Sport science, bro science, and the scientific value of big biceps

Max Dooley.

As governments seek to combat growing health concerns, the incentives for the layperson to start exercising are increased. With more and more non-athletes getting involved it is an important time to discuss the education of the public in the basics of health and fitness. The knowledge base for this comes predominantly from sports science and nutrition research.

A lot of sport science is centred on professional athletes. This is where the most direct benefit can be achieved. Research is often commissioned by a team, especially in Russia, China, and other places where national teams are well funded. This research is done to answer the particular questions of a coach or to explore new avenues of training and injury prevention. The benefits of this research are not limited to the professional athletes, however, and the conclusions drawn in these papers have implications for the wider public.

In many societies where lifting and other fitness pursuits have not been directly sponsored by the government in any major way, predominantly in the West, the public has a huge disconnect from the information they need to be successful or even just be safe in the pursuit of fitness and health. This is where “Bro science” comes in; . It is not uncommon for a piece of knowledge that is often true in the beginning to be simplified so many times through Internet gurus and then fitness instructors and finally person to person that it becomes indistinguishable from a falsehood. Through these Chinese whispers people remember bits of the explanation which they pass on to others so perpetuating myths and twisting evidence into fiction.

So why does this happen? What is it that makes people believe and pass on information without doing the research themselves? The knowledge barrier for understanding a sport science paper is the obvious first problem; for anyone without a scientific background a PubMed article offers them no real help. This is because the papers are not written for the lay public; much like a physics paper is written for physicists to read, a sports science paper assumes a certain level of knowledge in the reader. So people have to turn to other sources to get their information.

Even those with the ability to access and understand the literature often choose not to. Discounting those people who are doing nutrition or sport science degrees, it is almost unheard of for anyone to quote the literature in defence of a training program. To treat fitness in an intellectual manner is alien to our society and is at least unusual if not actually taboo. It is quite common to see very clever people discussing their degrees in a university gym and then shift into an argument over whose internet guru was right about a certain topic with no points being made other than the number of followers he or she has or how good his or her physique is.

The amount of abstraction that takes place in the literature is quite likely also partially to blame. When a coach looks for an answer to a specific question or when a particular biomechanical action is studied a clear conclusion can often be drawn.  Given the specificity of a lot of problems in sport science, however, using papers as a more general guide is not always possible, even for experts.

The problem of connecting the results of a paper to a practical application are not unique to sports science however; this can be seen across the entire scientific community. A paper on an abstract concept in theoretical physics can be published years, if not entire decades, before the understanding and technology catches up to do the experiments to investigate the underlying physics. The Higgs boson was first discussed in a basic way in the 1960s with the Large Hadron Collider not even opening until 2010.

Another problem sports science suffers from is study size. It is often hard for the study to gather more than 20 participating members, many of which will drop out if the study lasts more than a few weeks and, given that training is a long term game, they often do. Many scientists are then left trying to draw conclusions from vastly reduced numbers of data points. It is not uncommon to see the errors be well over 25% of the measured values (1) (2) (3). With errors like this papers often disagree with each other even when studying the same principle. .For those people without the time to perform their own literature reviews or meta-analysis there is no direct solution to this.

This is where a third party comes in. The obvious solution for people without access to the literature would be to find someone they trusted who did. The problem here is choosing that person. Many fitness channels that have a large following have so for two main reasons, they have good marketing, and the producer has the physique that the audience wants. Neither of these things are really good indicators of the producers credibility. These people are often just as likely to fall into the traps of the layperson; often aided by good genetics and better camera angles to produces the physique that draws the crowd.

Feynman is often quoted as saying, “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts “. If this is true then the concept of listening internet gurus and the big guy at your gym is completely counter to the scientific method.  Does it matter? Well for the majority of people who struggle to find time for exercise the answer is yes. If you can only spare half an hour here and there to try to get fit then you need to use that time as efficiently as possible. To people like this it is imperative that they optimise their time, simply for their own health.

How can we fix this? How can we get people fitter better? The benefits of doing so are obvious. Education should start from a younger age. There is already a big push to get parents and their children to make sure the child is active, £450 million was pledged over the three years following the Olympic Games (4), so could it be taken one step further? Just getting involved isn’t enough. When they leave school, or move away from whatever team or group they were part of they are left adrift.

