Archive for the Education Category

Maynooth Library Cat Update

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags on January 18, 2019 by telescoper

As I went for a quick coffee break this morning, I passed the local feline celebrity known as Maynooth Library Cat. That reminded me that quite a few people have asked me how said moggy is getting on. Well, here’s a picture I took this morning:

Since we’re in the middle of the examination period, the library is very busy with students using the space in there to prepare. I think the cat is doing a sterling job as a stress release mechanism as he is very friendly and quite vocal. He likes to be stroked and petted, but isn’t keen on being picked up. In return for affection he is regularly plied with food, as this morning. I actually carry some Dreamies in my bag in case he fancies a snack when I go past, but he was busy scoffing a whole portion of food when I took the picture above so I didn’t give him anything this morning. All in all, I think he’s got a very cushy number going.

Some kind soul supplied him with a box, which is placed near his favourite lookout position.

It’s pretty cold these days so I’m sure he appreciates having somewhere warm to take his naps, but he also finds other cosy places around the campus.

There’s a rumour going around that Maynooth Library Cat’s real name is Trevor. I’m not sure that is really the case, and it is possible I was told it as a joke. These days the Irish tend (not unreasonably) to assume that English people are gullible fools who will believe anything…

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Self Assessments

Posted in Biographical, Education, Finance, Maynooth with tags , , on January 17, 2019 by telescoper

My first batch of examination marking having been completed satisfactorily and my next paper not taking place until the weekend (Saturday morning, to be precise), I naively hoped that I could devote myself to research for a few days this week as I am behind schedule in completing a couple of papers. Unfortunately this has not been as straightforward as I’d hoped. I’ve spent all of today doing various administrative things (expenses claims, examination reports, and a part of the Department’s Quality Review Self-Assessment document which is due in near the end of the month.

In case you are unfamiliar with such things, a Quality Review is an exercise that takes place from time to time for every Department or Administrative Unit in the University (and indeed for every university in Ireland). For the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University, the last one took place in 2009). The process begins with the aforementioned Self-Assessment document which basically lays out what the Department is trying to do, the processes by which it uses to do it, reflects on the effectiveness of those processes, and outlines ideas for how they can be improved. All the staff in the Department have been engaged in writing bits of this document, which is now gradually coming into shape.I’ve had a relatively light involvement in this because I haven’t been here for very long, but it has consumed quite a lot of staff effort.

When complete, the Self Assessment report is sent to a range of people both inside and outside the University and there is then a visitation during which the panel talks to staff and students and has a look around the Department. We’re expecting our `inspection’ to take place in March. After that the panel gives feedback to the Department in a report. The panel’s comments are made publicly available, as is appropriate for a publicly-funded body. The report emerging from the last Quality Review of the Department of Mathematical Physics (as it was then called ) can be found here (pdf). It’s all quite a lot of work – the latest Departmental meeting devoted to this yesterday lasted three and a half hours, and we’ve had several meetings like that! fortunately, it  will all be finished by next week. Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof.

 

Talking of Self Assessment, I realized last night with a panic that I hadn’t yet done my UK income tax return for 2017/18, also due in by the end of January. I spent this lunchtime getting all the bits of paper in order, and completed the task online fairly quickly as I’ve done it many times before. It turns out that yet again HMRC owes me a substantial refund. They haven’t handled my income tax properly since I left Sussex in 2016 as a matter of fact. Despite repeated attempts to get them to apply the rules correctly they have basically taxed all my income at source at the higher rate (40%) only to pay it back when I submitted my return. Fortunately, I am now domiciled in Ireland so won’t have to deal with HMRC much again.

Anyway, I should complete most of the outstanding administrative stuff this evening and if I do that I can clear a day for research, or at least writing up papers…

 

 

 

Reflections on the Examination Period

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on January 10, 2019 by telescoper

Tomorrow (11th January)  is the start of our mid-year examination period here at Maynooth University. It’s therefore a good opportunity to send a hearty “good luck” message to all students about to take examinations, especially those who are further on in their courses for whom these papers have greater importance. In particular I’d like to send my best wishes to students on my fourth-year module on Astrology Astrophysics and Cosmetics Cosmology, whose paper is at 9.30 tomorrow morning.

