Archive for the Education Category

Lectures and Lava Lamps

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 7, 2018 by telescoper

Teaching at Maynooth University has resumed after the Study Break, and yesterday I gave my first lecture on Astrophysics & Cosmology after a gap of a week. I still haven’t got onto the Cosmology bit yet, but am most of the way through a set of half-a-dozen lectures or so on stellar structure and evolution.

In past incarnations I’ve deployed a lava lamp as a prop to illustrate convection, one of the ways that heat can be transported from the core of a star (where it is generated by nuclear fusion) to its surface (whence it is radiated). The simple demonstration of how a temperature gradient can lead to convective motion always proved popular with students. In fact, more-or-less the only complimentary comments I ever got about my lectures on this topic were about how nice the lava lamp was.

Anyway, no longer having access to the official Cardiff University School of Physics & Astronomy Lava Lamp, I thought I’d just show a video chosen from the many available on youtube. They seem quite popular, perhaps because they are rather restful:

Unfortunately, however, the fates had it in for me yesterday. The Powers That Be decided to update the version of Windows on all the PCs in all the teaching rooms on campus during the study break. When I tried to show the video the computer crashed and would not restart. I had to run back to the office to get my laptop, which I eventually got to work, but I had lost so much time that I skipped the video. Hopefully I’ll get to show it properly at some point in the future.

 

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Union Matters

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , on October 14, 2018 by telescoper

The above collection of goodies arrived last week in a Welcome Pack from the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), my new trade union. I sent in an application to join some time ago, and was getting a bit worried that it might have been lost, but then confirmation arrived in the form of my membership card along with a pen, a badge, a lanyard, an application form for a Credit Union and various other bits and bobs. It’s only by standing together that academics in Irish universities have any hope of exerting enough pressure on the Government to get it to reverse the persistent underfunding of Higher Education in this country. Even then it won’t be easy – last week’s budget had nothing whatsoever in it for universities or students.

Incidentally, according to the online budget calculator, I’ll be a princely €28 per month better off next year as a result of small changes in taxation, but it seems to me that the priority should have been to help the less well off and it failed to do that. No doubt, however, the cautious approach to public finances shown by the Government is largely down to the uncertain effects of Brexit.

While I am on about unions, some of the readers of this blog will recall that I was participating in industrial action by UCU (the Universities and Colleges Union) in the UK earlier this year in relation to proposed cuts to pensions in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). I have since left that scheme, deferring my benefits from it until I retire, but I couldn’t resist passing on a link to an article I read yesterday, which argues that USS’s valuation (which resulted in a deficit) rests on a large and demonstrable mistake and, when this is corrected there is no deficit as at 31 March 2018 and no need for detrimental changes to benefits or contributions.

Could it be that all that pain was caused by an accounting error? If so, then heads should roll!

From Phase Walks to Undergraduate Research

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on September 28, 2018 by telescoper

This week I put together a couple of brief descriptions for possible research projects for final-year undergraduate and/or Masters students in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University, and I was reminded of the value of projects like this when I found this paper on the arXiv:

In fact the `Phase Walk Analysis’ developed here is based on an original idea I had for an undergraduate summer research project when I was at Nottingham University and have mentioned before on this blog. The student who did the project with me was Andrew Stannard (who is now at King’s College, London) and the work led to a paper that was published in a refereed journal in 2005 and has now been cited 21 times by various authors including the Planck Team.

Although Andrew is now working in a completely different area (Condensed Matter Physics), I like to think this taste of research was of at least some assistance in developing his career. Above all, though, it relates to something I read in the Times Higher by astronomer, Nobel Prize winner, and Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, namely that the idea that many politicians seem to have of separating teaching from research in universities is at best misguided and at worst threatens the very idea of a university.

The One True Ranking Narrative

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on September 27, 2018 by telescoper

Yesterday saw the release of the 2019 Times Higher World University Rankings. The main table of rankings can be found here and the methodology used to concoct it here.

It seems that there’s little point in doing so, but I’ll try to reiterate the objections I made last year and the year before that and the year before that to the completely unscientific nature of these tables. My main point is that when changes to the methodology used to compile these tables are introduced no attempt is ever made to distinguish their effect from changes in the input data. This would be quite easy to do, by simply running the old methodology alongside the new on the metrics. The compilers of these tables steadfastly refuse to do this straightforward exercise, I suspect this is because they know what the result would be: that many of the changes in these tables year-on-year are the result of artificially introduced `churn’.

