Archive for the Education Category

Exam Time

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 12, 2020 by telescoper

Back in Maynooth into the January examination period, I await the arrival tomorrow of the first batch of examination scripts I have to mark, so I thought I’d do a quick post on the topic of examinations.

First, for readers elsewhere, full-time undergraduate students at Maynooth what is called 60 “credits” in a year, usually split into two semesters of thirty credits each. This is usually split into 5-credit modules with an examination in each module 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 examination is usually of two hours’ duration.

This is very similar to the system in most UK universities that I am aware of except that a full year’s work over there is 120 credits so there’s a conversion factor of 2:1. A 5-credit module in Ireland would be a 10-credit module in the United Kingdom, for example, but otherwise the system is similar.

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 here – at least at a reasonably advanced level, say Years 3 and 4 – offer no choice of questions to be answered.  A typical format for a two-hour paper is that there are two long questions, each of which counts for 50 marks. Elsewhere  one normally finds students have a choice of two or three questions from four or five on the paper.

One  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. If they’re well designed, two long questions can cover quite a lot of the syllabus for a module, which they have to in order to test all the learning outcomes. To accomplish this, questions can be split into parts that may be linked to each other to a greater or lesser extent to explore the connections between different ideas, but also sufficiently separate that a student who can’t do one part can still have a go at others. With such a paper, however, it is a  dangerous strategy for a student to focus only on selected parts of the material in order to pass.

As an examiner, the Maynooth style of examination also has the advantage that you don’t have to worry too much if one question turns out to be harder than the others. That can matter if different students attempt different questions, but not if everyone has to do everything.

But it’s not just the number of questions that’s important, it’s the duration. I’ve never felt that it was even remotely sensible for undergraduate physics examinations to be a speed test, which was often the case when I was a student. Why the need for time pressure? It’s better to be correct than to be fast, I think. I always try to set examination questions that could be done inside two hours by a student who knew the material, including plenty of time for checking so that even a student who made a mistake would have time to correct it and get the right answer. If a student does poorly in this style of examination it will be because they haven’t prepared well enough rather than because they weren’t fast enough.

The structure of the Maynooth examinations at more introductory level is rather different, with some choice. In my first year module on Mechanics & Special Relativity, for example, there is a compulsory first question worth 50 marks (split into several pieces) and then the students can pick two out of three shorter questions worth 25 marks each. This is a somewhat gentler approach than with the more advanced papers, partly adopted because we have quite a few students doing the General Science degree who taking Mathematical Physics as one of their 4 first-year subjects but will not be taking it further.

As their examination is not until Wednesday, I’ll have to wait until later this week to find out how my first-years have done. This will be the examination taken at University level for most of my class, so let me take this opportunity to pass on a few quick tips.

  1. Try to get a good night’s sleep before the examination and arrive in plenty of time before the start.
  2. Read the entire paper before starting to answer any questions. In particular, make sure you are aware of any supplementary information, formulae, etc, given in the rubric or at the end.
  3. Start off by tackling the question you are most confident about answering, even if it’s not Question 1. This will help settle any nerves.
  4. Don’t rush! Students often lose marks by making careless errors. Check all your numerical results on your calculator at least twice and – PLEASE – remember to put the units!
  5. Don’t panic! You’re not expected to answer everything perfectly. A first-class mark is anything over 70%, so don’t worry if there are bits you can’t do. If you get stuck on a part of a question, don’t waste too much time on it (especially if it’s just a few marks). Just leave it and move on. You can always come back to it later.

Readers of this blog are welcome to add other tips through the comments box below!

Oh, and good luck to anyone at Maynooth or elsewhere taking examinations in the next few weeks!

 

Exams and Anniversaries

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 9, 2020 by telescoper

Tomorrow (10th 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 tomorrow.

On the equivalent day last year I reflected on examinations and in particularly on the fact that the system of education both here in Ireland and in the United Kingdom places such a great emphasis on examination and assessment compared to learning and understanding.

Also on the equivalent day yesterday I was about to travel to London to attend my first LGBT+STEMinar at the Institute of Physics in London. Tomorrow I’ll be doing a similar thing, getting up at stupid o’clock
to travel to Birmingham for the 2020 event. The main difference this year (apart from the change of venue) is that I’m not giving a talk this time. This is good news for me (because it means I can relax a bit more) and for the attendees (because they don’t have to listen to me rambling on like they did last year).

I won’t be able to stay to the end of the LGBT+STEMinar, however, as I have to get to London. As I have mentioned previously here, 2020 marks the bicentenary of the Royal Astronomical Society:

According to the brief history published on the RAS website:

The ‘Astronomical Society of London’ was conceived on 12 January 1820 when 14 gentlemen sat down to dinner at the Freemason’s Tavern, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. After an unusually short gestation the new Society was born on 10 March 1820 with the first meeting of the Council and the Society as a whole. An early setback, when Sir Joseph Banks induced the Duke of Somerset to withdraw his agreement to be the first President, was overcome when Sir William Herschel agreed to be the titular first President, though he never actually took the Chair at a meeting.

To be precise, the Society only became the `Royal Astronomical Society’ in 1831 when it was granted a Royal Charter by William IV, but its roots go back to 1820.

It’s not only the Royal Astronomical Society that has survived and prospered for two hundred years. The group of `gentlemen’ who met for dinner in January 1820 has also carried on in the form of the RAS Club which is, of course, older than the RAS itself. The Dining Club always meet on the second Friday of the month, which means that tomorrow is the closest date to that very first meeting. There will therefore be a special club dinner tomorrow night, with more guests than usual. I’m looking forward to it a lot, actually, although I’m slightly apprehensive about the fact that I’ll be relying on the train to get me there in time!

