The Quantum of Teaching

I’m gradually finding out enough about the way things are organized here at the University of Sussex to make some comparisons between teaching in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences here and in the School of Physics and Astronomy at my former employer, Cardiff University.

One difference I’ve noticed is probably something you find rather trivial, but I think it’s quite important. In the usual scheme of undergraduate teaching, which applies across most of the United Kingdom, students gain “credit” for taking and passing modules. A normal year would correspond to 120 credits, so that a three-year BSc degree involves a total of 360 credits and a four-year MPhys (or equivalent) is 480. In universities that run a two-semester teaching year the load per semester is thus 60 credits.

The question then is what is the best way to divide up that 60 credits into smaller pieces? Until recently at Cardiff the basic unit of teaching was a 10-credit module, which meant that students were typically doing six different things alongside each other. An ordinary ten-credit module would involve two lectures per week. Not all of these are lecture courses, however; there’s usually laboratory or computational work as one of the 10 credit chunks. During a recent course review it was decided to increase the size of some of the modules to 20 credits. That’s how it came to pass that I taught a new module of that size last semester (for the first and last time).

The motivation for increasing the size of modules was twofold. One is that having lots of small modules makes the overall study programme disjointed and “bitty”, with students having lots of things on the go at the same time and little opportunity to study any topics in real depth. The other is that having four hours per week instead of two allows the lecturer to use the time more flexibly, in particular with  sessions intended to develop problem-solving skills.

Although the “core” modules at Cardiff increased to 20 credits, the others remained at 10. There was a lot of discussion about increasing all modules, but in the end the new programme was left as a mixture.

Interestingly, here at Sussex the normal module size is 15 credits (and “modules” are also called “courses”), meaning that students actually only do four things at the same time in a typical semester.  In fact this was what I originally suggested when we started the teaching review at Cardiff, but it was thrown out immediately on the grounds that the University had decreed that modules must be multiples of 10 credits only. I’m not sure whether there was an educational reason for this, or just that it made the arithmetic simpler.

Anyway, I like 15 credits as a basic unit but am not sure how many other Schools and Departments run that system. I’d be interested to learn about module sizes favoured elsewhere through the comments box, and here’s a poll so you can vote:

Another difference is that although Sussex has two teaching semesters, the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) does not have mid-year examinations, so First Semester courses are examined in the Summer along with the Second Semester ones.  In Cardiff, modules are examined at the end of the semester in which they are taught. There are pros and cons with this. I think students who are used to mid-year examinations like the fact that the examinations are not all concentrated in one period during the summer and also that they get some feedback on their progress during the year. On the other hand, students may see an end-of-semester examination as an encouragement to close the lid on a particular module and forget about it as soon as it is over, making it harder to understand how different aspects of physics interconnect.

Students at Sussex seem keen not to have mid-year examinations, while those at Cardiff seem equally keen to retain them. I don’t know what that means, so here’s another  poll to see if there’s any clear opinion one way or another among my readers…


16 Responses to “The Quantum of Teaching”

  1. My experience of mid-year exams is really what you mentioned already, in that it definitely encourages you to close the lid on that particular module (largely because there really didn’t seem to be a whole lot of obvious cross over between modules and if there was it was taught to you again, although this may have changed now).

    However the motivation gained in the spring semester because of the feedback of Christmas exams is invaluable. Having 6 sets of exams over the degree gives you 5 chances to improve how you work and without them I certainly would not have achieved as well as I did.

  2. I’m a fan of exams once per year, mostly because it means that you will have improved in your first term courses (especially in first and second year) by doing the second term’s work. Even for me as a third year, looking back at atomic physics is much easier now I’m doing quantum mechanics 2.

    Finally, we did have six and 12 credit courses in the first two years up until last year. I really enjoyed the six credit courses because you could study something interesting without it taking up too much of your time; for example I took fluid dynamics. In my ideal world, there’d be 100 credits of compulsory stuff and then 20 credits of physics related modules that are much more varied than our current options, either one large 20 credit one of four smaller five credit ones.

    Hmm, that was a bit longer than I had expected…

    PS, courses are now only called modules at Sussex as of this academic year.

    • telescoper Says:

      It seems that, not surprisingly, some of the academic staff are finding it hard to adapt to the new terminology: I hear “courses” all the time, and have only rarely heard anyone say “modules”.

  3. John Peacock Says:

    Never mind the credits: what’s the right number of lectures in a course? Edinburgh’s basic quantum has evolved to 18 lectures (for a 10-point course). I think 18 is uncomfortably few for a lot of topics, so if 1.8 per credit is a universal conversion (is it?) then this is a good argument for expansion x 1.5.

