representatives on the committee has proved extremely valuable. The OCSLD representatives have not only provided helpful advice and ideas, and acted as critical friends, but have provided valuable links with other areas of the University because of their trans-university roles. Similarly, the advice provided by our APQU representatives has been invaluable, especially during the validation of new courses. It was the correct decision for this committee to also take on responsibility for quality matters because they continue to be integral to learning and teaching developments. New developments usually have no difficulty getting approved because of the quality assurance advice provided at an early stage.

Learning & Teaching Committee terms of reference

  • To promote and disseminate good practice concerning learning, teaching, and assessment within BMS
  • To advise on and monitor implementation of BMS policies relating to learning, teaching, and assessment
  • To monitor and advise on quality assurance matters within BMS
  • To advise on, and assist with, the preparation of systems and evidence required by external review and audit
  • To oversee the development and validation of new courses
  • To advise on and monitor the implementation of University learning and teaching policies within BMS
  • To make representation concerning central learning and teaching facilities used by BMS
  • To determine the allocation of budgets assigned to the Committee to support learning and teaching initiatives, and to monitor the use of such budgets
  • To consider other matters which may be assigned to the Committee from time to time

How does this committee relate to the rest of the BMS committee and management structure? The Committee’s business arises from a number of sources including BMS Board, BMS Management Committee, the University’s Learning & Teaching Committee, external examiner reports, external developments, and individual staff and students. The Chair is a member of all the aforementioned committees. Proposals from the Committee are presented to BMS Board for approval. Quality matters are dealt with by either the whole committee or a subset of members. In order to distribute the workload, and to enable a high level of expertise to be developed, members may take on particular responsibilities, e.g., e-learning by the School’s e-learning technologist and assessment by the Principal Lecturer in Learning and Teaching. Standing items on agendas include quality assurance, health and safety, equal opportunities and diversity, and matters arising from the University’s Learning & Teaching Committee.

The examples below give an indication of the sorts of matters dealt with by the Committee:

Learning, teaching, and assessment strategy

We have endeavoured to keep our strategy document brief, the original version fitting on one A3 sheet, so that it is realistic when it comes to implementation and is easily taken on board by busy staff. It is updated when necessary in line with the University’s strategy. The most recently developed section concerns assessment and includes guidance on relating the time students are expected to spend on assessed work to the credit awarded. This is not prescriptive but is an attempt to avoid situations where different modules require very different amounts of work for similar numbers of marks. A particular focus is the assessment of transferable skills which are taught during first-year modules and re‑enforced in advanced modules in the following years. The thorny issue of group work assessment is also covered.

Peer observation of teaching

Our scheme is based on triads (groups of three staff from different areas of the School) who each observe and are observed twice a year. There are additional observation opportunities for new staff. Observation takes place after discussion about what is to be observed and the type of feedback required. All types of teaching sessions may be observed. Apart from centrally recording that observations have been undertaken, all other information is confidential to those involved. Staff have found it particularly valuable being an observer and the mixed triads have enabled staff to acquire teaching ideas from outside their own discipline.

Module evaluation

BMS modules have always been evaluated. The BMS scheme requires module leaders to complete a standard form which includes their own reflections on how things went, as well a summary of student feedback. Staff are free to choose a student-feedback method, from a number of suggestions, that best suits their modules. Evaluation of a module is undertaken for its first two runs and then for undergraduate modules every other year, to avoid student evaluation fatigue, but every year for MSc. modules. Evaluation reports are considered by staff and students at a course committee meeting and published via course notice boards. Module handbooks also outline how modules have been developed in the light of student feedback. A brief summary of the main evaluation outcomes and any actions to be taken is presented to the Learning & Teaching Committee and is included in the course and school annual review processes.

Staff workshops

The Learning & Teaching Committee tries to identify topics where there is a need to broaden the discussion to involve more staff and to identify and disseminate good practices. Two such workshop topics are group work and the use of PowerPoint as a teaching aid. A survey of group work and its assessment across BMS modules was undertaken and at the workshop good practices were identified. With an input from OCSLD, a start was made on what has become the group work assessment part of our Learning & Teaching Strategy. The PowerPoint workshop, with inputs from staff outside BMS, looked at what students do in lectures and the suitability of PowerPoint as a teaching aid. Questions were asked, and some answers found, about how to use PowerPoint effectively. This was assisted by the results of student and staff surveys and, although it left some questions unanswered, sufficient interest was generated that a University-wide workshop has been suggested. Other workshop topics have included web-authoring, transferable skills teaching in Stage I, and peer observation of teaching.

External examiner reports

These are first discussed by the relevant course committees and any comments or actions to be taken are reported to the Learning & Teaching Committee. A set of responses is then compiled and forms the basis of a letter written by the Dean of School which goes to all external examiners. This practice has been well received by external examiners, not only because they see that their comments have been considered, but also because it gives them each a broader picture of the School’s teaching.

Staff development funding

BMS makes available some funding for allocation by the Committee for staff teaching development activities. Staff have been funded to develop teaching materials, to undertake surveys of teaching methods, to attend training courses and workshops, and to undertake sabbatical work abroad with a view, on return, to strengthening the international teaching content of an MSc. course.

The future

BMS has some excellent and committed teachers and an attractive portfolio of courses which are highly rated by students, external examiners and assessors. The sharing of modules between courses within the School means that courses remain viable with small numbers of students. We are constantly considering new course possibilities with a view to meeting changing demands. Unfortunately there has been a national decline in demand for science courses with some subjects suffering more than others. We will need to continue to put a lot of effort into recruitment and retention.

Another issue is the pressure on all universities to perform well in the next RAE, requiring staff to devote as much effort as possible to research. At a recent meeting of HE Academy Bioscience Centre representatives concern was expressed about the strong focus on the RAE and the impression that the Academy was not adequately emphasising learning and teaching quality. BMS has been relatively successful in previous RAEs compared with similar departments in post-1992 universities. It is now trying to improve its rating and, as a consequence, this academic year there are more staff than ever with teaching release. This means a difficult balancing act between teaching and research. Lecturing staff salaries depend on student fees and soon students will be paying more for their education and quite rightly expecting value for money. Perhaps a move towards pedagogic research in BMS may result in a raised teaching profile and development of more cost-effective teaching methods. On the other hand, especially if pedagogic research becomes recognised for the RAE like subject research, the greater involvement of teaching staff may result in a further reduction in the teaching focus.

For the foreseeable future there is likely to be an element of tension between research and teaching needs within BMS. Historically, opportunities for research success recognition, such as promotion and professorships, have been much greater than for teaching. Recently, however, there have been University initiatives such as Teaching Fellowships which offer some encouragement for teaching. With widening participation there is likely to be an increasing need for student support. Without this we may not attract students or retain them. For this reason at least we must maintain a strong teaching focus but it would be nice to think that this focus stems from a belief in the value of learning and teaching, and a wish to maintain the highest standard, just as there is also a wish to achieve the highest research standard.


David Thurling is Principal Lecturer in Environmental Biology, Head of the Environment Section and Chair of the Learning & Teaching Committee. He teaches at all levels from Foundation to MSc.

Contact details

Dr David Thurling
School of Biological and Molecular Sciences
Oxford Brookes University
Gipsy Lane
Oxford OX3 0BP
Telephone: 01865 483257

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