And then there’s the questions of whether you think the metrics used are meaningful anyway, and whether any changes not due to methodological tweaks are simply statistical noise, but I have neither the time nor the energy to go into that one now…

Notwithstanding the reasonable objections to these tables, the newspapers are full of stories constructed to explain why some universities went up, some went down and others stayed roughly the same. Most of these articles were obviously written by that well-known journalist, Phil Space.

However, not all these narratives are meaningless. The latest Times Higher World University Rankings have revealed that here in Ireland, while more famous higher education establishments such as Trinity College Dublin have fallen three places due to , my own institution (Maynooth University) is one of only two to have risen in the tables. It simply cannot be a coincidence that I moved here this year. Clearly my arrival from Cardiff has had an immediate and positive impact. There is no other credible explanation.

The Importance of Taking Notes

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , on September 24, 2018 by telescoper

Well, term has officially started and the campus of Maynooth University is looking very busy. Taking a short break from the task of preparing notes and problem sets for the modules  I’m teaching this term.  I’ve just remembered an old post I did some time ago about  lecture notes. I won’t repeat the entire content of my earlier discussion, but one of the main points I made in that was that many students are simply not used to taking notes and find it difficult to do so effectively during lectures, so much so that the effort of copying things onto paper must surely prevent them absorbing the intellectual content of the lecture (assuming that there is any). Since it’s the first week of teaching here, I thought I’d share some thoughts, for the benefit of those starting a new term.

I dealt with the problem  of taking notes when I was an undergraduate by learning to write very quickly without looking at the paper as I did so. That way I didn’t waste time moving my head to and fro between paper and screen or blackboard. Of course, the notes I produced using this method weren’t exactly aesthetically pleasing, but my handwriting is awful at the best of times so that didn’t make much difference to me. I always wrote my notes up more neatly after the lecture anyway. But the great advantage was that I could write down everything in real time without this interfering with my ability to listen to what the lecturer was saying.

An alternative to this approach is to learn shorthand, or invent your own form of abbreviated language. This approach is, however, unlikely to help you take down mathematical equations quickly.

My experience nowadays is that many students simply aren’t used to taking notes like this – I suppose because they get given so many powerpoint presentations or other kinds of handout –  so they struggle to cope with the old-fashioned chalk-and-talk style of teaching that some lecturers still prefer (and which actually works very well in mathematically-based disciplines). That’s probably because they get much less practice at school than my generation did. Most of my school education was done via the blackboard..

Nowadays,  many lecturers  give copies of their powerpoint slides to students and others even give out complete sets of printed notes before, during, or after lectures. That’s all very well, I think, but what are the students supposed to be doing during the lecture if you do that? Listen, of course, but if there is to be a long-term benefit they should take notes too. In other words, entirely passive learning is unlikely to be effective.

Even if I hand out copies of slides or other notes, I always encourage my students to make their own independent set of notes, as completely as possible. I don’t mean by copying down what they see on the screen and what they may have on paper already, but by trying to write down what I say as I say it. I don’t think many take that advice, which means much of the spoken illustrations and explanations I give don’t find their way into any long term record of the lecture.

And if the lecturer just reads out the printed notes, adding nothing by way of illustration or explanation, then the audience is bound to get bored very quickly.

My argument, then, is that regardless of what technology the lecturer uses, whether he/she gives out printed notes or not, then if the students can’t take notes accurately and efficiently then lecturing is a complete waste of time. In fact for the modules I’m doing this term I don’t intend to hand out lecture notes at all during the lectures, although I do post lecture summaries and answers to the exercises online after they’ve been done.

As a further study aid, most lectures at my previous institutions (Sussex University and Cardiff University) are recorded and made available to students to view shortly after the event. Contrary to popular myth there’s no evidence that availability of recorded lectures lowers the attendance at lectures. It appears that students use the recordings for revision and/or to clarify points raised in the notes they have taken, and if anything the recordings allow the students to get greater value from lectures rather than persuading them that there’s no need to attend them. Unfortunately we don’t have lecture capture at Maynooth, but I hope it can be introduced  here at some point.

I do like lecturing, because I like talking about physics and astronomy, but as I’ve got older I’ve become less convinced that lectures play a useful role in actually teaching anything. I think we should use lectures more sparingly, relying more on problem-based learning to instil proper understanding. When we do give lectures, they should focus much more on stimulating interest by being entertaining and thought-provoking. They should not be for the routine transmission of information, which is far too often the default.

