Archive for education

Clearing Advice for Physics and Astronomy Applicants!

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on August 18, 2016 by telescoper

Today’s the day! This year’s A-level results are out today, Thursday 18th August, with the consequent scramble as students across the country to confirm places at university. Good luck to all students everywhere waiting for your results. I hope they are what you expected!

For those of you who didn’t get the grades they needed, I have one piece of very clear advice:


The clearing system is very efficient and effective, as well as being quite straightforward to use, and there’s still every chance that you will find a place somewhere good. So keep a cool head and follow the instructions. You won’t have to make a decision straight away, and there’s plenty of time to explore all the options.

As a matter of fact there are a few places still left for various courses in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University. Why should you choose Cardiff? Well, obviously I have a vested interest since I’m rejoining the University this September so I’m biased. However you could take into account that Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff is top of the Russell Group in the latest National Student Survey and that there are wonderful newly expanded and refurbished teaching spaces on site.

For further information check here!

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.

In Praise of Student-Led Teaching Awards

Posted in Education with tags , , on March 2, 2016 by telescoper

Only time for a short post today. I was at a lunchtime meeting involving both staff and students in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences this lunchtime, and one item on the agenda was the University of Sussex student-led teaching awards scheme, which is run jointly by the University and the Student Union.

This reminded me of an article in last week’s Times Higher which argues that such awards are “divisive” and leave staff who don’t win such awards “demoralised”.

I suppose such awards are “divisive” in the sense that they divide staff into two categories: those that win and those that don’t. The same is true of any award. You might equally well argue that we shouldn’t award degrees to students on the grounds that some students get them and others don’t.

The negative feelings expressed about these awards seem to me to be more to do with sour grapes than with any genuine concern about the effect (or lack of effect) they might have on teaching quality. Staff who are upset that they don’t win an award would be better advised to learn from their more popular colleagues than expressing resentment towards them.

Another thing that annoys me about this criticism is that it assumes that it questions the motivations for students nominating lecturers; in particular that students pick lecturers who are “showy” or “entertaining” or who set easy examinations. In my opinion this assumption does a great disservice to students. Last year several staff in my School won such awards and it was quite clear that the students picked the staff concerned because they appreciated their approach to teaching, not that their courses were easier or for any other trivial reason. It’s more than a little arrogant for staff to assume that students aren’t qualified to comment on what teaching they like.

It’s over thirty years since I finished my undergraduate degree. In the intervening time the way students study at school and university has changed, partly because of new technology. I hear far too many lecturers demanding that students should learn the way they did when they were younger. We should always be looking for better ways of helping students learn, and I think student awards are one way of identifying examples of good practice.

So, to conclude, I think this complaint is tosh.

Feel free to disagree through the comments box!



How to Solve Physics Problems

Posted in Cute Problems, Education with tags , , , , , , on September 18, 2015 by telescoper

It’s Friday afternoon at the end of Induction Week here at the University of Sussex. By way of preparation for lectures proper – which start next Monday – I gave a lecture today to all the new students in Physics during which I gave some tips about how to tackle physics problems, not only in terms of how to solve them but also how to present the answer in an appropriate way.

Richard-Feynman-cornellI began with Richard Feynman’s formula (the geezer in the above picture) for solving physics problems:

  1. Write down the problem.
  2. Think very hard.
  3. Write down the answer.

That may seem either arrogant or facetious, or just a bit of a joke, but that’s really just the middle bit. Feynman’s advice on points 1 and 3 is absolutely spot on and worth repeating many times to an audience of physics students.

I’m a throwback to an older style of school education when the approach to solving unseen mathematical or scientific problems was emphasized much more than it is now. Nowadays much more detailed instructions are given in School examinations than in my day, often to the extent that students  are only required to fill in blanks in a solution that has already been mapped out.

I find that many, particularly first-year, students struggle when confronted with a problem with nothing but a blank sheet of paper to write the solution on. The biggest problem we face in physics education, in my view, is not the lack of mathematical skill or background scientific knowledge needed to perform calculations, but a lack of experience of how to set the problem up in the first place and a consequent uncertainty about, or even fear of, how to start. I call this “blank paper syndrome”.

In this context, Feynman’s advice is the key to the first step of solving a problem. When I give tips to students I usually make the first step a bit more general, however. It’s important to read the question too. The key point is to write down the information given in the question and then try to think how it might be connected to the answer. To start with, define appropriate symbols and draw relevant diagrams. Also write down what you’re expected to prove or calculate and what physics might relate that to the information given.

The middle step is more difficult and often relies on flair or the ability to engage in lateral thinking, which some people do more easily than others, but that does not mean it can’t be nurtured.  The key part is to look at what you wrote down in the first step, and then apply your little grey cells to teasing out – with the aid of your physics knowledge – things that can lead you to the answer, perhaps via some intermediate quantities not given directly in the question. This is the part where some students get stuck and what one often finds is an impenetrable jumble of mathematical symbols  swirling around randomly on the page. The process of problem solving is not always linear. Sometimes it helps to work back a little from the answer you are expected to prove before you can return to the beginning and find a way forward.