Of all the things that could be taught in schools I would say that a basic understanding of sport science would be one of the most beneficial to the health on the nation. Kids don’t need to leave school with the ability to write a paper on the matter, but enough knowledge to maintain their fitness throughout their lives. With the fitness of the populous becoming increasingly more important, bridging the gap between the research and the public is something that must happen.




Sport science, bro science, and the scientific value of big biceps

Physics favours the rich?

Aaron Iftikhar.

The education system, within which universities operate, still conducts itself under the pretence of equality. Universities are places of self expression, the pursuit of knowledge and one’s self, right? Is it just me who thinks this is nothing more than rhetoric, a way of protecting these out-dated, inherently unequal institutions by confounding them in years and years of ‘untouchable’ nuance. The reality is, no matter how much romanticism you wish to associate to UK universities, they have always been – and although slightly improving, still do act as breeding grounds for the fortunate few.

As one of the 3,550 full-time UK-domiciled students studying physics at university, whose parents fit within the four lowest socio-economic groups (SEGs) [1], I am constantly faced with this elephant in the room. The inequality I talk about is embarrassingly easy to find online in the form of national statistics. An article published by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) [2] in 2005 categorised working age people into SEGs. It found that of the working population between the ages of 45 – 54, 40.6% were in the lowest four groups, whilst 48.8% were in the top three. The remainder were in education or long term unemployment. This age range represents the average ages of parents with children aged 18-20 in full-time higher education (HE). These statistics give a rough estimate of the ratio of students in HE we should expect from the respective socio-economic groups. However, a Guardian article from 2009 [3] reported that 21% of full time participation in HE was comprised of students aged 18-20 whose parents were in the four lowest socio economic groups, whereas 41.2% had parents in the top three groups. It is fair to say that an evaluation over all the ages of parents would be better representative, but in any case, the disparity is clearly evident.

Undergraduate physics programmes

Delving deeper into university admissions statistics for STEM subjects reveals how courses perceived to be more academic, like physics, are underrepresented by students with parents in the lowest four SEGs. The Institute of Physics (IOP) released a statistical report in March 2012 categorising students studying their first degree in physics by the SEG of their parents [4]. The study included data from students studying between the years of 2004-2010. It found that the percentage of the total number of students whose parents were in the top three SEGs was 77.8%, whereas those whose parents fitted in the lowest four accounted for just 22.6%. This statistic in itself is quite startling considering the ONS puts the ratio of parents in the highest SEGs to those in the lowest SEGs at approximately 49 to 41.

An even greater concern is that undergraduate physics programmes are performing much worse than biomedical and engineering programmes in terms of socio economic diversity and equality. The same IOP study found that biomedical science programmes included 33% of students from the four lowest SEGs, whereas engineering boasted an impressive 36.1%. The discrepancy between these courses and physics programmes is a curious one. Why are students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds more likely to study engineering than physics? An argument explaining this is that these students put extra onus on studying degrees in which they perceive there will be the best monetary outcome or job stability, rather than studying a subject they enjoy or are interested in. It certainly makes sense to me, a graduate with an engineering degree or who is studying to become a doctor or a nurse has a more clearly defined career path than one with a physics degree. Hence these students choose to study a subject which best enables them to lift themselves out of their current SEG.

The argument is a credible one and certainly explains why these students choose to study engineering or medicine over physics. However the average starting salaries for physics and engineering graduates are similar [5]. Starting salaries usually play some role when students choose their course and so it is reasonable to assume that students will be aware of these similarities. This indicates that there is another reason for these students rejecting more academic courses in favour for vocational ones. Interestingly other academic degree courses such as maths and chemistry display similar results to physics in the IOP survey. This indicates that the problem is more fundamental – it lies in the teachings of these academic subjects at a grass-roots level, including in secondary schools. I argue that students whose parents are economically disadvantaged are not taking academic subjects because their schools are no longer adequately equipped, for various reasons, to effectively teach them. This is backed up by the fact that students from poor families usually – due to circumstance – attend failing or non satisfactory schools [6].

Teaching in secondary schools

Often the biggest obstacle to overcome when attracting students from poorer backgrounds to study physics in HE, is ensuring that they have had positive experiences of learning it in the past and so want to continue. It is clear that previous experiences largely dictate your future choices. Being a student from a secondary school with a 40% GCSE pass rate and with more ‘poor’ Ofsted reports than pupils, I can say that no level of intervention after secondary school will undo the years of substandard teaching and learning environments more akin to farm yards than classrooms that students received. If a student had a bad experience of physics from their school days, due to bad teaching or misbehaving pupils, they are extremely unlikely to want to read it at university.

