The Society for Research into Higher Education

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When can we get back to “normal”? Long term predictions of the impact of Covid-19 on teaching in UK universities

by Katherine Deane

Probable Timelines

January – July 2021 – Expect to need to maintain non-pharmaceutical interventions – including social distancing, face masks, cleaning, and rapid tests. Exact interventions may vary with government guidance.

January 2021 – Rising levels of Covid-19 in the community after Christmas mixing may lead to further lockdown conditions.

February-April 2021 – End of Phase One vaccination program. Levels of Covid-19 in the community expected to be initially high, likely requiring some social restrictions to continue in the first few months.

April-July 2021 – End of vaccination of remainder of population. Covid-19 levels dropping across these months. Social restrictions likely to be reduced as the months progress.

Summer 2021 – End of pandemic in UK. Able to stop all non-pharmacological interventions.  Staff recover and take holiday.

Autumn 2021 – Start of term with normal teaching program.

The current situation in UK universities

Most universities are providing limited face-to-face teaching using non-pharmaceutical interventions to prevent transmission such as social distancing and additional cleaning protocols. Some universities have implemented higher quality interventions such as the use of face masks indoors, and the availability of asymptomatic swab testing on campus. A few universities have gone to completely online provision. All of these interventions have helped reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission in UK universities.

The initial exponential growth of Covid-19 cases at the start of term in many universities has slowed down. Some of this reduction has been due to non-pharmacological interventions and university specific restrictions on student activities. However the level of Covid-19 in the community has had significant impact on the levels in universities. So, claims for the efficacy of the Covid-19 safe workplace interventions are yet to be proven, particularly in the context of higher levels of community Covid-19 (Manchester University, 2020).

It is expected that the levels of Covid-19 in the community will continue to be high during winter months as the virus spreads more easily in indoor unventilated environments, and survives for longer in cooler temperatures (Huang, 2020).

Medical risks from Covid-19 are not equitably distributed. People at increased risk from Covid-19 are older, male, have other illnesses, or are from Black, Asian, or other minority ethnic populations (Williamson, 2020; ONS, 2020). It is recognised that young students are at low risk of having a poor acute reaction to being infected from Covid-19. But their risk of infection may be higher as students often live in overcrowded accommodation which substantially increases the risk of Covid-19 transmission (Williamson, 2020). Whilst a severe reaction to Covid-19 is rare, it’s not impossible, with a number of infected Manchester University students ending up in Intensive Care (Parker, 2020). Finally students are in contact with lecturers and support staff who represent a much wider range of ages and medical risks. They are also in contact with the local community and some students (e.g. those in health faculties) are in contact with patients, all of whom could be at higher risk from Covid-19 infection (SAGE, 2020).

A survey of staff at the University of East Anglia identified that about half of respondents were at greater risk from Covid-19 themselves, and/or were in households with people at greater risk or had caring responsibilities for people at greater risk (Figure 1: UCU UEA, 2020). This highlights how complex and interconnected modern society is. It is impossible to segregate those at greater risk from Covid-19 (SAGE, 2020; Griffin 2020).

Figure 1: Would you class yourself or those in your household as moderate or high risk from Covid-19? (UCU UEA 2020)

We now have a better understanding of Long Covid (ie symptoms for more than eight weeks) (Sudre et al, 2020). Long-COVID is characterised by symptoms of fatigue, headache, breathlessness and loss of sense of smell; but also evidence of organ damage (Dennis et al, 2020) and increased risk of neuropsychiatric complications as well (Butler et al, 2020). Long Covid occurs in one in 20 people infected with COVID-19 (Sudre et al, 2020). However it appears to be more common in younger age groups, and affects around 10% of 18-49 year olds who become unwell with COVID-19. It can be severe enough to prevent patients from returning to work or study, and can last for many months.

What happens next?

