Category Archives: Top Tens

Top Ten Tips: Ideas for formats for outreach/schools engagement work

Whether it’s part of a Widening Participation programme, community engagement drive or a partnership with local schools, your University will have some way of either sending its students and staff out to schools and FE colleges, or bringing pupils onto campus. Running these sessions can be a challenge (honestly, I bow to anyone who can engage 30 teenagers in double maths immediately after lunch), but immensely good fun – if a bit boisterous – when they go well. It’s a fine line between making workshops relevant, interesting and engaging; and being downright patronising – and teenagers are extremely able to let you know how deeply, deeply uncool they think you are.

So, if you’re thinking of getting into this kind of work, here’s my Top Ten ideas for session formats to get you started – the idea being that you can fit your content into a suggestion here for the way to deliver it. The aims for these events vary – it could be to serve as a subject taster session for sixth-formers making UCAS choices, it could be to supplement a GCSE or A-Level syllabus, it could be to promote the joys of your particular institution. If you’re asked to run a session as part of on open day, make sure you understand what the class should get out of your workshop and tailor your format accordingly.  All of these can, of course be used in HE seminar classes as well – but bear in mind the differing priorities of undergraduates coming to a seminar class as part of a formal scheme of learning vs a group of school-age pupils visiting.

The exact way you set up your session will depend on the size of the class and how long you have. Some I’ve run over a whole day, some for 45 mins; you should be able to adapt these ideas and go into more detail if you have more time. Another challenge is that usually you will not have met the class before, so be prepared to pitch your session up or down depending on the response – you could have 11-year-olds right up to adults on FE access courses. And as in a previous post, always have a “last five minutes” activity up your sleeve.

1. The Construction. Literally. Split the class into groups and get them to physically build something – out of lego, drinking straws, sheets of paper, loo rolls, anything. Obviously relatable to maths, engineering, architecture… but I’ve seen it work really well in the social sciences and philosophy: building a lego model that serves as an introduction to yourself, your school, your community. How about building a film or theatre set to illustrate a discussion about a book – which scene best represents the main theme? Could you build something that represents a piece of music? Last five minutes activity: who can build the tallest unsupported structure using only paper – i.e. no sticking materials.

2. The Detective. Set up a crime scene (physical or descriptive, but at least have a few props) and have the class solve the crime. The popularity of CSI, etc, means that a good murder mystery works well, or have a pathologist’s report and other clues to establish a cause of death. This is great for biological sciences and chemistry that can set up real lab tests on dummy samples, but how about doing a mathematical one involving a message in code that must be decrypted? A geographer could use maps with witness reports to work out whether a suspect could have committed the crime. Last five minutes activity: what qualities are needed for a good detective? Would anyone in the class qualify?

3. The Front Page.  Split the class into groups if necessary and get each group to assign roles (or just hand them out) – Editor, Sub-Editors, Reporters, Advertising Manager, Picture Editor, Photographer, Graphic Designer, Lawyer, Layout Editor, etc, depending on size.  Get them to produce tomorrow’s front page.  You can either use fictional stories (have a selection of Press Releases, etc, to use) or if you have IT access, the web is your oyster.  Either use a computer layout package or a traditional (literal) cut-and-paste.  The editor should make sure everyone sticks to their roles – reporters find the stories and write the articles, sub-editors edit them, photographers take (or find) the pictures, graphic designers produce charts and diagrams, the lawyer decides what you’ll get in trouble for saying, etc.  It’s good for media-related subjects and languages but you can also do it for particular topics, e.g. “what are the current issues in health?” and produce the front page – what is the headline, what pictures might go with it, who might want to advertise their services?  Last five minutes activity: depending on how mean you are feeling you could allow more time – but towards the end, announce a “breaking news” huge story that will scoop the front page and force them to re-format.

