Archive for the Education Category

The Rising Stars of Sussex Physics

Posted in Bad Statistics, Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on July 28, 2016 by telescoper

This is my penultimate day in the office in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, and a bit of news has arrived that seems a nice way to round off my stint as Head of School.

It seems that Physics & Astronomy research at the University of Sussex has been ranked as 13th in western Europe and 7th in the UK by leading academic publishers, Nature Research, and has been profiled as one of its top-25 “rising stars” worldwide.

I was tempted to describe this rise as ‘meteoric’ but in my experience meteors generally fall down rather than rise up.

Anyway, as regular readers of this blog will know, I’m generally very sceptical of the value of league tables and there’s no reason to treat this one as qualitatively any different. Here is an explanation of the (rather curious) methodology from the University of Sussex news item:

The Nature Index 2016 Rising Stars supplement identifies the countries and institutions showing the most significant growth in high-quality research publications, using the Nature Index, which tracks the research of more than 8,000 global institutions – described as “players to watch”.

The top 100 most improved institutions in the index between 2012 and 2015 are ranked by the increase in their contribution to 68 high-quality journals. From this top 100, the supplement profiles 25 rising stars – one of which is Sussex – that are already making their mark, and have the potential to shine in coming decades.

The institutions and countries examined have increased their contribution to a selection of top natural science journals — a metric known as weighted fractional count (WFC) — from 2012 to 2015.

Mainly thanks to a quadrupling of its physical sciences score, Sussex reached 351 in the Global 500 in 2015. That represents an 83.9% rise in its contribution to index papers since 2012 — the biggest jump of any UK research organisation in the top 100 most improved institutions.

It’s certainly a strange choice of metric, as it only involves publications in “high quality” journals, presumably selected by Journal Impact Factor or some other arbitrary statistical abominatio,  then taking the difference in this measure between 2012 and 2015  and expressing the change as a percentage. I noticed one institution in the list has improved by over 4600%, which makes Sussex’s change of 83.9% seem rather insignificant…

But at least this table provides some sort of evidence that the investment made in Physics & Astronomy over the last few years has made a significant (and positive) difference. The number of research faculty in Physics & Astronomy has increased by more than 60%  since 2012 so one would have been surprised not to have seen an increase in publication output over the same period. On the other hand, it seems likely that many of the high-impact papers published since 2012 were written by researchers who arrived well before then because Physics research is often a slow burner. The full impact of the most recent investments has probably not yet been felt. I’m therefore confident that Physics at Sussex has a very exciting future in store as its rising stars look set to rise still further! It’s nice to be going out on a high note!



Private Eye on Physics Graduation

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on July 19, 2016 by telescoper

Given the occasion I thought I’d just post this rather excellent cartoon I saw last year  Private Eye

Physics Graduation

To Cambridge Again

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , on June 13, 2016 by telescoper

The annual cycle of academic life brings me once again to my duties as External Examiner for Physics at the famous Midlands University called Cambridge, so I’m getting ready to take the train there. Here’s a picture of the Cavendish laboratory where I’ll be working for the next three days:


It hasn’t changed much since I was an undergraduate there (I graduated 31 years ago), but the area around it has certainly been heavily developed in the intervening years.

Anyway, I’d better be going. Toodle-pip!

Examination Time Yet Again

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on May 12, 2016 by telescoper

Once again the return of glorious weather heralds the return of the  examination season at the University of Sussex, so here’s a lazy rehash of my previous offerings on the subject that I’ve posted around this time each year since I started blogging.

My feelings about examinations agree pretty much with those of  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. On previous occasions, before I moved to the University of Sussex, I’ve bemoaned the role that modularisation has played in this process, especially in my own discipline of physics.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to modularisation in principle. I just think the way modules are used in many British universities 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 many 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.

In most UK universities (including Sussex), tudents take 120 “credits” in a year, split into two semesters. In many institutions, these are split into 10-credit modules with an examination at the end of each semester; there are two semesters per year. Laboratories, projects, and other continuously-assessed work do not involve a written examination, so the system means that a typical  student will have 5 written examination papers in January and another 5 in May. Each paper is usually of two hours’ duration.

Such an arrangement means a heavy ratio of assessment to education, one that has risen sharply over the last decades,  with the undeniable result that academic standards in physics have fallen across the sector. The system encourages students to think of modules as little bit-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 memorising 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 think the system we have here at the University of Sussex is much better than I’ve experienced elsewhere. For a start the basic module size is 15 credits. This means that students are usually only doing four things in parallel, and they consequently have fewer examinations, especially since they also take laboratory classes and other modules which don’t have a set examination at the end. There’s also a sizeable continuously assessed component (30%) for most modules so it doesn’t all rest on one paper. Although in my view there’s still too much emphasis on assessment and too little on the joy of finding things out, it’s much less pronounced than elsewhere. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the Department of Physics & Astronomy does so consistently well in the National Student Survey?