There is excellent news about a number of vaccines which have been shown to create good levels of immunity (Gallagher, 2020a; Gallagher, 2020b; Bosely 2020; Roth 2020). All the vaccines need two injections to be effective. The government plans a massive roll-out of vaccinations with GP practices (Kanani, 2020) supplemented with vaccination centres set up in conference centres, sports halls, community centres. The immunisation plans start in care home residents and staff at the start of December, with all high risk people and health and care staff immunised by the end of February 2021 (JCVI, 2020; Rapson, 2020). The vaccines would then be rolled out to everyone else with the aim to have the whole adult population of the UK vaccinated by April 2021. This would have massive impact as it would deliver herd immunity (estimated at 60-70% immunity) and stop the pandemic in its tracks. However a number of issues could lead to delays: vaccines need to be approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA); some stocks of vaccines are already manufactured but more need to be created; vaccines need to be transported to the UK (which may be affected by Brexit); the -80oC cold storage of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine during the transport process is challenging and failures will lead to the vaccine being unusable; finding sufficient staff to deliver the vaccines will be hard when the NHS has 100,000 job vacancies; and concerns about vaccine safety may lead to hesitancy and lower than needed uptake. Overall, the estimate of a successful vaccination program being completed by April is the very best case scenario.

Other factors such as greater availability of rapid Covid-19 tests will reduce the frequency of people having to isolate for extended periods of time, so social restrictions are likely to be reduced as the year goes on. However the risk of being infected with Covid-19 will remain relatively high during the first quarter of 2021. Until the population have been fully vaccinated, the proposal of allowing Covid-19 to circulate unchecked in order for the population to develop herd immunity from infections has been refuted as impractical and unethical (Griffin, 2020) and could actually increase the infectivity and lethality of the virus (Spinney, 2020; Bonneaud, 2019). Therefore universities need to be cautious and pragmatic and understand that both the spring and summer terms will almost certainly still need non-pharmacological interventions in place in order to ensure the safety of students, staff and the surrounding communities.

Impact on teaching practice

The University and College Union’s national position is that all university courses should be offered remotely and online, unless they involve practical training or lab work (UCU, 2020), for both the spring and summer terms in all universities. However, few universities have adopted this position. If face-to-face teaching is to continue it should remain at current levels with social distancing, with inevitable consequences in terms of room capacity and the need for repetition of teaching sessions in order to reach entire student cohorts.

As vaccinations start to be rolled out, individual risk levels may reduce, but overall the university community remains at high risk from infection, and of transmitting that to the community they live in (SAGE, 2020; McIntyre, 2020). So whilst it is expected that Covid-19 levels will reduce substantially as we head towards the summer, care should still be taken to reduce transmission on campus.

In addition university management should recognise how tired and burnt out their staff are, with the substantial effort of keeping universities running mostly virtually, and trying to maintain the quality of teaching alongside their own concerns about their health and the health of their friends and families. Many will have suffered losses; many will have supported students dealing with losses. Staff will need time to recover, to take holidays that were not taken during the pandemic, and to decompress from this stressful period of over-work. Then they will be able to return to campus in the autumn of 2021 able to teach effectively.

Don’t just return to ‘normal’

Not all of the pandemic lessons have been negative. I am a disabled lecturer who uses a wheelchair and has an energy limiting disability. I have found virtual working a huge advantage. Other staff with disabilities, caring responsibilities, or just long journeys to work may find the greater flexibility to work more from home also helpful. This flexibility will allow easier management of responsibilities in work and the rest of life. Students with similar issues may find accessing a university level education easier if some or all of their course was delivered virtually. It will be a challenge for university finances, but the opportunity for greater equity of access to university level education is undeniable.

SRHE member Dr Katherine Deane is a wheelchair using Senior Lecturer in Health Sciences and Access Ambassador at the University of East Anglia. She is working to remove barriers to accessing life so people can express their brilliance. Post Covid-19 re-opening guidance with a focus on disabled visitors available here

Reference UCU UEA. 2020. A survey of UCU members’ opinions on the impact of Covid-19 on teaching and workload at UEA. University and College Union, University of East Anglia Branch. November 2020. Available from on request

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How do we teach international students in the UK?

by Sylvie Lomer and Jenna Mittelmeier

This has been the guiding question for our current SRHE-funded research project. We are looking at how pedagogies and practices have been developed or shaped within the context of changing student demographics across the UK higher education sector. We have conducted 40 out of the 50 planned interviews and have really appreciated academics’ time and enthusiasm during a completely unprecedented semester. Our data collection and analysis continue but we wanted to communicate early findings and the types of language used by participants to communicate their pedagogy.