I’m a bit too busy for anything particularly profound today, as I’m off to the airport after lunch to get a flight to London for an event at the IOP tomorrow, so I thought I’d just rehash an excerpt from something I posted a while ago on the subject of examinations.

My feelings about examinations agree pretty much with William Wordsworth, who studied at the same University as me, as expressed in this quotation from The Prelude:

Of College labours, of the Lecturer’s room
All studded round, as thick as chairs could stand,
With loyal students, faithful to their books,
Half-and-half idlers, hardy recusants,
And honest dunces–of important days,
Examinations, when the man was weighed
As in a balance! of excessive hopes,
Tremblings withal and commendable fears,
Small jealousies, and triumphs good or bad–
Let others that know more speak as they know.
Such glory was but little sought by me,
And little won.

It seems to me a great a pity that our system of education – both at School and University – places such a great emphasis on examination and assessment to the detriment of real learning. In particular, the biggest problem  with physics education in many institutions is the way modular degrees have been implemented.

I’m not at all opposed to modularization in principle. I just think the way we teach modules often fails to develop any understanding of the interconnection between different aspects of the subject. That’s an educational disaster because what is most exciting and compelling about physics is its essential unity. Splitting it into little boxes, taught on their own with no relationship to the other boxes, provides us with no scope to nurture the kind of lateral thinking that is key to the way physicists attempt to solve problems. The small size of each module makes the syllabus very “bitty” and fragmented. No sooner have you started to explore something at a proper level than the module is over. More advanced modules, following perhaps the following year, have to recap a large fraction of the earlier modules so there isn’t time to go as deep as one would like even over the whole curriculum.

Students in Maynooth take 60 “credits” in a year, split into two semesters. These are usually split into 5-credit modules with an examination at the end of each semester. Projects, and other continuously-assessed work do not involve a written examination, but the system means that a typical  student will have at least 5 written examination papers in January and at least another 5 in May. Each paper is usually of two hours’ duration.

Incidentally, one big difference between our examinations in Theoretical Physics in Maynooth and those at other institutions I’ve taught at in the UK is that the papers offer no choice of questions to be answered. A typical format for a two-hour paper is that there are two long questions (broken up into bits), each of which counts for 50 marks.  Elsewhere one normally finds students have a choice of two or three questions from four. The advantage of our system is that it makes it much harder for students to question-spot in the hope that they can get a good grade by only revising a fraction of the syllabus.

 

But I digress.

One consequence of the way modularization has been implemented throughout the sector is that the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply over the last decades with a negative effect on real understanding. The system encourages students to think of modules as little bite-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorizing chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations. A brain is so much more than a memory device. What we should be doing is giving students the confidence to think for themselves and use their intellect to its full potential rather than encouraging rote learning.

You can contrast this diet of examinations with the regime when I was an undergraduate. My entire degree result was based on six three-hour written examinations taken at the end of my final year, rather than something like 30 examinations taken over 3 years. Moreover, my finals were all in a three-day period: morning and afternoon exams for three consecutive days is an ordeal I wouldn’t wish on anyone, so I’m not saying the old days were better, but I do think we’ve gone far too far to the opposite extreme. The one good thing about the system I went through was that there was no possibility of passing examinations on memory alone. Since they were so close together there was no way of mugging up anything in between them. I only got through  by figuring things out in the exam room.

I don’t want to denigrate the achievements of students who are successful under the current system.  What I’m saying is that I don’t think the education we provide does justice to their talents. That’s our fault, not theirs…

Back to Exams

Posted in Education on January 4, 2019 by telescoper

Well here I am, back in my office at Maynooth University, although I wish I could say the same about the heating. The Christmas closure officially ended yesterday (3rd January) but there are very few people about today and no heating in my office. I doubt there will be anywhere open to get lunch later, either. And did I mention there’s no heating?

We have a short hiatus between now and Friday 11th January in advance of the start of the examination period, during which I plan to try to finish off a few papers that I failed to complete over the holiday. As it happens, my examination on Astrology Astrophysics & Cosmetics Cosmology is one of the first, next Friday morning. No doubt I’ll get more than a few inquiries from students between now and then.