4. The Researcher.  Pick a topic – a news headline, a recent statistic – and get the class (either individually or in small groups) to plan a research project investigating it.  What is the background to the topic?  How will they gather their data?  How will they analyse it?  How will they present their results?  Who will want to know the outcomes?  You can do this with any subject area – present to the rest of the class at the end.  Last five minutes activity: get each group to pitch to a “funding council” (of you, some of their teachers, their peers…) and decide which (one) project should go ahead.

5. The Poster.  Possibly a combination of (3) and (4) above, get out the A1 paper and marker pens and get creative.  For younger classes, producing an educational poster on some aspect of teenage life has been done a zillion times, so how about something for a different demographic – elderly people, perhaps, or a different cultural group?  If you’ve done (4) earlier, explain how research posters at conferences work and see if they can produce one summarising their research plan.  Last five minutes activity:  hold a speed-dating poster view – go round each one and allow a one-minute pitch.  Vote for the best.

6. The Agony Aunt/Uncle.  This can be adapted to fit most fields and you do need to do a bit of prep in preparing the “letters” for the class to answer, either individually or collectively.  Try a historical perspective: “My colleagues don’t take me seriously, Rosalind Franklin”, etc; and look at discoveries made throughout history with a modern perspective.  It’s a good way to discuss the progress of science and technology, and ways to disseminate information.  Try writing a reply in the language of the time (perhaps a poet or playwright has writer’s block and needs some advice), or in a foreign language for ML sessions.  Try answering some letters from contemporary people – perhaps a government minister wants confidential advice on a matter of state, or a producer wants to know how to set his latest film.  Last five minutes activity: Consider the tone and language used and talk about styles of writing for different purposes.

7. The Game Show.  No need to explain!  My University apparently has a set of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire handsets that are borrowable although I haven’t tried yet… A Family-Fortunes-type thing is easy to set up by splitting the class into two “families” and playing against each other.  Do a maths one explaining how you can use probabilities and logic to improve your chances at winning Play Your Cards Right or picking the best option in Deal Or No Deal.  Use the rounds from Only Connect to explore links with literary themes.  Last five minutes activity: have a lightning round of quick-fire, ‘on the buzzer’ questions.

8. The First Impression.  This type of session is easily adaptable and requires fewer props.  Prepare a set of slides – 10-12ish is plenty – with a single thing on each one.  For example, a quotation, a painting, a statistic, a news headline, anything that fits your topic.  Show each slide for 10 seconds each with no commentary, and ask the class to note down anything that strikes them, any responses they have, positive or negative.  Ask who made notes for which slide and group them together if it’s a big class, or discuss as a whole if not – what did they notice?  Why is it interesting?  Do they agree/disagree?  Next give out copies of the slides (or show them again for longer) and ask them to look again – have their views been influenced by further consideration?  By their colleagues’ input?  What has changed?  Would they rather discuss a different slide now?  Why?  Last five minutes activity: this is a more sedate, after-lunch-type format, so end it by asking for their suggestions for what to put on the slides for the next time you do the session.

9. The Committee.  This is a good one for prompting debate so stay in control!  Again, split the class if you need to, then appoint them the Committee For Deciding Something.  This could be a government department, charitable trust, whatever, the main thing is, they have to agree on, say, a finite budget to allocate for a year.  Provide costings for different options, price lists for equipment, salary scales for staff, etc, and at the end of the session, a plan must be produced.  An extension of this is to allocate each person within the committee a particular role or viewpoint to argue – for example, setting a budget for a hospital, you could have the Chief Executive, Chief Medical and Nursing Officers, Financial Officers, patient representatives, etc.  On the Hanging Committee of an art gallery you could have people who prefer sculpture, modernism, old masters… and room for 20 works that form a coherent exhibition.  They can decide however they like but agreement must be reached.  Last five minutes activity: discuss who made the most noise?  Did it mean they got their way? Who were the peacemakers?  How much compromise was involved? How did they find arguing for a position (in the activity) that they may not hold in real life?