    • telescoper Says:

      The basic Cardiff 10-credit module is 22 lectures. In my third-year Nuclear and Particle Physics I did an additional hour per week in examples classes on top of that. In my 20 credit Level 2 modules on Fields and Flows the intention was to use 3/4 of the time for lectures and about 1/4 for worked examples.

      • George Jones Says:

        What is a lecture? One hour? In North America, a one-hour lecture lasts for fifty minutes (so that students can get to their next lecture on time).

      • telescoper Says:

        Same here, usually. 50 minutes within a one-hour slot.

    • “Never mind the credits: what’s the right number of lectures in a course? “

      When I studied physics and astronomy in Hamburg (finishing about 20 years ago), there were two semesters per year, 14 weeks each. (This meant 24 weeks “lecture-free” time, but it was not all holiday as a) lab work and b) most exams (and the preparation for them) were during this time. At least then, all exams were oral, though in order to qualify for the exam one had to have a certificate saying one had passed the corresponding course(s), which usually meant getting a certain fraction correct on a) homework and b) a written exam (90 minutes or so) at the end of each course.) The main courses had two 90-minute lectures per week, so a total of 42 hours of lectures (plus half that for a related course in which problems were solve (i.e. homework one week and then discuss the solutions the following week). A “main course” would be something like “Electrodynamics”, so (passing) 4 main courses would be required would be required in order to take the theory exam, for example. There were also exams in structure of matter, one’s minor (mine was astronomy) and the fourth one could choose (I chose advanced nuclear physics). In addition to these 4 exams, the mark for the master’s thesis counted twice in calculating the final mark. (There was a similar scheme for the “Vordiplom”.)

      Although I agree that the goal is worthwhile, considering the differences in programmes between universities in the same country, not to mention between countries, isn’t the whole idea of Bologna a farce? In the old days, one knew that things were different and thus had to form one’s own opinion. These days, one has a European Bologna-style Bachelor’s or Master’s degree which is supposed to mean the same everywhere, but doesn’t.

  4. John Peacock Says:

    A different credit-related topic where I’d be interested in a comparison: Edinburgh insists you must pass at least 80 credits, or you fail the year. Most of us in P+A think this is bonkers, as you can get people with an average of well over 40%, but you kick them out with no degree if they get 35% in 2 20-point courses in their final year. This is the arts approach, and it’s forced on us by the centre. Are Cardiff and Sussex similarly cruel?

    • telescoper Says:

      I’m actually not sure what the progression rules are at Sussex, but at Cardiff you were until recently allowed “compensated passes” if you passed on average but failed the odd module. New regulations coming in forbid this so students who fail modules have to resit to progress. I don’t know what happens with finalists…

  5. At Surrey all modules are 15 credits (except some project modules, which are multiples thereof). We recently moved from 10. I do prefer the 4 courses running at once instead of 6, though teaching two new 15 credit final year modules last semester was somewhat taxing.

  6. I don’t see the point of having two seperate semesters if the exams are all at the end of the year -this is really the pre-semesterised system with none of the benefits. Indeed, our students strongly opposed the idea when it was recently mooted. That said, we may change the December exam for 1st years, simply because many of them are still adjusting to college life at this stage!

  7. We have 10 credit ‘modules’ for the BSC/MPhys, but 15 credits for the MSc. Larger modules give more restricted schedules. If you would like students to have some optional modules, 10 credits fits better.

  8. Since a few days ago I notice that, in some browsers, the comment box is only one line and has no space for the details. Does anyone else see this problem?

  9. telescoper Says:

    It’s interesting that there are more votes in the second poll, suggesting that people feel more strongly about it than the first one, but the voting is much closer…

  10. Four courses in a semester seems to me like a reasonable balance between getting enough topics into the studies and being able to concentrate without constantly switching tasks.

    While having mid-year exams certainly does encourage “closing the lid” on passed courses, I don’t see this as a particularly powerful argument. One might as well argue that end-of-year exams only provides an incentive for not learning the material properly on time (in favour of cramming lots of study into a short period before the exams). From my own undergraduate studies, the bigger cause of the closing-the-lid-and-forgetting-everything problem was the fact that far too few lecturers dared to rely on us knowing the previous material. With the exception of the basic maths, the communication between courses was minimal (there was a progression, of course, but little effort to explicitly refer to earlier courses).

    Personally, I would prefer to have the exams spread out, to allow students a reasonable chance to concentrate on each one. It is then up to us as lecturers to provide appropriate links between courses to give students an incentive to actually remember what they have been taught.

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