Teaching (about) Physics

So the academic year nears its end. This week we have the dreaded meetings of the Examination Boards, complete with External Examiners, ordeal by viva voce for selected students, and finally the lists go up announcing success (or otherwise) for this year’s finalists. It’s all a lot of work – and I’m sure also extremely stressful for the students waiting for their results.

If it’s any consolation for any students reading this post, I can assure you that there’s no lack of stress on this side of the fence either. I always feel a sense of dread opening the packets of examination scripts, and this year was no different. Have I set the exam too hard? Will the marks be a fair reflection of the students’ ability? Have they learned anything at all from the hours I spent droning on? These questions are all the more apt for a third-year class, since these are the papers that really count in determining the final outcome of their course. When the lists go up later this week, one’s delight at the sight of happy (or relieved) faces is always tempered by sadness when things have obviously gone wrong.

Coincidentally, I noticed the other day that a former student from the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University posted an item on her blog giving her view of her degree. It’s a very frank assessment of her own opinion of the course she took, including a list of her  three favourite courses. None of the ones I lectured are amongst them, by the way, in case you think I’m mentioning it for egocentric reasons. Indeed, I’m pretty confident that I’m one of the lecturers she didn’t like at all!

The main thing is that, for better or worse, our course involves an enormous amount of contact time with academic staff.  In the new fee regime students will pay the same £9K for a science course as they would for the Arts and Humanities:

See, doing a Physics and Astronomy degree, I had about 20 contact hours. With lab time. so in one month I had out stripped the BA people for an entire academic year. So in the 12 weeks of one semester, I have had more contact time than they will get in their entire degree. Worth it?

As for whether we make the best use of the time we devote to teaching, that’s a different matter. We have in fact recently overhauled the entire curriculum so we’ll see whether that has the desired effect. One can’t please all of the people all of the time, so we’ve tried to introduce new teaching methods – e.g. fewer lectures, more problems classes – to try to engage better with more students. Only time will tell whether it works.

Anyway, although it’s not one of the topics of her post, Harriet’s blog brought something from the back of my mind where it usually lurks ready to trouble me when I start to think about teaching physics. The point is that most of us involved in teaching physics at University level think that what we should be doing is training people to be professional physicists. That means teaching them to do physics the way it is actually done by people who do research. That means that, especially in Astronomy, students have to grapple with strange unit systems, peculiar terminology and quite a lot of maths. Those aren’t put into our courses in order to torment students – they’re there in the curriculum because they’re there in the world of (astro)physics research. It would be dishonest for us to pretend we were training physicists if we made out that it was all easier than it actually is.

What I mean to say is that I don’t think it should be our job to present physics in a way that’s different from (specifically easier than) the way it is  done at the coalface, in the world of scientific research.  What we should be doing is giving students the skills and confidence to solve the difficult problems a scientist can expect to confront in that situation. To be honest I don’t think we do that particularly well either, but that’s the aim. And that’s why our courses are mainly taught by people who actually do physics and why we claim our teaching is research-led.

That’s an oversimplification, of course. Especially in earlier years, much of the undergraduate curriculum – Newtonian Mechanics, Electromagnetism, Quantum Mechanics, etc  – is not “frontier” stuff so probably doesn’t require an active researcher to teach it. On the other hand, none of that is exactly easy so anyone who is going to teach it competently needs to have mastered it themselves. And in later years, the more specialist material and projects certainly require an active research environment.

Anyway, the point is that  in the new fee regime science courses will attract the same level of funding as courses in, e.g. English Literature. But a course in Physics requires physicists to teach it, while a course in literature does not require a team of successful novelists. Given the fact that the way we teach physics is more expensive by a very large margin, should we be rethinking our approach to the basic physics degree, and leave all the fancy research-led stuff to Masters courses?

Should we really be trying to teach all our students how to do physics? Or should we just be teaching them about physics?

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10 Responses to “Teaching (about) Physics”

  1. Alan Heavens Says:

    In my mind there is a distinction at Honours level. I don’t think one should be able to graduate with an Honours degree without demonstrating that one can ‘do’ physics. For an unclassified degree, I would be more relaxed about students only ‘knowing about’ physics.

    Since you mention lists, I note that some years ago my immediately previous employer replaced Class Lists of names by lists of exam numbers or matriculation numbers. I can see the reasons why, but I felt that something was lost in the change. There is something about a group of people, thrown together for an extended period and often making close friendships, sharing in the elation and the disappointments of each other, but it’s a long time since I was part of such a group, and perhaps I’ve just seen Chariots of Fire too many times.

    • telescoper Says:

      We still post our Class Lists up by name, and the students usually come along en masse to watch it being put up. Such rituals are important, I think, although I doubt if we’ll have them here for much longer…

      I always feel a complicated set of emotions: joy of course for the ones who’ve done well; sadness for those who are disappointed. But then there’s also the recognition that, barring the graduation ceremony, that’s the last you’ll ever see of many of the faces that have been so familiar for several years…

  2. Peter – there are three things, not two. (i) Physics appreciation – how the world works. (ii) How to USE physics – practical understanding and calculation. (iii) How to DO physics – i.e. how to make new physics, that is, do research. I think we should be doing all three, but we don’t distinguish carefully enough, and the target students are different. By inventing the MPhys/MSci we made a distinction between (ii) and (iii), but I have always suspected that we are underdoing (i).

    • Alan Heavens Says:

      Andy – agreed. If ‘doing’ physics means doing new physics (in the sense of new research), then that should distinguish Masters from Bachelors.

    • telescoper Says:

      Agreed, although I’m not sure the balance between (ii) and (iii) is right either.

    • It seems to me there is a fourth one somewhere. Most of our students won’t ‘do’ or ‘use’ or ‘appreciate’ physics in their careers. But we do teach them a way of thinking which is valuable. A different kind of common sense, perhaps. In our teaching there is a strong focus on research and the useful skills seem to come in by accident. Should we examine differently for the majority of our students who find ‘real’ jobs?

  3. [...] “So the academic year nears its end. This week we have the dreaded meetings of the Examination Boards, complete with External Examiners, ordeal by viva voce for selected students, and finally the lists go up announcing success (or otherwise) for this year’s finalists …” (more) [...]

  4. Foundamental questions any educator can ask include: What do I want my students to learn? Why is this important? How will they demonstrate their learning? How would you answer these questions with respect to your physics courses?

  5. [...] approach to critical problem solving. Quite right too, but reminds me of the debate last week on Telescoper’s blog about whether we should be teaching Physics knowledge, Physics understanding, or Physics [...]

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