10. The Real World.  Great for sixth-formers and relatable for teenagers nearing the end of their school careers.  Give them brief info on either student loans or the national minimum wage (or both).  Collectively produce a list of potential monthly outgoings if living away from home.  Give them a selection of letting agency printouts showing a variety of properties for rent in the local area.  You can tailor this depending on how flexible you want to be but in the end they have to decide on where to live, how much to work, how much to spend on leisure activities, etc to balance a household budget.  Mostly a mathematical exercise, obviously, but can also be used to start a discussion on social science topics, health, life in general… Last five minutes exercise: whenever I’ve done this kind of thing it turns into a discussion on life after school in general – so be prepared to offer some of your own experiences or answer questions on budgeting for university/work life.

One last tip – if you haven’t noticed, schoolchildren are ridiculously competitive. Most of my last-five-minutes things are competitions (as well as several of the main activities) – for some reason, if you challenge them to do something better than their peers (or you!), it’s a real motivator for even the most Kevinish of teenagers.  If you’ve any suggestions to add, please do!

Hannah Perrin is an ESRC DTC Scholar and PhD student in Social Policy, and Assistant Lecturer in Health Policy at the University of Kent, with interests in clinical education and training, occupational socialisation and work transitions. She blogs about her research and HE topics at; or follow @HCPerrin.

Top Ten Tips: Preparing to Publish

There’s a ton of advice out there for PhD students and ECRs on getting published, from choosing a journal to improving your academic writing.  Here are my top tips for useful things to do BEFORE you start writing; so if you’ve got half an idea that you think could turn into something publishable, here goes:

1.       Pick your journal. Decide where you want to balance between highly prestigious, wide-ranging journals, and smaller ones that focus on a particular sub-field.  Try looking at the e-journal collections or using the articles that you’ve been reading that by definition are in the right area – where are they published?  Use impact factors if they’re relevant to your field.

2.       Read your target journal.  Common sense, perhaps, but it’s a good idea to look at a WHOLE issue of your journal to get a feel for its tone.  Does it have a quant/qual focus?  Is it mostly theoretical or empirical?  Is there a special issue coming up on something relevant?  Sign up for email notifications that will let you know about these.

3.       Decide on the type of article…  Look at the type of work that is published – for example, Work, Employment and Society publishes full articles, Research Notes, Debates and Controversies, On The Front Line (a section for research participants to have their say) and Book Reviews.  Behavioral Sciences and Law differentiates between Research Reports and Research Articles.  Music Analysis has a Critical Forum as well as publishing original research.  Which style best fits your idea?  Or, which would you feel better able to write?

4.       …And read some of those articles.  Look at the content and structure of published pieces: are there any common features that it would be a good idea to include?  Do they go Intro-Methods-Results-Discussion?  Is there usually a historical perspective?  Are there diagrams, illustrations, links to external content?  Do they usually end with a firm conclusion or ideas for further work?  A bit of time spent studying here will give you enormously valuable information you can really use.

5.       Consider co-authors.  If you’ve got a brilliant idea that would benefit from an additional angle, consider asking a colleague with particular expertise for their input.  Establish roles and the division of work early on and decide on the order your names will appear on the paper before you start.

6.       Follow the Author Guidelines for the journal.  Writing 101.  Each journal’s guide is available online and contains various info on how to construct your article; from referencing style to word limits, formatting diagrams and what to include on a cover sheet.  Not following the instructions is a really easy way to get your article rejected without even making it to the review stage, so take note and keep checking.

7.       Write your article!  Pitch it to the journal you are writing for, taking into account all the info you’ve gathered so far.  Put it away at least overnight, sleep on it, re-edit; lather, rinse, repeat.

8.       Make the abstract brilliant.  Make sure it does genuinely summarise, rather than introduce, your article.  Get the key points in loud and clear – remember that the editors and reviewers may not be experts in the specific topic you are writing about, and see many, many submissions, so make sure it’s right there at the start.

9.       Include a short note to the Editor when you submit.  Editors have jobs too, so don’t waffle on!  A brief note including why you are submitting your article to that particular journal is useful, but don’t rewrite your abstract (or the whole paper, or your CV…).

