Your starter for 10: how can a TV quiz format help courses avoid extinction?

With some courses struggling to recruit, John Warren explains how a University Challenge-style quiz can breathe new life into ailing degrees and empower the student voice

John Warren's avatar
Independent academic
23 Mar 2023
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University Challenge quiz show helps degree courses

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In 2016, The Guardian was late to the party when it ran an article about the death of botany as a degree course in the UK. Although the last degree still calling itself botany had stopped recruiting, there was, nevertheless, still a handful of plant biology degree schemes. At about that time, I vividly recall meeting the new intake of students on our plant biology degree course because their words still haunt me.

That first tutorial was a collective cathartic moment, as one of them admitted that until that point they had never met another student who was interested in plants and had never felt confident enough to publicly admit to being a botanist. It felt like someone confessing to being an alcoholic.

The unfortunate reality is that as degree courses start to decline, there is a danger that they enter a death spiral: the fewer students they recruit, the more isolated those students feel; minority subjects are seen as increasingly unattractive; the economics of the situation drives a reduction in the amount of degree-specific content they receive.

In the case of plant biology, it seems to have become so unsexy that it not only declined as a degree course, it almost disappeared from biology degree programmes altogether, with many biology students having access to very few or no botany modules. This development was even more worrying than the loss of specific, named degree programmes. Botany graduates are outnumbered several hundred to one by zoology graduates. Consequently, most secondary school biology teachers are zoologists who, perhaps subconsciously, encourage their pupils to follow their path – and so the death spiral continues.

Against this backdrop, a small number of academic plant biologists decided it was time to try to break the cycle of decline by addressing its symptoms. Thus it was that, back in 2016, five different teams of plant-focused undergraduates assembled at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to do battle in “Botanical University Challenge” (BUC).

In its first year, this was held in front of a live audience at the Royal Botanic Gardens, and the format of BUC was close to the famed television show, now in its 52nd series in the UK. It was also filmed, and edited highlights were subsequently posted on social media. Even with a relatively small number of teams, the event took all afternoon.

The structure of the quiz has evolved over time to accommodate a massive increase in the number of teams taking part and to facilitate moving online following Covid. It’s now comprised of a time-limited knockout contest with all competing teams simultaneously facing the same multiple-choice questions displayed on-screen using the quiz platform Socrative. This is streamed with a slight delay on YouTube, as this allows a large audience to observe the event but not feed answers to those taking part. The questions are spoken aloud by one of our chairs, and the answers are revealed and botanical trivia added at the end of each round. The eight top-scoring teams go through to the live-streamed quarter-finals on day two.

At this stage, teams go head-to-head, with each team facing their own sets of four questions. The participating teams are visible on-screen during this part of the contest via a live stream of a Zoom webinar, which allows the audience to hear their deliberations. Teams are usually at the same location, but this format allows institutions such as the Open University (whose students may be widely geographically dispersed) to be involved. This year, the semi-finals and the final will be held in person for the first time since Covid, with the format similar to the quarter-finals. The move offline will also allow the inclusion of real plants again, but this is limited because of the need to make the event available to our online audience.

To our surprise, this format does not appear to have been adopted by other academic disciplines. The numbers of participating institutions grew slowly year-on-year. Feedback from the students and audiences has been overwhelmingly positive. The benefits were obvious – taking botany students on pilgrimage to the Royal Botanic Gardens is never going to end badly. Its main objective of reducing the sense of isolation experienced by small groups of students was flagged as a major success.

With the Covid lockdowns, universities across the world resorted to remote teaching, and the problem of isolation within the student population reached pandemic proportions in its own right. Perhaps not surprisingly, participation in BUC expanded dramatically as it moved online. Over time, the format of BUC has evolved in response to a number of challenges. Online buzzers became impractical because internet speeds vary between locations. When faced with 25 teams entering from across the whole of the UK and Ireland, it became an unrealistically massive task to expect working academics to write enough original questions to allow all the teams to compete head-to-head. Our solution was to resort to using online quizzing software, which allows all the teams to simultaneously answer identical sets of 10 multiple-choice questions. Ranking the teams at the end of each round allows the excitement to build. Gaps between rounds allow brief interviews with the leading teams. These are streamed live on YouTube to a significant audience, if not yet one to rival the televised original.

Although competition is intense, the exercise is intended to be fun. Being live, we don’t have the opportunity to edit out runs of wrong answers (as apparently happens with the TV version), thus many of the questions are relatively easy for subject specialists. Allowing teams the opportunity to answer their own sets of questions prevents runaway winners and public humiliation of the losing team. At the quarter-final stage, all the teams compete in randomly selected turns, with the highest scoring progressing. This seems fairer since they are really competing against the questions and not each other.

For the first time since Covid, this year the finals will be held in person, at the University of Nottingham. The finals are being held in conjunction with a festival of student botany. There is no better way to reduce isolation than meeting real people. The question that really matters now is: has it worked?

BUC has generated, or at least demonstrated that there is, a significant interest in plants within the undergraduate population that was not previously being recognised or satisfied. More than 120 students directly participated this year, which is not bad for a discipline that was declared extinct 10 years ago. The contestants, who are primarily not taking plant biology degrees, have been inspired to go back to their home institutions and demand more botany content in their courses. There are even spring shoots of a revival in applications, and student feedback reveals clear evidence that the symptoms of decline have been eased.

Your subsidiary question for five has to be: if developing an online quiz format for students across the UK can help reverse the fortunes of British botany, can it do the same for other disciplines that have become unfashionable?

John Warren is a former professor of botany at Aberystwyth University, Wales.

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