In order to get students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds to study physics at university we must improve their experiences at school or college. The reason I chose to study a physics degree is partly due to my college physics teacher. I did not have a burning passion for physics, neither did I particularly like my classmates or college for that matter, but I really enjoyed his lessons. They were not contrived – no hydrogen filled balloons or burning jelly babies, just a great teacher teaching in that way which makes you forget the mundanity of measuring the acceleration of a mass on a spring. Just as it was for me, the best way to encourage poorer students to take physics at university is to ensure they have good teachers and good learning environments from an early stage.

Unfortunately, this appears to be more achievable in some areas of the UK than others. An Ofsted report in 2013/14 recorded the achievement of white British free school meal (FSM) pupils in terms of the percentage who achieve the standard 5 A*-C GCSE grades[7]. In the report the best 10 local authorities are shown alongside the worst 10. No prizes for guessing which group Chelsea was in, similarly you can rest assured Barnsley was not one of the top ten. Poor kids in Chelsea are for no rational reason less academically able that poor kids in Barnsley, so why does Chelsea have a 47.6% GCSE pass rate whilst Barnsley has 28.7%? Although geographical inequality is a somewhat separate issue, this does illustrate that solutions to inequality are already there. For example, why can’t the initiative that appears to be working in Chelsea then be applied to Barnsley? It is hardly like these two places have massively differing cultures which would make the same scheme compatible with one but not with the other. It is this type of blatant inequality that mars our education system.

In one of the introductory lectures in my first year of university, a lecturer quipped that maybe the next Einstein was in the room. At that point everyone felt a tiny bit smug – only to struggle doing a Taylor expansion the following week, quickly realising they are not that Einstein. For me it is a sobering thought that maybe that Einstein is in school right now. Let’s hope his parents are rich – if not he will have to play the roulette that is our education system. He could get lucky and encounter a teacher who motivates and inspires him – like me. Or he will be failed like so many before him.


[1]- [last accessed: 27/11/15]

[2] – ‘A picture of the UK using the National Statistics Socio-economic Classification’ Caroline Hall, Office of National Statistics (2005)

[3] – [last accessed: 27/11/15]

[4] = ‘Physics students in UK Higher Education Institutions’, IOP, March 2012. (page 14 – table 21)

[5] = [last accessed: 27/11/15]

[6] – [last accessed: 27/11/15]

[7] = The report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2013/14. Ofsted.

Physics favours the rich?

Should UCL have asked Tim Hunt to resign?

Dillan Pisavadia.

It is now five months since Twitter and the media went into meltdown over Tim Hunt, after his supposedly less than positive comments about women in STEM in front of a room of journalists. As a result of his statements Hunt paid the ultimate price, resigning from his honorary professorship with UCL. Many supporters of Hunt at the time cried foul at his treatment after years of distinguished service, maintaining that he was forced out, rather than resigning of his own volition. Now the dust has finally settled, questions still remain over the entire affair, in particular whether or not UCL were right in their handling of the situation.

The speech at the centre of the storm was delivered by Hunt on 9 June this year at the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ). Asked at short notice to provide a few words at a luncheon – consisting solely of female journalists and scientists no less – Hunt discussed his “trouble with girls” in the lab environment: “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry”. His proposed solution to such a dilemma was gender segregation, creating separate working environments for men and women.

“a recent study…on the UK labour market found that women make up just 12.8% of STEM occupations”

Naturally, large swathes of the public took offense to these comments, and rightly so: opinions such as these are not only sexist towards women, but also denigrating. The idea that women are at the mercy of their emotions when in close contact with the opposite gender is farcical and antiquated in a modern society where women are equal members. Remarks like these also tend to reinforce the stigma of science as a boys club, driving away large numbers of potential female scientists at a time when they need to be encouraged; a recent study by Women in Science and Engineering (Wise) on the UK labour market found that women make up just 12.8% of STEM occupations. Bill Gates put it best: when only half the working talent is being utilised, the nation’s full potential will never be realised.

The media was quick to report and condemn the statements coming out of the conference. One of the more humorous responses to Hunt’s address was on Twitter: female scientists began mocking his comments by posting pictures of themselves at work in normal attire, under the hashtag “distractinglysexy”.