We also have modules called Skills in Physics which focus on developing the problem-solving skills I mentioned above; these are taught through a mixture of lectures and small-group tutorials. I don’t know what the students think of these sessions, but I always enjoy them because the problems set for each session are generally a bit wacky, some of them being very testing. In fact I’d say that I’m very impressed at the technical level of the modules in the Department of Physics & Astronomy generally. I’ve been teaching Green’s Functions, Conformal Transformations and the Calculus of Variations to second-year students this semester. Those topics weren’t on the syllabus at all in my previous institution!

Anyway, my Theoretical Physics paper is next week (on 19th May) so I’ll find out if the students managed to learn anything despite having such a lousy lecturer. Which reminds me, I must remember to post some worked examples online to help them with their revision.

Balls, Sunshine and Teaching

Posted in Biographical, Education on May 7, 2016 by telescoper

Apparently today is World Naked Gardening Day but, although it reminded me for some reason that “Orchid” is derived from the Greek word for testicle, that’s not the reason for the title of this post.

Teaching at Sussex University officially finished yesterday, and by sheer coincidence, last night saw the annual Physics Ball which, was as usual, a very enjoyable occasion.

On my way to the Holiday Inn for the do I saw this group of 4th year students being photographed on the seafront.


They’re going to be graduating this summer so for many of them – apart from those staying on to do PhDs etc – this will be their last Physics Ball, which  no doubt explains why they seemed so determined to have a good time despite the fact that exams start next week.

It’s amazing how the weather always turns fine for examination season. Yesterday it was beautiful. Brighton beach was busy during the day and the seafront still crowded even as I walked home at around 1am.

Anyway, at the Ball, I was seated with a group of mainly 2nd year students, some of whom are taking my Theoretical Physics module. They not only said very nice things about my lecturing but even bought me a very nice cigar which I smoked after dinner outside the hotel in the balmy evening. I couldn’t say whether all this had anything to do with the fact that I will shortly be marking their examinations.

I don’t mind admitting that I have found this year an incredible strain. I have done my best to hide it from staff and students, but my job involves a huge workload and far too many ridiculous bureaucratic frustrations. I have little time for life outside work and at times I wonder what the point is. Then I get to give a lecture to a group of bright and enthusiastic students about the amazing and beautiful thing called physics and I remember what it’s supposed to be all about.

In Praise of Natural Sciences

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on April 24, 2016 by telescoper

The other day I was chatting with some students in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex. One thing that came up was the fact that I’m basing the material for my Second Year Theoretical Physics module on the notes I took when I was a second-year undergraduate student at Cambridge over thirty years ago. I mentioned that to counter suggestions that are often made that the physics curriculum has been excessively “dumbed down” over the years. It may have been elsewhere, of course, but not on my watch. In fact, despite the misfortune of having me as a lecturer, many of the students in my class are picking up things far faster than I did when I was their age!

Anyway, that led to a general discussion of the changing nature of university education. One point was that in my day there weren’t any four-year “Integrated Masters” degrees, just plain three-year Bachelors. Teaching was therefore a bit more compressed than it is now, especially at Cambridge with its shorter teaching terms. We teach in two 12-week blocks here at Sussex. Week 11 of the Spring Term is about to start so we’re nearing the finishing line for this academic year and soon the examinations will be upon us.

The other thing that proved an interesting point of discussion was that the degree programme that I took was the Natural Sciences Tripos That meant that I did a very general first year comprising four different elements that could be chosen flexibly. I quickly settled on Physics, Chemistry and  Mathematics for Natural Sciences to reflect my A-level results but was struggling for the fourth. In the end I picked the one that seemed most like Physics, a course called Crystalline Materials. I didn’t like that at all, and wish I’d done some Biology instead – Biology of Cells and Biology of Organisms were both options – or even Geology, but I stuck with it for the first year.

Having to do such a wide range of subjects was very challenging. The timetable was densely packed and the pace was considerable. In the second year, however, I was able to focus on Mathematics and Physics and although it was still intense it was a bit more focussed. I ended up doing Theoretical Physics in my final year, including a theory project.