Many of our participants taught predominantly, or talked mainly about, postgraduate teaching, where students’ professional or life experience was frequently highlighted as important. The limitation with our participant sampling so far is an overrepresentation of applied disciplines (education, business, health-related, etc) and an underrepresentation of ‘pure’ disciplines (physics, maths, philosophy, etc) (Biglan, 1973). It’s quite possible that this represents a teaching approach that’s dominant in certain disciplines and not others.

Teaching approaches

Most participants represented their teaching in strikingly similar ways. Through careful reflection on the key information that needs to be ‘delivered or conveyed’, lecturers sought to maximise the amount of class time spent on ‘real learning’, which was understood to happen primarily in social or group settings. There appears to be consensus across the disciplines, institutions, and geographic locations of participants that an active and social approach to learning is optimal.

We anticipated variation across disciplines and contexts in the pedagogical approaches adopted by lecturers working with international students, but most participants have described largely similar approaches to managing their physical classrooms in pre-COVID times. These are commonly characterised by:

  • Chunking talking time and lectures into ‘gobbets’ of 15-20 minutes
  • Following up with small group activities (eg discussions or concrete tasks)
  • Concluding with plenary or whole group feedback

Sometimes this pattern was repeated during longer teaching sessions. Pedagogies were also mediated in different ways: through technology; with the help of teaching assistants; or in collaboration with a range of campus services. Yet, the core of how most participants represented their teaching has shown striking similarity, with reflection on the importance of social or group settings.

Participants reported challenges in implementing their approaches, particularly given that massification and growing class sizes have largely coincided with international student recruitment. Infrastructure, such as lecture theatres with fixed seating, was also commonly criticized as a limitation to pedagogy. Adaptations to online or hybrid classrooms during Covid-19 included ‘flipped’ approaches where readings or recordings were available initially online, with ‘live’ sessions designed to be solely interactive.

Representations of international students

We explored how the presence of international students influences the micro and macro practices of lecturer; in that respect, how we define ‘international students’ has been a prominent angle of questioning. Most participants defaulted to using the term as adopted in the press and public policy – non-EU degree level students. However, they also highlighted other groups of students who may also be subsumed by the international label – EU students, short-term students on exchanges or top-up programmes, and students classified as British by residency but who have been primarily educated overseas. These nuances matter, because, as participants highlight, the key point is not what students’ nationality is, but what their previous educational experiences are.

Challenges around ‘cultures of deference’ to the authority of teachers and texts were highlighted, as well as individual confidence and skills to participate orally in discussions. While some participants referred to common stereotypes of, for example, ‘silent’ Chinese students, others were quick to challenge deficit-based assumptions. The latter tended to describe the perceived benefits of having international students across cohorts and unpack the diversity of experiences that underlie such stereotyping. Diversity, in this regard, was often described as a ‘learning resource’ (Harrison, 2018), whereby international students were assumed to support classroom learning environments by sharing knowledge and experiences from their country or culture.

An alternative consideration noted by a smaller number of participants is that students should not be seen as embodiments of some abstracted form of national culture (Lomer, 2017), but rather through recognising that people are different and know different things. Some participants criticised the  binary distinction – created by fee and visa restrictions – between ‘home’ and ‘overseas’ students, given that factors which affect learning are more likely to be a culmination of previous educational experience, language, and confidence – of which none fall neatly between political borders. In that regard, participants highlighted the importance of ‘good teaching’ and a desire to develop an inclusive ‘ethos’ which works for all students.