Hunt eventually went on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to apologise for his comments, although he did reiterate the issue of “emotional entanglements” creating issues at work – something he had personally experienced in the past. By this point however the damage had been done, and Hunt had no option but to step down from his post. However, many commentators – including noted popular physicist Dr Brian Cox – have made the case that Hunt had been let out to dry, and the situation should never have progressed as far as it did; on closer examination, it does seem a valid argument to make.

No full transcript exists of the speech delivered by Hunt, and thus all interpretations came from a few select members of the audience. One of those present who first broke the story and expressed great offense at Hunt’s speech was writer Connie St Louis, who deemed it sexist. While her views focused on the inflammatory statements, recollections of the speech by others present give the impression that his words may have been taken out of context. An approximate reconstruction of his remarks (by an unnamed EU official) appear to convey a light-heartened manner in which the speech was given: Hunt began by questioning why such a “chauvinistic monster” such as himself had been asked to talk to a room full of female scientists, and extolled the importance of science in women despite people like himself. This is further corroborated by the only known recording of Hunt’s address, where he concluded by hoping the prospects of women in science continue to improve.

The statements were quickly shared over social media without a true understanding of the greater message, and Tim Hunt soon became subject to acute, caustic abuse. It eventually came to light that because of this outcry Hunt’s resignation was forced upon him by the UCL board, rather than of his own volition.

“It appears the fear felt by UCL over negative public opinion became paramount in their dealings with Hunt”

Over time, increasing numbers soon came out in support of Hunt, including former students and postdoctoral fellows of both genders. Sir Colin Blackmore, the honorary president of the Association of British Writers (ABSW), resigned in protest over the support given to the comments by Connie St. Louis. Hunt himself felt that he had been betrayed by UCL in their handling of the situation, not once being asked for his side of the events.

It appears the fear felt by UCL over negative public opinion became paramount in their dealings with Hunt. This is not the first time that trial by social media has occurred – one only needs to look at the disproportionate response to Dr Matt Taylor in November, after his ill-advised appearance on the world stage donning a shirt covered in pictures of scantily clad women.

As more and more details of the story are analysed, the fiasco increasingly reveals itself to be an unfair inquisition into Hunt by the general public. Taken at face value, his reflection on women in the work place does seem genuinely sexist and insulting to female researchers. On the other hand, when read as part of the full address it appears to be a more amusing outlook on his own life experiences.

Hunt’s affair is unlikely to be the last when information can travel across social media at such speed, with little regard to their original intention. For Hunt, had UCL not acted so hastily there may have been a different outcome; on recollection, it does seem there should have been.

Should UCL have asked Tim Hunt to resign?

Mobile phones – are we too careless about long-term exposure to radiation from our daily companions?

Katinka von Grafenstein

One of the most important technologies in the life of many people nowadays is their mobile phone. It is integrated in every step during the day, is carried around near the body and lies next to the head in the night. Mobile phones emit electromagnetic waves of radiofrequency to send and receive signals from base stations. Part of the radiation will be in direction of the person who uses the phone and is absorbed into their tissue. Do we really know if long-term exposure to this radiation is completely risk free and should scientists recommend a more careful and regulated usage of mobile phones?

Radiofrequency fields consist of non-ionizing radiation and there is no known evidence that they damage human DNA as ionizing radiation like x-rays and gamma rays can do. Still there are concerns that radiation from mobile phones could increase the risk of brain tumours and be responsible for changes in brain activity, reaction time and sleep patterns.

The only known and proven effect of radiofrequency radiation from mobile phones is a small rise in temperature in the region where the phone is closest to during usage, for example the side of the head while speaking on the phone. With radiation from modern phones under given guidelines this is just a rise of a fraction of a degree which is not considered to be a risk to health.

In addition there have been several studies in different countries on the increase of risk for brain cancer through radiofrequency fields. Most of them state that there is no significant increase of risk for brain tumours and no convincing and conclusive evidence that mobile phones bring any risks for human health. Therefore the current international consensus and definitely what the population takes for granted is that mobile phones do not cause cancer.