I’m not saying we should scrap lectures altogether. At the very least they have the advantage of giving the students a shared experience, which is good for networking and building a group identity. Some students probably get a lot out of lectures anyway, perhaps more than I did when I was their age. But different people benefit from different styles of teaching, so we need to move away from lecturing as the only  option and ensure that a range of teaching methods is available.

I don’t think I ever learned very much about physics from lectures – I found problem-based learning far more effective – but I’m nevertheless glad I learned out how to take notes the way I did because I find it useful in all kinds of situations. Effective note-taking is definitely a transferable skill, but it’s also in danger of becoming a dying art. If we’re going to carry on using lectures, we old fogeys need to stop assuming that students learnt it the way we did and start teaching it as a skill.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the way we* teach physics these days, however,  is not really about the mode of delivery but the compartmentalization that has crept in via the school system which encourages students to think of each `module’ as a bite-sized piece that can be retained until the examinations, regurgitated, and then forgotten. I’ve no doubt that a great many students pass the examinations we set by simply memorizing notes with little genuine understanding  needed or problem-solving ability demonstrated. We promote physics as a subject that nurtures these skills, but I don’t think many physics graduates – even those with good degrees – actually possess them at the end. We should be making much more of an effort in teaching students how to use their brains in other ways than as memory devices, and getting them engaged in more active teaching activities seems to me to be a very high priority. That said, I think we probably do much more of this in physics than in most other subjects!

*by `we’ I mean physicists generally, rather than my current Department (where we do actually make a lot of effort to develop these skills through small group sessions that complement other teaching activities.

Ninth Level Ireland

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , on September 7, 2018 by telescoper

Today I’ve been trying to finish off a couple of things before making a short trip back to Cardiff to sort out of a few personal matters. Next week the new intake of students starts to arrive in Maynooth. Officially Welcome Week begins on 17th September but in the second half of next week there are `Orientation Talks’ aimed at guiding new students through all the options they have in the first year. The flexibility of the degree programmes here really makes these talks essential.

Yesterday I blogged about some of the differences between the Higher Education systems in Ireland and the United Kingdom. Another couple came up today. The first is that `Orientation’ over here is what UK universities usually call `Induction’. One thing is common to both systems, though. When I made my annual `joke’ about `induction’ involving passing the students through a magnetic field in order to establish their potential, it fell just as flat here as it always has done on the UK.

Another difference is that over here we don’t have graduation ceremonies; they are called conferring ceremonies. On University Challenge there is no conferring. Moreover, the ceremonies are not in July (as graduation ceremonies usually are in the UK). In fact there are three sets of ceremonies, in mid-September, late October/November, and March. The first set is next week actually. That means I won’t be able to bore my readership with explanations of the Latin grammatical origins of the words graduand and graduate as I have done in the past.

Finally, I just wanted to mention that there is a site called Ninth Level Ireland which aggregates news items, blogs and other online items about Higher Education in Ireland. That site started reblogging my posts long before I moved to Ireland, actually. I know quite a few Irish academics follow Ninth Level Ireland , and if you’re interested in matters academical then it’s well worth looking at. As you can see, it even uses the same WordPress theme as this blog.

I don’t know whether it is automated (like a `bot’) or whether items are selected by hand, but if it’s the former I suspect this post might well end up the site!

Notes from Maynooth

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Education, Maynooth with tags , on September 6, 2018 by telescoper

A few people have asked me to comment a little bit on difference between Higher Education Institutes in the United Kingdom and here in Ireland from the point of view of teaching and learning. I can’t do that systematically of course because I’ve only ever been at one University in Ireland, Maynooth, and that for only a year. I have however held positions that involved teaching in several UK universities (Queen Mary, Nottingham, Cardiff and Sussex) so perhaps some comments based on my own experiences might be useful. And of course I’m just talking about Theoretical Physics here, so I won’t discuss labs. It’s a very big selling point for our Theoretical Physics courses here that students don’t have to do labs (apart from Computational Physics labs, of course).

