Professor Tim Birkhead - Undergraduate Teaching

Professor Birkhead image alongside brain scan


Both at school and as an undergraduate I was inspired and enthused by handful of exceptional teachers. My philosophy is also to inspire undergraduates through teaching. I have tried to avoid traditional teaching and assessment methods specifically to stimulate undergraduate interest. My teaching fantasy is that (as a department) we abandon most lectures and replace them with extended tutorials and field courses. I am convinced that this approach would generate better-qualified scientists and better citizens. Although successive heads of department have been reluctant to implement my suggested changes, they have allowed me to partially fulfil my fantasy through my L3 course History and Philosophy of Science (APS327) which – notwithstanding its somewhat pompous title - is partly about the history of science and mainly about how science is done.

My teaching has always been informed by research (my own and that of others): I am committed to both and believe that the two go hand-in-hand, and should do at an institution such as the University of Sheffield. Research informs teaching in many ways, including critical thinking, team work, public understanding of science as well as ethical considerations.

Sustaining an enthusiasm for effective teaching over 30 years in an environment as dynamic and as vulnerable to fashions and fluctuations as higher education is not straightforward. I have therefore actively sought ways to diversify and sustain the quality of my teaching, mainly though engagement in the public understanding of science. A recent `innovation´ has been to use Podcasts to provide a summary of each of the lectures for my L1 course Animal Behaviour (APS126).

One of the most effective extra-curricular activities to inspire my teaching was being invited to speak at PINC (People, Ideas, Nature, Creativity see: www.pinc.nl See also: The Times Higher Education article

A central part of my philosophy concerns the ethics of teaching and research. As universities come under increasing pressure to perform – particularly in research – ethical issues for both undergraduates and academic staff have become more important. To raise awareness of these issues I wrote (with my colleague Bob Montgomerie) A beginner´s guide to scientific misconduct (2005)

Between 2003 and 2011 I wrote a monthly column in the Times Higher Education (THE, previously known as the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES)). Initially I was asked to write on research issues but I found myself writing mainly on teaching in a concerted attempt to redress the balance between research (the RAE, now the REF) and teaching. I have been especially interested in several aspects of undergraduate teaching, including (i) the value of tutorials; (ii) the transition between school and university that some individuals find difficult; (iii) the ability to write clearly and unambiguously, and (iv) maintaining academic standards in undergraduate education.

Images from field course


One never really knows how one affects undergraduates, but I was gratified recently to discover that David Gibbs who graduated from this department in 1983, named a newly discovered fly in my honour. The fly is Leiomyza birkheadi (Gibbs) and is a small, glossy black fly with yellowish legs and red eyes, discovered in Bristol, UK on 21 August 2004. It has no common name and is thought to develop in the fruiting bodies of fungi.

In 2013 I was pleased to learn that I had been voted UK Higher education Biosciences Teacher of the Year (by the Society of Biology). That award was based in part on the following video: www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/tim-birkhead-bioscience-teacher-society-biology-1.269973

Image of the fly Leiomyza birkheadi

Tim Birkhead Bioscience Teacher of the Year Award


Teaching Awards

2007 University of Sheffield Senate Award for Teaching

2009 Department of Animal & Plant Science, Teacher of the Year Award

2013 UK Higher Education Bioscience Teacher of the Year Award (see http://shef.ac.uk/news/nr/tim-birkhead-bioscience-teacher-society-biology-1.269973)

2016 Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy

Other articles on teaching

Birkhead, T. R. 2007. Umbilical culture: standards and grade inflation. In: Can the Prizes Still Glitter? The future of British Universities in a Changing World (Ed. by Burgh, H., Black, J. & Fazackerly, A.), pp. 24-29. Buckingham: University of Buckingham Press.

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Birkhead, T. R. 2006. Riting good is a tuff choar, innit? Times Higher Education Supplement, 9 June 2006, 62.

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Birkhead, T. R. 2007. Let's face it, in terms of real education the school experiment of the past 20 years or so has been a disaster. Times Higher Education Supplement, 1821.

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Birkhead, T. R. 2008. Does it matter that researchers miscite the literature? Times Higher Education Supplement, 13.

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Birkhead, T. R. 2008. Enormous greedy babies. Times Higher Education, 19 June 2008

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Birkhead, T. R. 2008. How duff exams spawn failure. Times Higher Education, 1871, 27.

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Birkhead, T. R. 2009. Secrets of real success. Times Higher Education, 29 January 2009, 29.

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Birkhead, T. R. 2009. We've bred a generation unable to think. Times Education Supplement, 6 February 2009.

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Birkhead, T. R. 2009. Can't beat the real thing. Times Education Supplement, 9 Aprl 2009, 29.

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APS336 Peak District Field Course Group Photo 2008