Archive for education

I don’t know how to teach…

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on October 25, 2021 by telescoper

Making use of this Bank Holiday Monday morning to tidy up some things on my computer I realized I had bookmarked this short clip of Richard Feynman answering a question about teaching. I clearly intended to blog about it at some point but forgot to do so, so I’m correcting that now.

Feynman was of course a renowned lecturer both for university students and for public audiences. I think one of the things that made him so successful is that he liked talking about his subject and liked being the centre of attention; people who like neither of those things are unlikely to make good lecturers!

But the thing that really struck me about what he says in this clip is near the beginning where he says he thinks the way to approach teaching is “be chaotic” to “use every possible way of doing it”. Now some of us are occasionally chaotic by accident, but I think there is a great deal of truth in what he says. I also agree with him when he says “I really don’t know how to do it..” I don’t either

If you start from the premise that every student is different, and will consequently learn in a different way, then you have to accept that there is no one unique style of teaching that will suit everyone. It makes sense therefore to try different kinds of things: worked examples, derivations, historical asides, question-and-answer sessions, and so on. And we shouldn’t rely exclusively on lectures: there must be a range of activities: problems classes, tutorials, supplementary reading, etc. With a bit of luck the majority of your class will find something that stimulates and/or enlightens them.

The point about using every possible method at your disposal has become especially relevant now that we have had about 18 months’ experience of online teaching. I feel very strongly that we should make recordings of lectures routinely available to all students, not as a replacement for the “live” experience but to add to the set of resources a student can draw on. The same goes for other things which came into regular use doing our online period, such as printed lecture notes (again, not as a replacement for a student’s own notes but as a supplement).

I think it also helps to acknowledge that what you can actually achieve in a lecture is very limited: you shouldn’t be simply trying to “deliver” material for later regurgitation. You should be pointing out the particularly interesting aspects, explaining why they are particularly interesting, and what things students should follow up in private study where in textbooks and on the net they will find yet more different ways of approaching the subject.

After over thirty years of teaching have come to the conclusion that the main purpose of university education is to convince students that their brain is more than simply a memory device, i.e. that it can also be used for figuring things out. I’m not saying that a good memory is worthless. It can be extremely useful and memory skills are important. I’m just saying that the brain can do other things too. Likewise, examinations should not be simple memory tests. Sadly school education systems seem to be focussed on coaching students passing exams by rote learning.

We see particular evidence of this in physics, with many students afraid to even attempt to solve problems they haven’t seen before. One infers that they passed exams by simply memorizing answers to questions very similar to those on the paper. Our job is to remove that fear, not by pretending that physics is easy, but by giving students the confidence to start believing that they can do things that they previously thought were too difficult. In other words, university education is often about undoing some of the limitations imposed on students by their school education.

Back to lecturing, there are some obvious basics which lecturers need to do in order to teach competently, including being prepared, talking sufficiently loudly, writing clearly (if relevant), and so on. And of course turning up at the right theatre at the right time. But there are also those things that turn mere competence into excellence. Of course there are many ways to lecture, and you have to put your own personality into what you do, but the main tips I’d pass on to make your lectures really popular can be boiled down into the Three Es. I add that these are things that struck me while watching others lecture, rather than me claiming to be brilliant myself (which I know I’m not). Anyway, here we go:

Enthusiasm. The single most obvious response on student questionnaires about lecturing refers to enthusiasm. My take on this is that we’re all professional physicists, earning our keep by doing physics. If we can’t be enthusiastic about it then it’s clearly unreasonable to expect the students to get fired up. So convey the excitement of the subject! I don’t mean by descending into vacuous gee-whizz stuff, but by explaining how interesting things are when you look at them properly as a physicist, mathematics and all.

Engagement. This one cuts both ways. First it is essential to look at your audience, ask questions, and make them feel that they are part of a shared experience not just listening to a monologue. The latter might be fine for a public lecture, but if a teaching session is to be successful as a pedagogical exercise it can’t be passive. And if you ask a question of the audience, make your body language tell them that it’s not just rhetorical: if you don’t look like you want an answer, you won’t get one. More importantly, try to cultivate an atmosphere wherein the students feel they can contribute. You know you’ve succeeded in this when students point out mistakes you have made. On the other hand, you can’t take this too far. The lecturer is the person who is supposed to know the stuff so fundamentally there’s no symmetry between you and the audience. You have to be authoritative, though that doesn’t mean you have to behave like a pompous schoolmaster. Know your subject, explain it well and you’ll earn respect without needing to bluster.