However, there are two big problems in my opinion. First, cancer can take a long time to develop and there is still very little data for long-term exposure to radiation from mobile phones. In 2010 there was a study published called INTERPHONE project which found an increase of risk for gliomas in the brain for a usage of 30 minutes every day over ten years. Based on this findings and the general uncertainty about long-term exposure the International Agency of Research on Cancer (IARC) classified in 2011 electromagnetic radiation of radiofrequency as Group 2B, possibly carcinogenic. It was not put into Group 2A, probably carcinogenic or even into dangerous Group 1. This is reasonable since the INTERPHONE study could not link an increase of risk for cancer at a lower exposure than 30 minutes daily over ten years and other studies did not find a link at all. But is ‘possibly carcinogenic’ not possibly still too much for the amount of mobile phone usage we see in our society today?

Ten years of mobile phone use is easily achieved. I personally will have owned and used a mobile phone for ten years in only three more years. Moreover, how the situation looks now I will use a phone for many decades after that and we have nearly no data for use longer than 15 years. The amount of calling time depends surely on each individual, but 30 minutes is not very much and I am sure many people are on the phone 30 minutes a day for social or work-related purposes. Is it therefore responsible to wait for research to have the needed evidence or should we approach mobile phones more carefully?

Of course there are already regulations in terms of the Specific Absorption Rate which measures the amount of energy that is absorbed into body tissue. But these have been set up only in consideration of the temporary rise in temperature for example while making a phone call. Here it is considered totally safe if the temperature of the body tissue rises up to 0.1 degree. Today’s mobile phones meet this condition. But without conclusive long-term data we cannot be sure that exposure to radiofrequency fields over decades is really risk free and does not increase the risk of cancer. Therefore I believe there should either be stricter regulations or at least the population should have more knowledge about possible risks so they could decide for themselves and reduce their personal mobile phone use until there is more convincing evidence from research about the actual risks.

The second significant problem is the effect of radiation from mobile phones on children. Nowadays children are in contact with phones from an early age and often get their own phone already in primary school. This does not only increase the period of time they are exposed to radiofrequency waves but there are also concerns that children might be more susceptible to radiation. As well as their body their nervous system is still developing, resulting in more vulnerability to factors that may cause cancer. Furthermore, in the brain of a child there are larger areas exposed since the head is smaller than that of an adult.

The number of studies on the effect of radiofrequency radiation on children is still rather small. However, in 2007 Dr. Lennart Hardell from a Swedish university published a study which stated that the risk of brain cancer through mobile phone radiation depends significantly on age. The usage of mobile phones would increase the risk for brain tumours by a factor of 5.2 for under 20 year olds, whereas only by 1.4 for all ages. So why are there no different and stricter regulations for mobile phone usage for children? The restrictions to the Special Absorption Rate apply equally to every member of the population. Considering Hardell’s research maybe there should be special phones for children with less exposure rates.

The question is whose responsibility it is to promote a more precautious stand towards mobile phones. Scientists, who are experts in the field and conduct research? Politicians, who could initiate regulations or the ones, who produce and sell mobile phones? In my opinion it is unrealistic to expect this from the latter ones, since they won’t frighten their customers with eventual but not proven risks, just to decrease their profit. Therefore I think it is the responsibility of scientists to point out more strongly that we do not have enough evidence to be sure about the safety of radiation from mobile phones. Then it would be the responsibility of politicians to take action.

I only hope that either mobile phones turn out to be safe enough with no significant risk to human health or that scientists and researchers recommend at an early stage a more precautious approach which would result in political regulations and in more awareness of the public – just in case there is an unpleasant surprise waiting for us in twenty years.

Mobile phones – are we too careless about long-term exposure to radiation from our daily companions?

Is sexism in science still an issue?

Tom Herzberg.

Tim Hunt’s recent controversial comments about women in science have sparked debate about whether sexism in science is still an issue. Whether or not Tim Hunts comments were well-intended, the reality is that science is still a largely male-dominated discipline and we need to question why this is and what we can do about it. The fact is that men and women are equally gifted at science (they perform equally well at GCSE). Yet despite equal abilities, statistics show that there are serious inequalities in the number of men and women doing science at A-level and university level. According to the institute of physics 46% of schools sent no girls to study A-level physics in 2011 and in 2012, 79% of students doing A-level physics were male. Furthermore, these figures have remained roughly the same for the past 20 years, with little noticeable improvement.