Everyone gets stuck sometimes, but you can do yourself a big favour by at least putting some words in amongst the algebra to explain what it is you were attempting to do. That way, even if you get it wrong, you can be given some credit for having an idea of what direction you were thinking of travelling.

The last of Feynman’s steps  is also important. I lost count of the coursework attempts I marked this week in which the student got almost to the end, but didn’t finish with a clear statement of the answer to the question posed and just left a formula dangling.  Perhaps it’s because the students might have forgotten what they started out trying to do, but it seems very curious to me to get so far into a solution without making absolutely sure you score the points.  IHaving done all the hard work, you should learn to savour the finale in which you write “Therefore the answer is…” or “This proves the required result”. Scripts that don’t do this are like detective stories missing the last few pages in which the name of the murderer is finally revealed.

So, putting all these together, here are the three tips I gave to my undergraduate students this morning.

  1. Read the question! Some students give solutions to problems other than that which is posed. Make sure you read the question carefully. A good habit to get into is first to translate everything given in the question into mathematical form and define any variables you need right at the outset. Also drawing a diagram helps a lot in visualizing the situation, especially helping to elucidate any relevant symmetries.
  2. Remember to explain your reasoning when doing a mathematical solution. Sometimes it is very difficult to understand what students are trying to do from the maths alone, which makes it difficult to give partial credit if they are trying to the right thing but just make, e.g., a sign error.
  3.  Finish your solution appropriately by stating the answer clearly (and, where relevant, in correct units). Do not let your solution fizzle out – make sure the marker knows you have reached the end and that you have done what was requested. In other words, finish with a flourish!

There are other tips I might add – such as checking answers by doing the numerical parts at least twice on your calculator and thinking about whether the order-of-magnitude of the answer is physically reasonable – but these are minor compared to the overall strategy.

And another thing is not to be discouraged if you find physics problems difficult. Never give up without a fight. It’s only by trying difficult things that you can improve your ability by learning from your mistakes. It’s not the job of a physics lecturer to make physics seem easy but to encourage you to believe that you can do things that are difficult.

To illustrate the advice I’ve given I used this problem, which I leave as an exercise to the reader. It is a slightly amended version the first physics problem I was set as tutorial work when I began my undergraduate studies way back in 1982. I think it illustrates very well the points I have made above, and it doesn’t require any complicated mathematics – not even calculus! See how you get on…


Widening Participation in Physics

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on September 9, 2015 by telescoper

Following on from a provocative post I wrote a couple of weeks ago on this blog (which was subsequently reblogged by the Times Higher), I was contacted by Paul Crowther who sent me a copy of the slides used by Peter Main of the Institute of Physics in a talk in May 2015 on the subject of Widening Participation in Physics. With Peter Main’s permission I’m sharing those slides here as a service to the Physics community. There’s a lot of interesting information in these slides, which I think many UK physicists would be interested in.

Clearing Advice for Mathematics, Physics and Astronomy Applicants!

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on August 12, 2015 by telescoper

Well, tomorrow is the big day. This year’s A-level results are out on Thursday 13th August, with the consequent scramble across the country to confirm places at university. Good luck to all students everywhere waiting for your results. I hope they are what you expected!

For those of you who didn’t get the grades they needed, I have one piece of very clear advice:


The clearing system is very efficient and effective, as well as being quite straightforward to use, and there’s still every chance that you will find a place somewhere good. So keep a cool head tomorrow and follow the instructions. You won’t have to make a decision until 5pm tomorrow, so there’s plenty of time to explore all the options.

As a matter of fact we will have places in the School of Mathematical & Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. Whether you’re interested in Physics, Astrophysics, Astronomy or Mathematics (or even a combination of those subjects), why not just take a look at the University’s Clearing Page and give us a ring? I’ll be helping out on the phone lines tomorrow myself, so I might get to talk to you in person.

Anyway, here’s a video featuring our excellent admissions team, led by the inestimable Rob Evans, to explain the process:

The 2015  National Student Survey results are just out and they show that the Department of Mathematics has a 94% rating for overall satisfaction; the Department of Physics & Astronomy has 91%. Click the relevant link for more information on our courses in Physics & Astronomy or for Mathematics!

It is important that the DfE publish correct science content in their GCSE subject content

Posted in Education with tags , , on June 28, 2015 by telescoper

You would think that the people in the Department for Education who draft the subject content for GCSE science would know stuff about science…

Sadly, it seems not…

Sadly, it seems this is not the case…

Teaching science in all weather

Yesterday I posted this reaction to the publication by the DfE of the GCSE_combined_science_content (copy taken – original link here). Others, including @alby and @hrogerson have written and commented about this as well.

[Another update: in the comments Richard Needham from the ASE has reminded me that over the next few weeks QfQual will be using these documents to ratify the Exam Boards’ science GCSE specifications. Not a good situation.]

[An update: the DfE released the GCSE_single_science_content in another document (original link here). Some of the errors below including the kinetic energy formula have not made it into this document and the space physics is obviously only considered interesting enough for the triple scientists. I will check the rest.]

I thought it relevant to post some specific points (just from the physics section – which didn’t even appear correctly in the table of contents). Now…

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