Entertainment. As I said above, lecturing is very limited as a way of teaching physics. That is not to say that lectures don’t have a role, which I think is to highlight key concepts and demonstrate their applicability;  the rest, the details, the nuts and bolts are best done by problem-based learning. I therefore think it does no harm at all if you make your lectures fairly light on detail and (with reason) enjoyable as pieces of entertainment. By all means introduce the odd joke, refer to surprising examples, amusing analogies, and so on.  As long as you don’t overdo it, you’ll find that a bit of light relief will keep the attention levels up. A key element of this is spontaneity. A lecture should appear as if it develops naturally, in an almost improvised fashion. Of course your spontaneity will probably have to  be very carefully rehearsed, but the sense of a live performance always adds value. A lecture should be a happening, not just a presentation. Lecture demonstrations also play this role, although they seem to be deployed less frequently  nowadays than in the past. Being a showman doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and the audience will know if you’re forcing it so don’t act unnaturally, but at the very least try to move about. Believe me, watching a lecturer drone on for an hour while rooted to the spot is a very tedious experience (especially on a video recording). You’d be surprised how much difference it makes if you can convey at least the impression of being alive.

On this last point, I’ll offer a few quotes from a physicist who definitely knew a thing or two about lecturing, Michael Faraday. First, his opinion was that the lecturer should not be

…glued to the table or screwed to the floor. He must by all means appear as a body distinct and separate from the things around, and must have some motion apart from that which they possess.

Conventional wisdom nowadays suggests that one should take breaks in lectures to stop students losing concentration. I’m not sure I agree with this, actually. It’s certainly the case that attention will flag if you persist with a dreary monotone for an hour, but  I think a lecture can have a natural dynamic to it which keeps the students interested by variation rather than interruption. Faraday also thought this.

A flame should be lighted at the commencement and kept alive with unremitting splendour to the end…I very much disapprove of breaks in the lecture.

Finally, here is one of my all-time  favourite physics quotes, Faraday’s take on the need for lectures to be entertaining:

..for though to all true philosophers science and nature will have charms innumerable in every dress, yet I am sorry to say that the generality of mankind cannot accompany us one short hour unless the path is strewn with flowers.

Marking Blues

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on May 21, 2021 by telescoper

“May is a pious fraud of the almanac.” – James R. Lowell

The rainy weather we’ve been having for the last few days has at least deprived me of distractions from the job at hand: the marking of examinations and other assessments. Examinations started here in Maynooth last Friday (14th May) , a week ago today, and as I write this morning another one has just started. That’s the third in the past week. Yesterday I managed to finish all the assessments for one Module, just in time for today’s batch to arrive. It’s not only examination marking of course, I’ve also had computational physics projects to assess and feedback to write. Suffice to say that it’s a busy time of year.

When I was getting this morning’s examination online timed assessment ready it suddenly struck me that some of the students taking it belong the year group that entered the University in September 2018, and are the first students I will have seen all the way through the degree as they are taking their last set of exams now and will graduate this summer.

Of course when I say “will have seen” I’m not really being honest. I’ve hardly seen any of them since last March. Although I have spoken to them via Teams I haven’t even seen them virtually, as students virtually always have their video on mute during online teaching sessions.

Because of the Covid-19 restrictions, the students on three-year programmes have had most of their teaching online since last Spring, and by the time they finish the current set of examinations half their assessment will have been online.

You’ll have to ask students whether the lack of face-to face interactions has impacted their learning, but speaking for myself as a lecturer it has made life very difficult. Lecturing to a camera is not easy, and the absence of visual cues from the audience makes it difficult to know whether what you’re saying is sinking in. I guess we’ll find out when we look at the examination grades.

Thinking about the group of students who will form the graduating class for this year, though, the saddest thing is that they will shortly finish their exams and complete their degrees. We the staff won’t have the chance to congratulate them properly, nor will they the students be able to celebrate properly with each other (as they are scattered all over the country).

Although we’ve worked very hard to do what we can over the past year and a bit, I can’t rid my mind of the feeling that this group in particular has been let down very badly. I know the circumstances are beyond our control and all that, but they just haven’t had the educational experience they expected and deserve. At least – we hope – other groups can look forward to something like normality, possibly from next year, but for this group that’s it for their third level education. It’s really not fair.

I have said so before on this blog that I think any student who wishes to should be able to repeat the last year at university free of charge in recognition that they have been severely short-changed. It seems to me that would be the right thing to do, which is why I don’t think the Government will allow it.