Why do these gender gaps exist when all evidence shows that men and women are equally gifted in the sciences? The answer is that unfortunately many old-fashioned stereotypes regarding men and women still pervade our culture. One of these stereotypes is that men are naturally more gifted in subjects such as science and maths, while girls are better at the arts and humanities. Evidence that these attitudes still exist can be found in the results of association tests carried out by researchers at Northwestern University and University California-Berkeley. These association tests are designed to reveal unconscious biases by asking subjects to associate scientific terms with gendered terms. The study was conducted across 66 nations and the results showed that across 34 countries 70 percent of people are quicker to associate male terms with science than female terms. This shows that science is still widely perceived to be a male subject. Furthermore, girls at school are more likely tato be afflicted by low self-confidence when tackling science or maths problems, causing them to do worse than they otherwise would, suggests a study by OECD. The problem then, is one of confidence, not innate talent. How can we address this? Firstly, stereotypes must be combatted through education. People tend to be more aware of the scientific contributions of male scientists such as Newton and Einstein. Perhaps making people more aware of the work of women in science such as that of Marie Curie, we can help to dispel the notion that women have no place in the scientific community and provide female role models. Secondly, parents should encourage both boys and girls to pursue careers in engineering if this is where their interests lie. According to a bbc article, ‘parents are steering their daughters away from careers in engineering, with only 3% encouraging it as a career, compared to 13% for their sons’. So it is vitally important that encouragement to pursue science careers takes place at home as well as in school.

The gender inequality in science also exists further along the academic line, with only 19 percent of researchers, 15 percent of lecturers and 5.5 percent of professors being female. To exploit an often used metaphor, this means that we have a ‘leaky pipeline’, with more women leaving physics careers than men. Research has showed that this is not because more women are choosing to leave, but because women are often hindered by academics (both gender) in climbing the academic ladder due to unconscious bias. For example, it was found that in blind studies, CV’s with female names were ranked lower than those with male names. On top of this male science professors are on average paid £5000 a year more than women and in some institutions the pay gap can be up to £21,000 a year, according to an article in the independent. Many organisations are already doing all they can do address these problems. The Institute of physics has launched a programme called ‘juno’, which rewards departments that actively address the under-representation of women in physics at university. Departments achieve ‘juno status’ if they meet the standards set out by juno. Departments are assessed against five principles, which include ‘A robust organisational framework to deliver equality of opportunity and reward’ and ‘appointment and selection processes and procedures that encourage men and women to apply for academic posts at all levels’. This is a step in the right direction, as attention is being drawn to the issue of gender equality in science. We also have soapbox science, which gives women a public platform to talk about what they do, which increases their visibility.

Another obstacle that women face in science (or academia in general) is the issue of maternity leave. Often it is difficult for women with short-term contracts to take maternity leave. Maternity pay is often more generous for staff in permanent positions than for staff with short-term contracts. Except that permanent positions in academia are predominantly held by men rather than women, so unless they have a long-term position, starting a family can severely impede a woman’s career. Of course, this is an issue that affects both men and women, however according to nature, female postdocs who become parents or plan to have children abandon research careers up to twice as often as men. Offering women better maternity rights would go along way towards closing the gender gap in science.

Sadly, sexism in science has a history. The scientific contributions of women have often been overlooked in the past. Most notable is the case of Jocelyn Bell, who discovered radio pulsars, yet the nobel prize for this discovery was given to Antony Hewish, her thesis advisor, who took credit for her work. History is rife with cases like these, so Tim Hunt’s comments were really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sexism in science.  Although things have greatly improved for women, cultural stereotypes are still deeply embedded and we must consciously try to rid ourselves of them in order to close the gender gap in science. If we do not, we are not only perpetuating gender inequality but we are also losing out on half of the available talent out there.

Is sexism in science still an issue?

STEM teaching needs to improve – by getting rid of lectures

Shane Winterhalter

Lecturing has been the preferred method of teaching at universities since medieval times – despite large amounts of evidence showing it to be ineffective. A study in the American Journal of Physics that was designed to test the understanding (as opposed to the memorization skills examinations usually require) of students before and after taking a standard introductory physics course showed that conventional teaching given during the course produced only a small increase in understanding among the students.

Lectures are ineffective and pointless, both for a lecturer, who has to attempt to do justice to a complex topic in front of a large group of students in a short space of time, and the students, who no matter how enthusiastic and talented a teacher they may have, struggle to maintain concentration when being asked to just passively sit and listen. If a student was asked what topic last week’s lecture was on, I doubt many would be able to answer.