We asked participants what they feel makes a good teacher, and were surprised to see relatively similar responses between participants, regardless of their career stage or teaching contexts. Their responses emphasised empathy, reflexivity, humility, curiosity, disciplinary passion, and the capacity to value difference. However, there was less reflection about how key learning outcomes might be underpinned by Eurocentric assumptions about education or students’ behaviours, or how things like critical thinking or academic integrity may be culturally shaped.

Reflections on professional identity

A final consideration for this project is how lecturers’ professional identities are shaped by their work with international students. Participants reflected on the loneliness of being ‘the pedagogy person’ or ‘the internationalisation person’ in departments or schools. In such contexts, some told stories about past and current colleagues or other academics in their networks who voiced explicitly racist views about international students. Most suggested these were now outliers and that the dominant discourse has changed towards a more positive view of international students.

Language used by academics when communicating the implementation of active and social learning approaches with international students positions the academic as in control and the (international) student as subaltern. For example, many participants spoke in terms of ‘being strict’, ‘setting expectations’, ‘forcing them to speak’. This was often explained with reference to meeting key learning outcomes or developing professional skills, but sits in contrast with the more emancipatory discourses often associated with student-centred approaches to teaching.

Earlier career academics have only ever taught in a highly internationalised sector, while those with a longer professional experience reflected on the change they had seen during their career. For most, internationalisation was reflected as a fact of contemporary academic life; some commented that they hadn’t thought about the particularities of teaching international students before their interview with us. For some, this was a characteristic of the discipline, particularly those in areas like business and international development; they positioned their subjects as inherently international, with assumptions that internationalised teaching followed ‘naturally’.

Get involved

The responses so far have been encouraging and suggest that, across UK institutions, academics are dedicated to: developing pedagogies that value diversity on multiple axes; working with international students; and valuing the knowledge and perspectives that an international student group can co-create.

We are still collecting data and would love to hear from anyone who teaches international students in any UK HEI, but particularly if you:

  • Teach in a STEM or Arts subject
  • Teach in Wales or Northern Ireland
  • Disagree with or don’t recognise the account above or have a different viewpoint.

All responses are strictly confidential, although participants will be invited to participate in a webinar at the end of the project.

We are working on building up a repository of case studies about teaching innovations with international students, hosted here, and welcome submissions from all (even if you do not wish to participate in an interview). Contact or for more information.

SRHE member Sylvie Lomer is Lecturer in Policy and Practice at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her previous research focused on policies on international students in the UK, and now focuses more broadly on internationalisation in policy and practice in higher education, with a critical approach to pedogogy and policy enactment.

SRHE member Jenna Mittelmeier is Lecturer in International Education at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her research expertise focus broadly on the internationalisation of higher education,  taking a critical perspective on issues of power, privilege, and ethics in international higher education.

Our thanks to Parise Carmichael-Murphy for reviewing the blog before it was submitted.


Biglan, Anthony (1973) ‘The characteristics of subject matter in different academic areas’, Journal of Applied Psychology 57(3): 195

Harrison, N (2015) ‘Practice, problems and power in ‘internationalisation at home’: Critical reflections on recent research evidence’, Teaching in Higher Education, 20(4), 412-430

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Professors in Preparation: Supporting 21st century professorial leaders

by Julie Hulme and Deborah Lock

Becoming a professor is not easy but for some reason becoming a professor in teaching and learning, or from a professional practice base, appears to be harder than most. Part of this is because there is no consensus about what a pedagogic or practitioner professor looks like, and part of this is linked to uncertainty about appropriate selection criteria, and the type of evidence required to demonstrate professorial behaviours and activities (Evans, 2015a, 2015b).

There is a lack of guidance and role (and real) models that aspiring professors (education, scholarship and/or professional practice) can turn to for advice about teaching and learning career pathways (Evans, 2017). According to McHanwell and Robson (2018): “There are relatively few teaching-focussed staff in more senior positions who can review, mentor and support teaching staff; act as role models for junior staff who are seeking to develop a teaching/education career (Fung and Gordon, 2016); and help individuals to collate a mix of quantitative and qualitative evidence that provides a clear sense of their teaching achievements.”