Now, it’s still raining so I’ll try to get some more marking done while the exam goes on.

Thought For The Year

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , on January 13, 2021 by telescoper

In the midst of the January examination period I’ve been thinking about how tough this year has been nd will continue to be for all students in third-level institutions, but especially the cohort currently in the first year of their course. I think it’s now fairly clear that nearly all their study this year will be done remotely. We on the teaching side have all tried to make the best of this situation but there’s no question that the learning experience we have been able to offer is not as good this year as in other years. On top of that the students – especially in the first year – have been denied the chance to get to know other students through personal interactions, clubs & societies, or through joint interests. Those of us who went to University in more normal times know that many of the friendships we made when we first arrived at college stayed with us for the rest of our lives.

Thinking about this I want to make a suggestion. It is that every student currently in their first year of study at a third-level institution should be offered the chance to start again in the autumn and repeat the whole academic year, regardless of how well they do this time round. Not all students will want to do this, and not all will be able to because of personal circumstances, but I feel we should at least offer them the possibility and back it up with funding for the repeated year. My own suspicion is that it would be a minority, but probably a significant minority, that would opt for this. It would cost money, but I think it would mean a lot to a considerable number of students.

I can anticipate an objection that students repeating their first year will take up places that would normally go to next year’s new intake. That depends on how many would take up the repeat offer, of course. Extra capacity may be needed for some but not all courses. But it also seems to me that this year’s Leaving Certificate students will have had their studies affected too. Perhaps final-year school students should be offered the chance to repeat their year too?

Would starting and/or finishing college a year later really be such a problem given the extraordinary nature of the Covid-19 crisis?

P.S. I’ve talked about the situation in Ireland, but everything I’ve said will apply elsewhere too.

A Semester of Covid-19

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Music with tags , , , , , , , on September 12, 2020 by telescoper

It’s the Twelfth of September so it’s now precisely six months to the day since schools and colleges in Ireland were closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The initial announcement on 12th March was that the closure would be until 29th March. Little did we know then that six months later campus would still be closed to students.

Here is how the pandemic has progressed in Ireland since March:

On 12th March, 70 new cases of Covid-19 were announced in Ireland; yesterday there were 211. The current 7-day average in Ireland is over 180 new cases per day and is climbing steadily. Things are similar, if not worse, elsewhere in Europe. as countries struggle to contain the pandemic while simultaneously attempting to reopen their economies. We are heading towards a very difficult autumn, with a large second peak of infection definitely on the cards. Who knows how this will turn out?

The word ‘semester’ is derived from the Latin for ‘six months’ but the term now applies almost exclusively to half a university teaching year, usually more like four months.

I’m looking ahead to the next teaching semester at Maynooth University, which starts in two weeks. The last time I gave a face-to-face lecture was on the morning of March 12th (a Thursday). Going home that evening I was engulfed by morbid thoughts and wondered if I would ever see the students again. Now we’re making plans for their return to (limited) on-campus teaching. Outline teaching plans have now been published, so returning students will have an idea how things will go. These will be refined as we get a better idea of student numbers. Given the continued increase in Covid-19 cases there is a significant chance of another campus closure at some point which will necessitate going online again but, at least to begin with, our students in Theoretical Physics will be getting 50% or more of the in-person teaching they would have got in a normal year.

Yesterday third-level institutions made their first round of CAO offers. Maynooth’s can be found here. Our offer for MH206 Theoretical Physics & Mathematics is, like many courses around the country, up a bit at 510 points reflecting the increase in high grades in this year’s Leaving Certificate.

We won’t know the final numbers for at another week or more but based on the traffic on Twitter yesterday Maynooth in general seems to be very popular:

Outline teaching plans are available for new students but these will not be finalised until Orientation Week is over and students have registered for their modules, which will not be until Thursday 24th September, just a few days before teaching starts. The weekend of 26th/27th looks like being a very busy one!

Returning to the original theme of the post I have to admit that I haven’t set foot outside Maynooth once in the last six months. I haven’t minded that too much, actually, but one thing I have missed is my weekly trip to the National Concert Hall in Dublin. Last night saw the start of a new season of concerts by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra at the NCH. There is no live audience for these so it’s not the same as being there in person, but watching and listening on the live stream is the next best thing.

Last night’s programme was a very nice one, of music by Mendelssohn Mozart and Beethoven, that not only provided a welcome tonic to the end of a busy week but also provided a great example of how to adapt. I’m glad they’re back and am looking forward to the rest of the season.

