The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Where have all the questions gone?

By James Hartley

In an earlier blog (SRHE News, April 2017) I reported that the titles of articles in the field of higher education fell into three categories – ones with colons (60%), ones with statements (30%) and ones with questions (10%).  In this blog I note that the dearth of titles written in the form of questions is much more common than I thought.

Table 1 below shows the numbers (and percentages) of titles written in the form of questions in an assortment of publications and disciplines.  (Further details are provided in Hartley 2018a, b, and Hartley and Morgan, 2018.)

It can be seen, with this sample of 950 titles, that only 77 (8%) of them were written in the form of questions.  Even this figure, however, is much higher than the 2.3% reported by Cook and Plourde (2016), who studied 7,845 such titles in sixty academic journals.

Table 1.  The numbers (and percentages) of recent article or book titles with question marks.


Source    No of titles No of titles with ?s %
New Scientist 48 8 17
London Review of Books 57 0 0
Times Literary Supplement 48 8 17
Psychology PhD Theses 100 6 6
Psychology Journals 380 23 6
History Journals 187 31 17
Postscript (a book catalogue) 130 1 0.76
Overall 950 77 8

Titles with questions can frequently be answered ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ or (more typically in Education and Psychology) ‘it all depends’. In the field of journalism Betteridge (2009) postulated a witty law that stated that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘No’” (Betteridge, 2009).  This, however, is not the case here.  Indeed, Cook & Plourde (2016) reported in their study of such titles in academic articles that most of them were more often answered with a “Yes” rather than a “No”.

Posing a question in the title is often seen as a way of drawing the readers’ attention to the issue in hand.  I find it surprising that it is not done more often. Any comments?

SRHE member James Hartley is emeritus professor, School of Psychology, Keele University.



Betteridge, I (2009)  ‘TechCrunch: Irresponsible journalism’

Cook, JM and Plourde, D (2016) ‘Do scholars follow Betteridge’s Law? The use of questions in journal article titles’ Scientometrics 108: 1119-1128

Hartley, J (2017) ‘What works for you?  The choice of titles for academic articles in higher education’  SRHE News, April 2017: 19-22

Hartley, J (2018a) ‘Are psychologists afraid of asking questions?’ (Paper available from the author.)

Hartley, J (2018b) ‘Choosing a title for your thesis. What are the most frequent formats?’  (Paper available from the author.)

Hartley, J and Morgan P (2018) ‘Are historians afraid of posing questions? The titles of articles in history journals’  (Paper available from the authors.)

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Doing good by wealth

By Paul Temple

If you’re old enough, you’ll remember when “millionaire” was used to describe someone who was almost unimaginably rich. Then, sometime towards the end of the last century, “billionaire” took its place – a reflection, probably, of both inflation and increasing disparities of wealth. Now, in America, being a billionaire is no big deal (540 of them, apparently) – you have to be a multibillionaire for people to take notice. Jeff Bezos, the Amazon boss, is worth $100bn. Globally, the top 1% own as much as the remaining 99%. (SRHE members need to tread a little carefully here: Continue reading

Ian Mc Nay

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English university education: inside one ex-minister’s mind set

By Ian McNay

In January, I attended an event at the Centre for Global Higher Education, where David Willetts was promoting his book, A University Education, (Oxford University Press). SRHE News in January 2018 had click links to several reviews. I got there early and had time to read the introduction before he started speaking, drawing on his time as Minister for Universities and Science in the coalition government. The oral presentation and the written word provided a fascinating insight into narrow perceptions and selective recall of one of those people with political/policy responsibility for HE provision as we experience it today.

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A new approach to the assessment of learning outcomes in Japanese Universities

by Toru Hayashi

In recent years Japanese universities have faced unprecedented demands for developing student learning and have rapidly reformed courses to introduce active learning and practical internships. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology-Japan (MEXT) states that: ‘Amid the rapidly changing circumstances at home and abroad surrounding universities, expectations and demands towards universities, Continue reading

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Examining the Examiner: Investigating the assessment literacy of external examiners

By Dr Emma Medland

Quality assurance in higher education has become increasingly dominant worldwide, but has recently been subject to mounting criticism. Research has highlighted challenges to comparability of academic standards and regulatory frameworks. The external examining system is a form of professional self-regulation involving an independent peer reviewer from another HE institution, whose role is to provide quality assurance in relation to identified modules/programmes/qualifications etc. This system has been a distinctive feature of UK higher education for nearly 200 years and is considered best practice internationally, being evident in various forms across the world.

External examiners are perceived as a vital means of maintaining comparable standards across higher education and yet this comparability is being questioned. Despite high esteem for the external examiner system, growing criticisms have resulted in a cautious downgrading of the role. One critique focuses on developing standardised procedures that emphasise consistency and equivalency in an attempt to uphold standards, arguably to the neglect of an examination of the quality of the underlying practice. Bloxham and Price (2015) identify unchallenged assumptions underpinning the external examiner system and ask: ‘What confidence can we have that the average external examiner has the “assessment literacy” to be aware of the complex influences on their standards and judgement processes?’ (Bloxham and Price 2015: 206). This echoes an earlier point raised by Cuthbert (2003), who identifies the importance of both subject and assessment expertise in relation to the role.

The concept of assessment literacy is in its infancy in higher education, but is becoming accepted into the vernacular of the sector as more research emerges. In compulsory education the concept has been investigated since the 1990s; it is often dichotomised into assessment literacy or illiteracy and described as a concept frequently used but less well understood. Both sectors describe assessment literacy as a necessity or duty for educators and examiners alike, yet both sectors present evidence of, or assume, low levels of assessment literacy. As a result, it is argued that developing greater levels of assessment literacy across the HE sector could help reverse the deterioration of confidence in academic standards.

Numerous attempts have been made to delineate the concept of assessment literacy within HE, focusing for example on the rules, language, standards, and knowledge, skills and attributes surrounding assessment. However, assessment literacy has also been described as Continue reading

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Restructuring of the Irish Institutes of Technology sector

The SRHE Blog is now read in more than 100 countries worldwide, and we have therefore decided to introduce publications in more than one language. Click on ‘Version en español below to jump to the Spanish language version of this post. In the next few months we hope to post blogs in French, Russian, Portuguese, Chinese and more. SRHE members worldwide are encouraged to forward this notification, especially to non-English-speaking colleagues. 

New contributions are welcome, especially if they address topical issues of policy or practice in countries other than England and the USA. Submissions may be written either in English or in the author’s native language. Please send all contributions to the Editor,

La Reestructuración de los Institutos de Tecnología en Irlanda Version en español

By Tanya Zubrzycki

Consistent with global trends, the expansion of higher education in Ireland is occurring at a rapid pace, with a pressing need to make the system more efficient and responsive to the needs of society. Continue reading

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Please can we actually do something to arrest the decline in the number of disadvantaged adult learners in universities?

By John Butcher

As the UK higher education sector contemplates its New Year resolutions, let me put in an urgent plea for universities to address an unequivocal failure in attempts to widen participation: the potential disappearance of adult learners from English HE. HESA (2017) report a 61% decline in numbers of mature part-time and full-time learners in HE since 2010. Since adult learners are disproportionately likely to be from disadvantaged or under-represented groups, this should be deeply worrying for university leaders committed to widening participation, as well as to a government espousing social mobility. Imagine the furore if female student numbers dropped by 61%, or BME numbers… Continue reading