The Professors in Preparation network (#ProfsInPrep) was established in October 2018, following a discussion about these issues on the PFHEA email list in which leaders in higher education were commenting on the challenges of gaining reward and recognition for their education and scholarship achievements. We decided that the time had come to instigate change for ourselves, and arranged what was to be the first of a number of workshops, webinars, and other events. The network found an online home on OneHE, and the community now hosts around 150 aspiring professors, plus professorial mentors (many from the National Teaching Fellow community).

#ProfsInPrep aims to provide aspiring professors with a supportive community through which the pooling of knowledge through the sharing of and reflection on ‘lived’ experiences, and identity stories to aid successful applications (Waddington, 2016, Macfarlane and Burg, 2019). The network is based on the premise of a virtuous circle in which members who achieve professorship continue to contribute and provide support to the next generation of professors. In other words, we have established a ‘pipeline’ community for those who contribute to higher education through educational or practitioner-based careers.

The goals of the network are not only to support reward and recognition. Recent media coverage has portrayed academia as a competitive, individualistic professional environment, framed in terms such as “upward toxicity”. Psychological research suggests that transformational leadership, which builds collegiality and strong team identities, can improve mental health and wellbeing of individuals, reduce staff turnover, and produce higher quality work (Cheng et al, 2016). Likewise, Holliman et al. (2016) suggest that “academic kindness” can support productivity, and professional development within higher education, for both students and colleagues. Our review of academic promotions criteria suggests that promotion frequently depends upon research outputs and grants, which are largely individually driven (although we recognise not always), even within educational pathways. A focus on individual success can reduce motivation for academic citizenship and collegiality that could facilitate academic kindness and potentially counter the supposedly toxic culture. We suggest that promotion pathways need to reward such collegiate behaviour.

Increasingly, universities are offering educational and practitioner pathways to promotion, and some are building academic citizenship and service into their criteria. However, the progression of individuals along these pathways has not yet enabled the centrality of education within the mission of higher education to be adequately reflected. We suggest that promoting academics to the professoriate who embody the values of inclusion, collegiality, and caring, often located within those on educational and practitioner-based careers, can help to change the culture of academia, and bring kindness, instead of toxicity, to the fore. Those who achieve promotion via these routes will then be available to act as role models, and, as well as helping other aspiring professors to understand the ambiguity of promotion criteria and facilitate the progression of more minoritised groups, such as women and BAME individuals.

Ultimately, our intention is to facilitate the development of a professorial community that represents the rich diversity that exists within the sector, and that can self-propagate through mentoring and support. We suggest that an academically kind professoriate, promoted for service to students, education, and professional practice, will provide the leadership that is needed within 21st century higher education.

Join #ProfsInPrep at: 

Julie Hulme is a Reader in Psychology at Keele University, a Chartered Psychologist, National Teaching Fellow and Principal Fellow of the HEA. Deborah Lock is Deputy Head of College and Professor of Inclusivity and Innovation in Teaching at Lincoln International Business School, and a Principal Fellow of the HEA. Together, Julie and Deborah founded the Professors in Preparation network in October 2018.


Cheng, C, Bartram, T, Karimi, L and Leggat, S (2016) ‘Transformational leadership and social identity as predictors of team climate, perceived quality of care, burnout and turnover intention among nurses’, Personnel Review, 45(6): 1200-1216

Evans L (2015a) ‘What academics want from their professors: findings from a study of professorial academic leadership in the UK’ in Teichler U and  Cummings W (eds) Forming, recruiting and managing the academic profession. Vol 14 of The Changing Academy – The Changing Academic Profession in International Comparative Perspective series. Cham: Springer

Evans, L (2015b) The purpose of professors: professionalism, pressures and performance. Stimulus paper commissioned by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. London: LFHE

Evans, L (2017) ‘University professors as academic leaders: professorial leadership development needs and provision’ Educational Management Administration & Leadership 45(1): 123-140