10.   Aim high.  Despite lower acceptance rates, an advantage of submitting to some of the higher-ranked journals is that you’re quite likely to get some useful feedback, even if your article is rejected.  Use it, learn from it, revise your article and get ready for submission to the next journal – have a big cup of coffee, and restart from point 2.

Any tips to add?  Leave a comment…

Hannah Perrin is an ESRC DTC Scholar and PhD student in Social Policy, and Assistant Lecturer in Health Policy at the University of Kent, with interests in clinical education and training, occupational socialisation and work transitions. She blogs about her research and HE topics at; or follow @HCPerrin.

Top Ten Ideas for starting points for Social Science seminars

It’s pretty much impossible to start a debate with “Topic X.  Discuss.”  An interesting, controversial or downright unusual source is a great way of getting things going – introduce it at the beginning, show it on screen or pass copies round, get everyone in the class to note down anything about it that strikes them, and away you go: who has written down the same thing? Who agrees/disagrees?  Why?  Who might have a different point of view?  A good source should provoke a response – either positive or negative – and serve as a starting point for marshalling opinions.  Here are my Top Ten ideas for discussion-starters to get you thinking:

1. Crime maps.  These are amazingly detailed and available online from the police website.  Put in a postcode and you’ll get the crime stats for the area on the right – click on “Crime and outcomes in this area” for detailed maps and a breakdown by type of crime.  Look at the stats for your local area and ask why certain types of crime occur in different areas?  Where are the “hotspots”?  Why?  Look at the types of crime listed – what occurs where?  What constitutes “anti-social behaviour”?  According to whom? Why has it become a policy priority?  Compare different parts of your town, different towns, urban/rural, university locale vs rest of city, what happens where students live?  Look at the historical data – what is going up/down?  Where does this data come from?  How reliable is it as a source?  Good for: Criminology, Environment, Social Policy.

2. Census records and the national archives.  The census records for every 10 years beginning in 1841 are online.  There’s a 100-year embargo so the most recent available is 1911.  Although most commonly used for tracing family histories, there’s a wealth of social information contained in them, particularly after the late 1800s ones when more detail was recorded.  You need to register (and pay!) to view the original copies but you can get samples for free – just do an image search for “example census page” and there’ll be material you can use.  What is recorded on each page?  Why was this data captured?  Discuss privacy and personal data.  Look at the family structure at each address – what do you notice?  How does it compare with the modern family?  Look at a few from different censuses – what is different?  Look at the employment column – what does it tell you?  How is this linked to the area lived in?  Are there regions today which are associated with a particular type of work?  Why?  Link this with the “where born” column – who moved where?  Why?  Does this still happen?  Look at the last column – for example, the 1901 census asks if the person is “(1) deaf-and-dumb, (2) blind, (3) lunatic, or (4) imbecile, feeble-minded.”  Huge amounts of mileage there for a discussion on attitudes to illness and mental health, why was this recorded, what health information is taken in modern censuses? Why?   Good for: Health/Medical Sociology, Work, Families, Education, Migration.

3. News stories.  There are vast amounts online – start with the BBC and newspaper sites, look at local newspapers, local radio, student publications, it’s easy to link to a video clip to start a seminar.  Compare coverage of a news story in different media, whose angle is it?  Are they for or against?  Why?  Is the news source impartial or does it have an underlying ideology informing its news coverage?  Who is producing/writing the story?  How reliable are news sources as factual data?  Will the story influence the behaviour of those viewing it?  How/why?  Don’t restrict yourself to UK news sources – everything is online, so see how a foreign newspaper has covered a British story, compare and contrast – especially if you’re teaching a comparative policy course.  Good for: All social science branches, Media.