My best teacher at School, Dr Geoeff Swinden,  was a chemist (he had a doctorate in organic chemistry from Oxford University) and when I went to Cambridge I fully expected to specialise in Chemistry rather tha Physics. I loved the curly arrows and all that. But two things changed. One was that I found the Physics content of the first year far more interesting – and the lecturers and tutors far more inspiring – than Chemistry, and the other was that my considerable ineptitude at practical work made me doubt that I had a future in a chemistry laboratory. And so it came to pass that I switched allegiance to Physics, a decision I am very glad I made. It was only towards the end of my degree that I started to take Astrophysics seriously as a possible specialism, but that’s another story.

As we are now approaching examination season I’ve been dealing with some matters in my role as External Examiner for Natural Sciences (Physics) at Cambridge, a position I have held since last year. It’s certaintly extremely interesting to see things from the other side of the fence, thirty years on since my finals. In particular I was struck last year by how many senior physicists there are at Cambridge who actually came as undergraduates expecting, like I did, to do Chemistry but also then switched. No doubt some moved in the opposite direction too, but the point is that the system not only allowed this but positively encouraged it.

Looking back, I think  there were great educational advantages in delaying  the choice of speciality the way a Natural Sciences degree did. New students usually have very little idea how different the subject is at university compared to A-level, so it seems unfair to lock them into a programme from Year 1. Moreover – and this struck me particularly talking to current students last week – a Natural Sciences programme might well prove a way of addressing the gender imbalance in physics by allowing female students (who might have been put off Physics at school) to gravitate towards it. Only 20% of the students who take Physics A-level are female, and that’s roughly the same mix that we find in the undergraduate population. How many more might opt for Physics after taking a general first year?

Another advantage of this kind of degree is that it gives scientists a good grounding in  a range of subjects. In the long run this could encourage greater levels of interdisciplinary thinking. This is important, since some of the most exciting areas of physics research lie at the interfaces with, e.g. chemistry and biology. Unfortunately, adminstrative structures often create barriers that deter such cross-disciplinary activities.



Staff Whereabouts

Posted in Education with tags , , , on April 19, 2016 by telescoper

There’s been a predictably strong reaction from academic colleagues to an announcement by the University of Edinburgh that it is introducing a new staff monitoring policy that will require employees to tell management if they leave their “normal place of work” for half a day or longer.

Some have argued that this is measure is simply unenforceable and that the University concerned will have to employ extra people if all academics have to notify a management person every time they travel somewhere off campus. Perhaps the plan is to have all staff fitted with microchips like we do with pets so we can find out where they are if they go wandering off, or get temporarily adopted by friendly neighbours.

I did some time ago draft an April Fool email in which I claimed  my current employer was going to extend the attendance monitoring we perform with undergraduate students (which is partly to assess usage of teaching spaces and thus improve timetabling efficiency) to include academic staff, so we could assess usage of office space on a similar basis. I never sent the email because I thought too many would think it was real and get very angry. Although being at least slightly credible is an essential part of an April Fool, causing a riot is not.

Here at the University of Sussex academic staff are obliged to inform the University (via an official form) if they are travelling elsewhere in the course of their duties. In practice this form comes to the Head of School, which is me in in the case of Mathematical and Physical Sciences. This bit of bureaucracy is primarily for insurance purposes, but also means we have a record of where to contact people in case of emergency.

Most staff comply with this procedure  if they are travelling abroad, but they don’t always do so when they’re travelling in the UK for a day or so, e.g. for doing a PhD examination or something like that. Staff also often fail to let us know if they are working from home, which some (especially theorists and mathematicians) do a lot in order to get on with their research without interruption. Although this doesn’t often cause problems, I think it is reasonable that we should be able to get in touch with staff when they’re doing that (in case, e.g., one of their academic advisees has a problem) but it seems to me excessive that they should have to inform someone at an official level every time they work off campus for whatever reason. Leaving a contact phone number for use during working hours is quite adequate.

It seems to me that behind this move by the University of Edinburgh there’s the managerialist suspicion that everyone must be a shirker at heart. In fact one of the problems I have as a manager is not persuading staff to work longer hours, but to  stop working  excessively long hours.  I don’t think I’ve succeeded, largely because I haven’t found a way of doing my job at the same time as achieving  a sensible work-life balance.

Anyway, the point is that academic contracts do not usually specify where staff should work. There is a good reason for this, which is that the job is very diverse and replies flexible work arrangements. Academic contracts do not usually specify fixed hours of work per week, either, for the same reason. Some don’t even give a specific holiday entitlement. Staff in technical and professional service areas generally have contracts that specify both. I floated an idea at a staff that academics should file an official log of official leave. It wasn’t a popular suggestion because academic staff thought there was an implication that they were skiving by taking excessively long holidays. In fact my motivation was quite the opposite: to try to ensure that they take all the leave to which they are entitled.