Fung, D and Gordon, C (2016) Rewarding educators and education leaders in research-intensive universities York, UK: Higher Education Academy

Holliman, AJ, Hulme, JA and Wilson-Smith, K (2019) ‘Transition and adaptability in educational and organisational contexts’ Psychology Teaching Review 25(1): 4-11

MacFarlane, B and Burg, D (2019) Women professors as intellectual leaders Leadership Foundation: University of Bristol and University of Southampton

McHanwell, S and Robson, S (2018) Guiding principles for teaching promotions York, UK: AdvanceHE

Waddington, K (2016) ‘The compassion gap in UK universities’ International Practice Development Journal 6(1): 10

This is the fourth in a ‘virtual symposium’ series which began with Jane Creaton’s blog on 28 February 2020: Leadership in a Changing Landscape.

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Beware of slogans

by Alex Buckley

Slogans, over time, become part of the furniture. They start life as radical attempts to change how we think, and can end up victims of their own success. Higher education is littered with ex-slogans: ‘student engagement’, ‘graduate attributes’, ‘technology enhanced learning’, ‘student voice’, ‘quality enhancement’, to name just a few. Hiding in particularly plain sight is ‘teaching and learning’ (and ‘learning and teaching’). We may use the phrase on a daily basis without thinking much about it, but what is the point of constantly talking about teaching and learning in the same breath? Continue reading

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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

Paul Temple

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Comparing teaching and learning: enough, already?

By Paul Temple

Where did the obsession with comparisons in education come from? In his 1997 book The Audit Society, Michael Power identifies the causes of what he calls “the audit explosion” and the related demands for public-sector performance measurement in the 1980s and 1990s. The shock-wave of this explosion ripples on.

But one recent case, the OECD’s AHELO (Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes) project, shows there may be limits to the comparison industry’s growth. This project seems to have stalled following concerns about its proposed methodology and likely costs: England said last year it wouldn’t take part, and American and Canadian universities have also said no. The OECD’s Institutional Management in Higher Education (IMHE) programme recommended in 2012 that the project be halted after seeing the results of a large-scale feasibility study. But the OECD’s Director of Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher, is apparently undeterred, if his HEPI lecture (Value-Added: How do you measure whether universities are delivering for their students? HEPI 2015 Annual Lecture. HEPI Report 82) last December is anything to go by.

Schleicher thinks that his plans are being blocked by Continue reading

Kelly Coate

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Reflective teaching in higher education

By Kelly Coate

Those of us who research higher education, and universities in particular, are endlessly offered rich sources of data from one of the most enduring and fascinating institutions in the world. Higher education is an unusual site of research, given the wide range of disciplines that can be employed and the diversity of approaches that can be taken. It is unusual for other reasons too: here in the SRHE we continue to develop as a very strong community of higher education specialists, but we know that almost anyone who works in academia might fancy trying their hand at doing higher education research, most likely in their classrooms but increasingly with other groups such as administrators or managers. Some of us may despair at the lack of knowledge and depth that higher education research ‘amateurs’ bring to bear on the field, but others of us encourage novices to get involved, mainly through the postgraduate programmes in academic practice that have become embedded in many institutions. Therefore another distinctive feature of higher education research is that we speak to many audiences through our publications. Mainly – as in common with other disciplinary specialists – we like to talk to each other, but our books and articles are increasingly used in those academic practice programmes just mentioned, and so a wide range of other disciplinary experts are now engaging with our work. Continue reading

Ian Kinchin


Enhanced PowerPoint with concept maps

By Ian Kinchin

The problems associated with the poor use of PowerPoint in lectures have been well documented – in particular, the over-reliance of bullet points which misrepresent the content being delivered and often result in tedious lectures in which the lecturer just reads the slides to the audience. Concept maps have a very different underlying philosophy and their use in PowerPoint can help to overcome some of the issues raised by bullet points: Continue reading

Ian Kinchin

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Sick of Bullet Points

By Ian Kinchin

There is a plague that has infected higher education over the past decade. One that has been so invasive that it has changed the habits of teachers and the expectations of learners in ways that are quite profound, but have gone largely unnoticed. I am talking about the infestation of lectures with bullet points.