4. Government departments.  All departments produce vast numbers of publications, reports, papers, press releases, etc, etc.   You can use most of it for something!  Assess both the content and the presentation: evaluate who the perceived audience is for the material, who wrote it, for what purpose?  How is the material being presented and why?  Is it successful?  Look at any statistics – are they reliable?  How do you know?  Again, what is being portrayed and why?  There’s too much to cover in much detail here (maybe a future blog post!) but a few examples of bits I’ve used are:  the Government Art Collection (How much should be spent on public art?  What is its value? How does it contribute to British culture?); weekly A&E statistics (Who sets the targets? Are they meaningful? How are they used/abused?);  Dept for Education advice on drugs (whose responsibility is it to teach young people about illegal drugs? Is the advice valid? Useful? Appropriate? How would/should it translate into the classroom? How involved should schools be in the home lives of their pupils?).  You get the idea.  Good for:  All social science branches.

5. University publicity material.  Gather prospectuses, brochures, flyers, website screenshots.  It’s instantly relatable but harder to critically assess from an objective viewpoint.  How is the University’s publicity department trying to portray itself?  What pictures are used?  Did the class use such material in deciding to apply?  Was it effective?  Does the material convey a sense of place?  Community?  How?  What language is used?  What is its effect?  How would you design publicity material to convey the campus culture?  Good for: Environment, Culture, Identity, Visual methods.

6. Mass observation material, searchable here.  Again, vast amounts of material are available here so pick one or two items and use them to start a discussion.  Try a section of personal diary from the 1930s, one of the “panel” day observations or questionnaire responses.  An interesting subsection is the Worktown Collection, a special study of Blackpool and Bolton.  Beware the website, once you get into it there’s a real risk you won’t be seen for days…  Use for a historical perspective on contemporary topics around daily life.  Find a modern cohort study and compare the methods and data generated.  Good for: Work and employment, Culture, Politics.

7. Non-news magazines.  This will cost you a few pounds and may involve slight embarrassment if you are doing the buying (Nuts magazine, anyone?), but works really well in seminars.  Buy a selection of magazines, compare and contrast.  For example, to look at sources of health advice – Men’s Health, Women’s Health, the aforementioned Nuts, Saga magazine, a fashion magazine, a teen magazine, a sports magazine.  Evaluate differences in content and presentation between Men’s and Women’s Health, look at health and wellbeing content of different magazines – who is the audience? Who is the author? Why is this material being presented? Does it work?  Good for: Health/Medical, Media, Gender.

8. Wikipedia (bear with me), here.   Not so much the content of the site, but the way in which it is constructed.  Look at a relevant topic and evaluate it in terms of content and layout.  Use the Wikipedia principle to construct an informative handout on a different topic – where does one person start in writing it?  How is it edited?  Who agrees?  Who has control over online publishing?  Who is responsible for fact-checking?  Does it work?  What about other user-editable sites (eg Wikileaks)?   What are the implications for incorrect information entering the public domain?  Good for: Most topics, Media, Education.

9. British Social Attitudes survey, hereA great resource for all sorts of data on everything from health and welfare to crime and transport.  Pick a statistic and go with it – ask Why?  Says who?  So what?  Can you identify problematisation? Look at the methods section and analyse how the survey is carried out.  What can it be used for?  How would you improve it?  Good for: Most topics, Research Methods.

10. British Library’s sound archive, searchable here.  Again, this is a website you can disappear into and not surface until your coffee alarm goes off.  Use the Accents & Dialects section to start a discussion on place and identity; use the Sound Maps to debate representations of environment and culture; use the Oral Histories on any topic you can find – this a rich source, there’s everything from a collection of children’s songs to a history of the common cold.  Go explore.  Good for: Pretty much anything.

Have you tried anything similar?  How did it go?  Any more ideas to add?  Leave a comment!

Hannah Perrin is an ESRC DTC Scholar and PhD student in Social Policy, and Assistant Lecturer in Health Policy at the University of Kent, with interests in clinical education and training, occupational socialisation and work transitions. She blogs about her research and HE topics at; or follow @HCPerrin.