I’ll actually be in London next Friday when the examination takes place, as I’m giving the closing keynote talk at the annual LGBT Steminar which this year takes place at the brand new IOP Building in King’s Cross. I’m looking forward to that, but have no idea what I’m going to talk about.

Anyway, back to the topic of examinations, I noticed a piece in the Irish Times a few days ago concerning the fact that the proportion of First and Upper-Second Class degrees awarded by Irish universities has increased. The same thing has happened in the UK recently too.

Responses to this from most media pundits have generally been to accuse universities of `dumbing down’ their examinations. Responses from university staff, on the other hand, have included complaints that they are being forced by senior management to inflate grades awarded to students. All I can say to the latter is that I’ve never experienced, at any University I’ve ever worked in, even as a Head of School, any pressure whatsoever to increase the grades for any category of student in any course. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen anywwhere. I just don’t know. I just say I’ve no experience of it happening.

I would like to say to those who jump to conclusion that universities are making it easier for students to get high grades by lowering standards is to set aside your prior prejudice and imagine, for the sake of argument, that universities are actually getting better at teaching students. How would that improvement manifest itself in the proportion of students awarded 1st and 2.1 degrees?

The answer to that question is that the proportion of good degrees would increase. One can’t therefore argue on that evidence alone whether examinations are being made easier or teaching is getting better (or indeed that students find examinations easier because they are better taught). In other words, the assumption that it’s all about dumbing down, is based on something other than the grade award data. If you have other evidence, that’s fine. Let’s hear it.

What I have seen is better training for teaching staff, better facilities for studying, and (yes) more motivated students. Given all that, why would you not expect students to get better results?

Are lectures dying out?

Posted in Education on November 29, 2018 by telescoper

Here’s a blog post from an academic (in Engineering) at Dublin City University.

I have thought similar things from time to time. I enjoy lecturing – mainly because I like talking about physics and astrophysics – but I am unsure of how much they add to the students’ education. In fact, when I was a student, I think I learned relatively little from attending lectures (although I still have most of my undergraduate notes). For me the real learning came from working through problems. For that reason I tend to keep the content of my lectures relatively light on detail, but use tutorials and worked examples a lot.

As it happens, I’m about to do this term’s teaching evaluations. I’m giving the two modules I’m teaching this semester for the first time. I’m looking forward to finding out what the students think so I can improve things next year. Even if the response is positive there are always things you can do better.

An Irish Blog about Education

There’s a small lecture theatre beside my office that holds about 40 students. I regularly pass it and peep in to see what’s going on. Originally I did it out of nosiness but these days I’m interested in attendance rates.

Most of the time when I look in there is a handful of students looking bored or knackered, with quite a few looking at their phones. In fairness, the lectures seem a bit dull and often involve a scientist or mathematician writing on the blackboard with his/her back to the students.

I’ve also noticed that it’s much easier this year to find a car parking space. I’m usually in before 8am but even on days when I’m not in until 10am or so, I rarely have trouble finding a place. This was not true just a few years ago.

And now, when I have a 9am lecture, I tell the…

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Physics: Mathematical or Theoretical or Experimental?

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 26, 2018 by telescoper

Fresh from doing two Open Day talks last week I thought I’d write a few words here about something that cropped up in the question-and-answer session.

For a start, I should explain that here at Maynooth University there are two Physics departments, one the Department of Theoretical Physics (of which I am a Faculty member) and the other the Department of Experimental Physics. These two units are in the same building but are largely separate in terms of teaching and research.

For instance, when students enter on our General Science degree programme they have to choose four subjects in the first year, including Mathematics (much as I did when I did my Natural Sciences degree at Cambridge back in the day). Picking `double physics’ (i.e. Experimental Physics and Theoretical Physics) uses up two of those choices, whereas Physics was a single choice in the first year of my degree.

To confuse matters still further, the Department of Theoretical Physics only recently changed its name from the Department of Mathematical Physics and some of our documentation still carries that title. I got asked several times at the weekend what’s the difference between Theoretical Physics and Mathematical Physics?