Universities could also benefit from scrapping their antiquated methods. A university employs world leading experts and asking them to explain a concept that could easily be learnt from a textbook or handout is a misuse of their talents. This time could be better spent on research, to the benefit of the university. Resources would be better used if teaching time could be focused on the more complex topics, leaving the basics to be learnt independently.

As a teaching method, lecturing pretends all students are completely identical, yet we know that people learn at different speeds – many of my own peers complain about classes moving too fast for them to keep up – and this problem gets worse as class sizes get larger and the range of learning speeds increases. Questions tend to be rare, as most listeners will be scurrying to note down whatever is on the board or slides, without understanding what is going on, or sometimes even reading what they are writing down.

Lectures also encourage mindless note taking, with the revision process for these notes usually consisting solely of rote memorization instead of conceptual understanding. With increasing fees, students expect their course to provide value for money. Lectures are a way for a university to cheaply create the illusion of value – which with the rise of online courses is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Why go to university to attend lectures, when similar services, often from institutions such as MIT and Harvard, are available online for free?


The university teaching process could be greatly improved by asking the students to attempt to learn the material in their own time. This can be easily done in several ways. Many courses release a handbook containing basic information, and if this was made more comprehensive, it would be an excellent way to gain an understanding of the course. Much of this material would likely already exist as the lecturer’s notes, making it easy to produce.

New technology allows for lectures to be recorded, then consumed at home. This could replace traditional lectures, freeing up teaching time. They can also be watched at any time that is convenient and re-watched as often as is necessary. Videos can be watched at different speeds – a confident student could watch at 2x speed, while a struggling student could watch at half speed.

While the initial time investment of creating these videos and handouts may be large, these materials can be reused each year. Digital distribution also makes updating the resources easy, say if a large part of the class struggles to understand something, a quick supplementary video can easily be created or a new section added to the handbook to go more in depth on a particular topic. With these, as well as resources available online or in textbooks, no-one should be short of learning materials.

Lecture time could then be used to discuss problems faced by the students when they went through the material. A focus on student submitted questions, with an emphasis on debate between peers would greatly improve the classroom experience. Making the students interact and explain things to each other is the best thing that can be done in the classroom – it is often said that one of the best ways to understand something, is to explain it to someone else.

The main benefit of this method, is that it allows the pace of progress to be set entirely by the students. This will be more engaging for the student, and more efficient for the teacher. There is always the risk that with all the materials online, attendance will drop, but this is unlikely – despite the stereotype, students are not lazy and do want to learn.

A physics lecturer at Harvard University, Eric Mazur, has been pioneering active learning techniques for several years now. In his classes everyone is encouraged to discuss questions with each other. Each class begins with a question from a student, then everyone is asked to give an answer via a smartphone or laptop and if not enough answers are correct (less than 70%) he asks each person to find a neighbour with a different answer, and discuss the problem.

Dr Mazur found his new method greatly improved his students understanding of the concepts. When taught with traditional methods they could solve textbook style problems, but when asked to apply their new knowledge to real world situations they struggled. The new method helped the students to take what they learnt in the classroom and apply it to the real world. It was also found that the students retained what they had learnt for much longer.

The evidence is not just anecdotal either. A meta-analysis of student performance in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects using different teaching methods published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that students that learnt by a passive learning method such as lectures were 1.5 times more likely to fail than if more active learning methods involving student participation were used.

There are also implications beyond just educational attainment. Mazur found that active teaching eliminated the gender gap in his classes between male and female students, which has long been an enormous problem in STEM subjects. He theorised that female students benefited disproportionately more than male students when exposed to a learning method that emphasised communication, though both genders still showed improvement. Mazur’s students were also half as likely to switch to a non-STEM subject than if they had been taught traditionally.

With universities under pressure to justify their fees, it is time for them to modernize and come out of the dark ages. Teaching needs to become more evidence based as well as recognise the existence of technology, as it is clear lectures are ineffective. This would be good for the students, the academics expected to teach the students, and the university itself. The standard of graduate would improve, but perhaps most importantly, raising the quality of teaching could mean young people stop seeing STEM subjects as dense and incomprehensible.



STEM teaching needs to improve – by getting rid of lectures

Potential disaster for poor/rich attendance gap at our Universities

Nicholas Harrison

The UK is seen as one of the leaders in higher education with international subscription to courses being second to the USA. With the proposed removal of the maintenance grant from governmental support schemes are we hindering the future of poorer students wanting to attend university?  Are we damaging the global view on the UKs’ higher educational system by potential furthering the poor rich attendance gap?