Top Ten Tips for PhDs starting to teach

If you’re new to it, standing in front of your first seminar class can be a terrifying prospect.  As a new PhD student last year, I was thrown in at the deep end with two seminar groups a week on a topic tangentially related to my PhD, and I don’t mind admitting it took me a while to find my feet.  It’s easy to recognise one’s (many) mistakes with hindsight, so here is the benefit of, oh, a whole year’s experience: my Top Tips for those finding themselves in the same situation this September.

  1. Preparation.  It’s all about balance – have an overall plan, but allow for interesting deviations.  Always have a couple of “last five minute” activities up your sleeve in case your session runs out of steam (one of the simplest is to ask, “if we were going to investigate this empirically, how could we do it?”).  However, the converse… don’t spend so long on preparing a one-hour session that you neglect your PhD (note to self, must take own advice).
  2. Learn your students’ names.  If you’re not automatically sent it, ask your department office for your university’s version of the “mugshot sheet” – a printout of your group’s student ID photos with their names and email addresses underneath.  You can use the register to get to know your students.  You should have one (because we’re all keeping tabs on our overseas student attendance, now, aren’t we?) but even if you’re only required to pass it round, doing an informal version of the traditional roll call will help put names to faces.  It helps to do a quick layout of who’s sitting where that you can refer to if you want to call on individual students for contributions (which I generally find works better than asking a question of the whole class, who then look at the floor…).
  3. Watch others teach.  Even if you’re not enrolled in a PGCHE or some kind of teacher training programme, observation of others’ seminars is a great way of picking up tips (good and bad!).  As a new PG, it’s probable that you’re not long out of being on the receiving end, so use that experience – who inspired you?  How did they do it?  What was it about their classes you enjoyed?  This is one case where plagiarism should be positively encouraged.
  4. Get feedback.  Generally, the formal feedback mechanisms will only kick in at the end of the term/year, when it’s too late to change anything.  Try a post-it note “last-five-minutes” exercise – on red, yellow and green, ask for anonymous suggestions for “I don’t understand/enjoy…”, “Why don’t we try…” and “I enjoy/find useful…” relating to the course.  You might get a few blunt comments, but with any luck they’ll be outweighed by positive suggestions, and maybe even a compliment or two that will make your flippin’ week.
  5. Relate your material to the outside world.  As a seminar leader, your job is most likely not to actually deliver content, but to situate it in a real-life context, discuss its applications, debate its worth.  Use news stories and current events, give examples of actual uses, find people doing jobs actually using the topics on your syllabus.
  6. Keep copies of essay feedback.  It helps you keep track of what you’ve said to who (particularly if a student subsequently asks you about it); and you can see whether your advice was acted on for subsequent work.  If the same mistakes reappear, you’ll have to come up with something else.
  7. Be positive with feedback.  The old adage of “criticise the action, not the person” applies.  Don’t shy away from pointing out substandard work, but do offer suggestions for how it could have been improved, particularly if a mark is just below a class boundary – what would have put it over?
  8. Don’t beat yourself up if it isn’t perfect at the start.  It’s easy to feel a certain amount of guilt if you don’t have a great seminar – after all, you are responsible for delivering the session, your students are paying for the privilege, etc; and it’s easy to have unrealistically high expectations – images of enthusiastic, inspiring debates can seem a long way from your first teaching experiences.  Learn from what didn’t work, change it, move on; and don’t be afraid to ask for advice.  Your university will have a teaching support unit – find it, and get as much training as you can.
  9. Communicate your enthusiasm.  You are (presumably) teaching a subject you’re interested in enough to dedicate three years of your life to, so explain/demonstrate just what it is that you find so fascinating.  If I had a pound for every time I used the phrase “…and I think this is REALLY COOL because…” in my classes, well, I wouldn’t need to be teaching.
  10. Take your own board pens.  Nobody tells you this.

Got any of your own top tips?  Any of my mistakes sound familiar (tell me I’m not the only one…)?  Leave your comments below!

Hannah Perrin is an ESRC DTC Scholar and PhD student in Social Policy at the University of Kent with interests in health professions, clinical education and training, occupational socialisation and work transitions.  She twitters on about her research @HCPerrin.