The Strategic Academic Leadership Initiative Begins

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on January 3, 2020 by telescoper

I was caught on the hop this morning by the formal announcement that twenty new professorships for women have been created in Ireland. I hadn’t expected this announcement to come so quickly since the idea was only floated in November 2018. There is a piece in the Irish Times about today’s announcement here.

I blogged about this scheme here when it was announced, a little over a year ago. The appointments are to be in areas where there is “clear evidence” of significant under-representation of women, such as physics, computer science and engineering.

I’m delighted that two of these new positions will be at Maynooth University, one in Computer Science and one in Physical Geography (in the area of Climate Science). These areas were selected as being of particularly high strategic priority.

The 20 new Chairs represent the first tranche of positions out of 45 planned under the Strategic Academic Leadership Initiative. I understand there will be two further rounds. I do hope that we might get a position in physics at Maynooth in a subsequent round. I note however that there will be a Professorship in Theoretical Physics at Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. I’ll be sure to pass on the advertisement here when it appears.

Reactions to this scheme among people I know have been very varied, so it seems a good topic on which to have a simplistically binary poll:

For the record, I should state that although I had reservations when about this scheme when it was first announced, largely due to lack of detail about how it was to be implemented, I am now very enthusiastic about it and hope it is successful in its aims.

I will however also repeat that this initiative should not distract attention away from the need for Irish higher education institutions to have much better promotion procedures; see, e.g. here. There are plenty of female academics at lecturer level in Irish universities, but they seem to face serious difficulties getting promoted to Professorships.

End of Teaching for 2019

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on December 18, 2019 by telescoper

So it’s 6pm on Wednesday 18th December and I’ve just given my 24th and last Astrophysics & Cosmology lecture for the term at Maynooth University. Earlier this afternoon I gave my 36th and last first-year Mechanics & Special Relativity module so that’s over for the year too. That makes 60 lectures for the semester.

I find these twelve week semesters very tiring (even with a week-long break in the middle). I assume the students do too. Numbers in class certainly dropped off this week, but overall I’ve been very happy with the level of engagement of the students, especially the first years. Although it’s a lot of work putting on a big course for the first time, I do enjoy teaching very much indeed. I have found few things in life more rewarding than teaching students who want to learn and physics students here in Maynooth do seem to be highly motivated. The exams for both modules are in January so I’ll find out in the New Year if anyone actually learnt anything!

This morning somebody suggested that would be my last teaching for the decade. Of course that is incorrect. The current decade ends on 31st December 2020, not 31st December 2019, just as the millennium started on 1st January 2001 not 1st January 2000. I’m glad a fellow blogger has taken the trouble to point the reason: there is no Year Zero.

Earlier today we had presentations from our final-year project students, which were very good. As usual on such occasions I find myself thinking how much better current generations of students are at that than mine was!

I don’t mind admitting that I’m not inconsiderably knackered at this moment and will be heading home for a bite to eat and a glass or several of wine. Tomorrow I have a few things to do before heading off for the Christmas break, after which regular blogging will be suspended for a time.

 

Wine for signing

Posted in Biographical, Education on December 10, 2019 by telescoper

I forgot to mention a nice thing that happened to me yesterday. A young man arrived at my office with a copy of my little book Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction, which he had bought as a present for his kid brother. It turns out his sibling had attended a lecture of mine a while ago and must I suppose have enjoyed the talk.

Obviously I was more than happy to sign the book and write a small dedication to the intended recipient. When I did so my visitor produced the bottle of wine pictured above as a thank-you gift. It was a very nice gesture. I look forward to trying the wine on a suitable occasion!

I did tell him that there’s a new edition coming out next year, and the one he’d bought was very out of date, but he didn’t seem to mind…

Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University Open Days!

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , on November 30, 2019 by telescoper

Today, Saturday 30th November 2019, is another Open Day at Maynooth University.

I used to give Open Day talks quite frequently in a previous existence as Head of School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex and now I’m at it again, giving talks on behalf of the Department of Theoretical Physics.

If you’re coming along today, please say hello either at the lecture (2.10pm)) or at the stall in the Iontas Building from 10.30 each day where you can chat about the course or anything else vaguely related to Theoretical Physics. There are other stalls, of course, but the Theoretical Physics one is obviously way more interesting than the others!

I might have time to take a few snaps during the day. If I do I’ll post them here. In the meantime here is a summary of my talk:

UPDATE: I didn’t get time to take any pictures because we were busy all morning. The subject talk in the afternoon was absolutely packed out – way more people than I’ve seen at any other open days here at Maynooth – and loads of questions at the end. Very enjoyable but rather exhausting. I think I might head home for a nap!

Solidarity with the UCU Strikers!

Posted in Education with tags , , on November 25, 2019 by telescoper

The anticipated strikes of staff from UK universities have begun: they will last from today (November 25th 2019) until December 4th. The cause of the dispute is twofold: (1) the long-running saga of the Universities pension scheme (about which there were strikes in 2018); and (2) over pay, equality, workloads and the ever-increasing casualisation of lecturing and other work.

Among the institutions to have voted for strike action are my previous employers in the UK Cardiff, Sussex and Nottingham. It remains to be seen what the impact of these strikes will be, but they could affect a very large number of students. Nobody likes going on strike but the UK higher education system is a very poor state right now, and many of my former colleagues feel that they have no alternative. It will be tough out there on the picket lines in the cold weather, and losing eight days’ pay before Christmas is no fun either, but that’s what it means to go on strike.

I’m no longer involved in the UK university system so can’t do much directly to support those taking industrial action but my own union, the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) has expressed solidarity with UCU members so I thought the least I could do is wear my IFUT badge for the duration of the strike. It’s not as if Ireland is immune from casualisation and workload issues.