It is a hobby-horse of mine, but I am sick of watching bullet points (especially when presenters think it is cool to have them zooming in from the side of the screen, one-by-one), and I regard it as a sickness among our colleagues that needs to be treated.

Students have asked me if university teachers are instructed to read out bullet points during their lectures. I obviously say, ‘no’, to which the students reply, ‘so why do they do it?’. Everyone I speak to tells me that reading points to students in lectures is bad practice, and yet there appears to be a form of pedagogical paralysis that prevents some colleagues from breaking free of this affliction.

There are a number of assumptions that I make in my mind (fairly or unfairly) about presentations that consist of nothing but bullet points. I assume that the presenter lacks the imagination to offer anything other than bullet points (the greasy-spoon mentality of ‘chips with everything’). I assume that the presenter is lazy, and cannot be bothered to present materials in a more engaging way. I assume that perhaps the presenter doesn’t know the content well enough to transform the content into a different format. I presume that the presenter has not been able to construct a coherent schema in his/her mind and so has to work with atomised chunks of content – whilst expecting me to generate some coherence from the presentation.

I even think there is a direct correlation between the extent of bullet point usage in a presentation and the level of teacher dynamism and audience engagement, the “bullet point effect”:

The bullet point effect

PDF of figure:  The bullet point effect

For these reasons, I have all but given up going to keynote lectures at conferences. By the time I get to the third or fourth slide of bullet points I have switched off. And I am not alone. I make a point now of sitting near the back of the audience during these sessions; partly so that I can make a quick getaway if it gets too boring. But more interestingly, so that I can observe the audience to see what they are doing. From the speaker’s perspective, it often looks like the audience is engaged and they are busy typing down the pearls of wisdom on their laptops and tablets. From the back what you see is a sea of screens on which the audience are busy responding to their e-mails.

I was sat in the audience of a keynote a few years ago next to a colleague who knew of my hatred of bullet points. Six slides in and we hadn’t seen anything but bullets. Then the presenter announced the next slide as “the triangle of research”. My ears pricked up and I looked at the screen in anticipation of a geometric depiction of said triangle. What did we get? Three bullet points. To which I said to my colleague, “where’s the triangle?”. His response, “I suppose we have to presume it is in his head – so I wonder who the slide is for?”.

There are exceptions. There are presentations that have been really good. But there seems to be a correlation (at least in my mind) about the quality of the PowerPoint and the quality of the presentation. Some excellent presentations have used PowerPoint, but to show things that cannot be adequately summarised in bullets. Things like graphs, maps and photos. I have even been to presentations where PowerPoint has not been used at all. Imagine! Yes, it can be done. One of the best presentations I have been to recently used a single slide – an image that was the focus of the lecture. Also, colleagues need to remember that PowerPoint can be turned off for part of a presentation – just press ‘B’ on the keyboard and the screen will go black.

I was recently unable to attend a presentation in London. One that sounded potentially very interesting and was to be led by the great and the good. Although in the end I couldn’t go, I was pleased that the organisers would send me copies of the presentations from the day. When the files arrived in my e-mail, I was eager to see what I had missed. Unfortunately, all I got was a lot of bullet points. From this I was unable to determine if there was any coherence or innovation in the ideas that had been presented. It was like seeing the chapter headings from a book. Useless!

One year, a group of us did hatch a plan to produce Tee shirts for a conference with the logo:


Perhaps next year, unless a cure is found in the meantime.


Kinchin, I.M., Lygo-Baker, S. and Hay, D.B. (2008) Universities as centres of non-learning. Studies in Higher Education, 33(1): 89 – 103.

Professor Ian Kinchin is Head of the Department of Higher Education at the University of Surrey, and is also a member of the SRHE Governing Council. This post was first published on Ian’s personal blog, and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.