To start with something rather trivial, the `load’ for a student in most UK universities is usually 120 credits while here in Ireland it is 60. The actual workload expected of a student is the same so this just means there’s an exchange rate of 2:1 between the UK and Ireland. In the UK the load is usually split into two equal semesters with examinations in January and May after each. In the UK the 60 credits of each semester is usually split into modules. In my experience in physics these can be either 10 or 20 credits (e.g. Cardiff) or 15 credits (e.g. Sussex). The standard size here in Maynooth is 5 credits (equivalent to 10 in the UK), so most comparisons will be with a standard 10-credit module based on the Cardiff model (which I think is more common than the Sussex model).

What goes into these standard modules differs slightly. Here in Maynooth there are twelve teaching weeks per semester plus a `Study Week’ half way through, so each is 13 weeks long. For a 5-credit module there are usually two lectures per week (so 24 in total, as there are no lectures in Study Week). On top of this there are weekly tutorials (usually done by PhD students). In Cardiff there are also 2 lectures a week for the directly comparable 10 credit module, though not all modules have tutorials associated with them. There is no mid-term Study Week in Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff and teaching term is only 11 weeks, so students typically have 22 lectures in a `standard’ module.

Continually-assessed coursework at Maynooth typically counts for 20% of a module mark (as it does in Cardiff), with 80% on an examination. In both Cardiff and Maynooth a `standard’ module has a two-hour examination at the end, but there’s a big difference in style: most of the papers in Maynooth require students to answer all the questions for full marks, whereas in Cardiff it’s two out of three or three out of four (usually). The Maynooth style makes it much harder for students to question-spot.

In summary, then, the amount of contact time for a student in Maynooth is greater than in Cardiff. The student-staff ratio in the Department of Theoretical Physics in Maynooth is about 15, which is a little higher than most UK physics departments (see Table here). There are only 7 full-time academic staff with full curriculum to deliver, means that teaching loads here are quite heavy compared to the UK.
Four modules per year is typical.

That might seem a lot to some people, but I actually enjoy teaching so don’t mind at all. In fact, with the mountain of administrative stuff I had to do at Sussex, it was only the fact that I taught a full module (on Theoretical Physics) that kept me (partially) sane. This year I shall be teaching, in the Autumn Semester, a 4th-year module on Astrophysics & Cosmology and a 2nd-year module on Vector Calculus and Fourier Series and, in the Spring Semest, 3rd-year Computational Physics 1 (again) and Engineering Mathematics (for First-year engineers). I’m not sure what to expect of that last one, but I’m not going to think about it until the New Year.

Most of our students do a four-year Bachelors programme in Science (as discussed briefly here) with a very general first year. Some, however, come directly into a programme called Theoretical Physics & Mathematics (TP&M, for short) which is three-year fast-track degree. It’s harder to get into TP&M than the `Omnibus’ Science course, but it does attract some very capable students.

I should mention that the really big difference between Ireland and the UK is that the system of teaching and learning here is much less centralized and much less rigid that UK universities. The small size of the Department means that it is possible to know all the students by name and students with difficulties can always find someone to talk to. That is increasingly not the case in UK universities, which are rapidly turning into teaching factories and are subject to the pressure to do well in league tables (often with a negative impact on teaching quality).

Subject to some conditions, first-time full-time undergraduate students in `Third-level’ education in Ireland do not pay tuition fees as such, and neither do students from other EU or EEA countries. There is however an annual ‘student contribution’ of €3000 which all students pay (unless they have a grant that covers it). As far as I can see, that is effectively a fee, though it is supposed to cover student services (e.g. libraries) and examinations rather than tuition. Students taking repeat examinations generally have to pay extra for them. If you consider the `student contribution’ to be a fee (which is effectively what it is) then the Irish funding system is similar to the pre-2012 UK system, i.e. before the introduction of the current £9K fee.

Finally, one of the most striking differences between Ireland and the UK is that here a much higher proportion of students live at home with their parents while studying and commute into campus daily (some of them from quite a distance). That is quite unusual in the UK, but is fairly typical in other EU countries (e.g. Italy). The cost of accommodation is undoubtedly a factor, but I think it’s also a more general cultural thing. I’ve also noticed something here that I’ve never seen in the UK, which is that some student accommodation is let on a Monday-Friday basis, the tenant being expected to go back to the parental home at the weekends. On Fridays in term-time, you can see quite a lot of students with their bags waiting for coaches or trains to take them away for the weekend…

In a future post I might comment on non-academic differences between Ireland and the UK (e.g. tax, public services, cost of living, etc) but I think that will do for now.