2012 ushered in a new era of studentship, £9,000 tuition fees were first introduced with fees being selected by bodies within universities. Flexibility of fees was introduced partly to allow universities to compete for students and partially as a result of spending cuts in 2010. Student fee caps were increased from £3,290 to £6000 with £9000 being available if universities ensured access to poorer students. Taking a fee of £6000 devalues the university, so many of the top universities in the country went into the decision with their hands tied. This was a significant step away from equality in our higher education system.

WISE is an organisation that looks to inspire woman into degrees in science and Engineering, fields where there is a large minority of woman. The reluctance of woman to join these fields is predominately due to social trends and is seen as unacceptable for the sake of equality in our society.  Similarly there is large disparity in the number of wealthy and poor students at university this is known as the accessibility gap.  There is no organisation inspiring the poorer into university, there is then a lack of continuity in how marginalised groups are treated in higher education. Although there are many factors that enter into the decision finances are a key component, anyone that has earned the right to higher education shouldn’t be prevented from attending due to finance (Brown review 2010). Meritocracy is a something that our state should aspire to.

It was feared that the almost tripling of fees would deter poorer potential applicants from attending university. The affect was seemingly mixed with a decrease in the accessibility gap across the top 30 universities but with the top 13 universities increased by 0.5 to a staggering ratio of 9.8. There was no seismic shift in the accessibility gap, the increased support provided by universities and the large governmental grants still available to those students allowed significant peace of mind during the application process. For potential applicants of 2016/17 they will not have this lifeline, along with the stresses of an unknown future these unworldly 17/18 year olds will have to consider the £50,000 price tag for a 3 year course. Although fears were not realised in 2012, kicking the crutches from poorer students may well do the job this time.

The huge amount of debt will have an emotional toll on students which is highly dependent on their financial situation and their family’s financial background. To a lot of families comfortably above the bread line, debt is managed as part of everyday life and the significance is lessened. However those families that have a history of struggling with repayments and repossession through debt will feel a far heavier weight. Some would argue that the relaxed repayment schemes effectively prevent the burden. I’m part of the first year to experience increased fees and the environment at the time of application was uncertainty; the burden was not lifted, the decision whether to go was not trivial, and the debt was frightening.

The removal of grants was proposed by Osborne in order to prevent budgetary issues arising from the cap on student numbers being lifted. A rise to the maximum amount of support available is being introduced to potentially counteract any effect on the attendance gap; a freeze on the payback threshold is also being discussed. It is not repayment potential applicants are worried about but the sheer amount of debt. This preventative measure seems futile considering repayments are related to earnings and 45% of students will not pay off their loan (written off after 30 years). This was the case for applicants of 2012/13 and the amount unpaid will be increased by the grant changes for prospective 2016/17 students; leaving a larger amount unpaid and therefore written off after 30 years. Osborne comments on the fairness on taxpayers as a motive for change “basic unfairness in asking taxpayers to fund grants for people who are likely to earn a lot more than them”. It is amusing and perhaps slightly ironic that the shortcomings are funded by those students that are at more “value for money” universities and those that get highly paid employment post-graduation. It is exactly this lack of continuity in policy and consideration of the wider picture which will cause a decline in poorer students at university.

The system currently in place for student funding in university is floored. Means testing of grants is intended to distribute the grants to those that really need it, in a lot of cases this doesn’t happen. One of the major problem areas of the system is in families with divorced parents, since child maintenance is ignored. The solution then is to provide a wider range of grant with means testing being combined with cost of living in the area, something only considered for universities in London. Grants would then appropriately reflect the actual cost of living with more being available to those with specific unaccountable expenses.

It is globally expected to see an attendance gap the trend in the UK, since an increase in 2010, is for it to shrink. Protecting this progress is massively important for the sake of equal opportunities and the removal of the maintenance grant will hinder this. Even though changes to student finance will not affect students while at university, it’s the daunting prospect of the debt that will stop them going. The burden of responsibility should not lie with 17/18 year olds looking to broaden their horizons; but with the schools, families and universities whose interest they protect. Education of the financial support available at specific universities and the restrictions the debt presents will be crucial in promoting the interests of less moneyed applicants. Educating applicants prior to taking on debt is the key to maintaining the excellent global reputation of the UK’s higher educational system.


Potential disaster for poor/rich attendance gap at our Universities