As far as Maynooth is concerned we basically use those terms interchangeably and, although it might appear a little confusing at first, having both terms scattered around our webpages means that Google searches for both `Mathematical Physics’ and `Theoretical Physics’ will find us.

It’s interesting though that Wikipedia has different pages for Mathematical Physics and Theoretical Physics. The former begins

Mathematical physics refers to the development of mathematical methods for application to problems in physics. The Journal of Mathematical Physics defines the field as “the application of mathematics to problems in physics and the development of mathematical methods suitable for such applications and for the formulation of physical theories”. It is a branch of applied mathematics, but deals with physical problems.

while the latter starts

Theoretical physics is a branch of physics that employs mathematical models and abstractions of physical objects and systems to rationalize, explain and predict natural phenomena. This is in contrast to experimental physics, which uses experimental tools to probe these phenomena.

The difference is subtle,and there is obviously a huge amount in common between these two definitions, but it is perhaps that Theoretical Physics is more focused on the use of mathematics to account for the results of experiment and observations whereas Mathematical Physics concerns itself more with the development of the necessary mathematical techniques, but I’m sure there will be readers of this blog who disagree with this interpretation.

For the record here is what Wikipedia says about Experimental Physics:

Experimental physics is the category of disciplines and sub-disciplines in the field of physics that are concerned with the observation of physical phenomena and experiments. Methods vary from discipline to discipline, from simple experiments and observations, such as the Cavendish experiment, to more complicated ones, such as the Large Hadron Collider.

I’d say that theoretical physicists are more likely than mathematical physicists to be working closely with experimentalists. I count myself as a theoretical physicist (that’s what I did in Part II at Cambridge, anyway) though I do work a lot with data.

Anyway, as an experiment, I asked the audience at my Open Day talks if they could name a famous physicist. Most popular among the responses were the names you would have guessed: Einstein, Hawking, Feynman, Dirac, Newton, Schrodinger, and some less familiar names such as Leonard Susskind and Brian Greene. Every single one of these is (or was) a theorist of some kind. This is confirmed by the fact that many potential students mention similar names in the personal statements they write in support of their university applications. For better or worse, it seems that to many potential students Physics largely means Theoretical (or Mathematical) Physics.

Although it is probably good for our recruitment that there are so many high-profile theoretical physicists, it probably says more about how little the general public knows about what physics actually is and how it really works. For me the important thing is the interplay between theory and experiment (or observation), as it is in that aspect where the whole exceeds the sum of the parts.

It might seem a bit strange to have two Physics departments in one University – though it seems to work alright in Cambridge! – but I think it works pretty well. The one problem is that there isn’t a clear entry point for `Physics’ without an adjective. Students can carry Theoretical Physics and Experimental Physics through all the way to final year and get a joint honours degree (50% theory and 50% experiment) or they can pick one to do single honours, but we might attract a few more students if the former possibility were just called `Physics’. Perhaps.

On the Second (Open) Day..

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , on November 24, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve been back on campus all morning today (Saturday 24th November) at Maynooth University for the second Open Day. I’m just taking a short break to have a sandwich and a cup of tea before rejoining the fray and giving the Subject Talk at 2.10pm on behalf of the Department of Theoretical Physics.

Yesterday’s Open Day was a very busy day. I’m given to understand that there was a record crowd  of over 3000 visitors. We were certainly not short of people to talk to at our stand in Iontas.

I think being a number of school trips contributed to the high attendance. Today has been more individual prospective students and parents. Also it’s been a bit rainy this morning so numbers might be down a bit compared to yesterday, but we’ve been busy again on the stall.

Anyway the main reason for writing this post is to thank all our student helpers including Rebekah, Eibhlin, Philip, Cai, Tigernach and Ryan for contributing over the two days and staff members Paul and Jiri for doing their stint. Their only material reward for helping has been a lunch voucher for one of the campus refectories.

UPDATE: The talk was very well attended and ended with lots and lots of questions, so I think I’ll call it a success. Now home to put my feet up and have a nice cup of tea!