The U-turn and After …

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , on August 18, 2020 by telescoper

One of the many things that Winston Churchill never said (referring to Americans) is that they “…will always do the right thing – after exhausting all the alternatives”. Yesterday the UK Government performed a U-turn on its approach to A-level results but only after extensive protests and after causing immense stress to a great many students. All of this could have been avoided had the Secretary of State for Education bothered to look at the results of the downgrading algorithm. This morning he said that he “wasn’t aware” of what the outcomes would be and tried to put the blame on OfQual. Well, it’s actually his job to be aware of these things and that statement shows he’s not doing his job.

While many students will be mighty relieved that their official A-level grades will go up, that won’t be the end of this fiasco. Many students will find that their places have been already been filled through last week’s clearing process. The Government has lifted the number cap on places in imposed earlier this year, but that won’t help many departments, especially those in the sciences, who have severe constraints on, e.g., laboratory capacity (more so with social distancing in place).

I feel very sorry for friends and former colleagues in UK universities having to deal with this shambles. The Government will be quite happy that it has managed to throw this particularly hot potato into the hands of admissions tutors across the land. Ministers will be hoping that whatever blame now accrues will be attributed to universities being “inflexible” when it is entirely down to incompetence elsewhere. As always it’s the front-line staff who will have to deal with it, as if their job was not stressful enough having to deal with Covid-19.

Meanwhile, here in Ireland, the Government’s plan for “standardisation” of this year’s Leaving Certificate results looks alarmingly similar to the failed approach tried – and subsequently abandoned – in the United Kingdom. Minister for Education Norma Foley has been making statements about the accuracy and reliability of her Department’s plans that sound eerily similar to those issued by officials across the Irish Sea. I hope that I’m wrong about this – and that there’s some frantic activity going on behind the scenes to change the approach ahead of the release of this year’s Leaving Certificate grades (due on September 7th) – but I have a feeling that we’re going to see yet another slow-motion car crash. It wouldn’t be the first time that, having observed something truly shambolic happening in the UK Education system, an Irish Government then proceeds to do exactly the same thing…

The Great A-level Scandal

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , on August 14, 2020 by telescoper

The full scale of the scandal of this year’s A-level results is now becoming clear and it is bad enough to bring down a Government. Unfortunately there are so many scandals surrounding the UK Government (e.g. corrupt procurement deals, collapsing economy, terrible Covid-19 mortality figures, fiddled Covid-19 testing statistics, not to mention Boris Johnson himself) that nobody seems to care about that one more probably won’t make much difference.

Yesterday Qfqual released its report on this year’s A-level results which reveals that in arriving at the final grades, the algorithm deployed was based on past performance of pupils at the candidate’s school. in many cases this has resulted in students being downgraded by several grades in a manner that is both arbitrary and cruel.

Update: I’ve just heard from a physics, in an institute in which I once worked, that a student with original grade A* in Physics A-level has been assigned a final grade E. Unbelievable.

That starting point of the Ofqual approach is indefensible. A student’s examination grade should be determined by the student’s own performance, not by the performance of previous generations of students who happened to go to the same school at some time in the past.

Not surprisingly, the Ofqual approach has benefited students who went to private schools and severely disadvantaged students at less privileged establishments. The rightwing media are justifying this on the grounds that teachers at some state schools have inflated their students’ estimated grades. The attitude is that working class kids can’t possibly deserve an A* so their teachers must have cheated! I can’t believe this bias is unintentional. The Tory message to the less privileged is that they need to know their place. You needn’t ask who is behind this deliberate demographic* profiling. It stinks of the unofficial Prime Minister Dominic Cummings

But even within its own flawed terms the Ofqual algorithm is garbage. Table E8 in the report shows that when applied to last year’s input data (mock exams and centre-based assessments), even in the best case subject (History) the prediction was only accurate for 67% of students; the figure falls to less than 50% for, e.g., Further Mathematics. When the Ofqual panel saw that they should have abandoned their algorithm immediately. The fact that they pursued it knowing how deeply problematic means that they are more interested in serving their political masters than the students whose prospects they have deliberately blighted.

In my view a system should be introduced that gives the student the benefit of the doubt. Grades should be awarded based on what the student has achieved. If that ends up being too generous to a few students then that’s surely better than the opposite? Whenever I’ve been involved in University examinations processes when emergency changes were required we have always implemented a `no detriment to the students’ policy. It’s the obvious fair thing to do.

Oh, and you might ask why universities don’t show some humanity and accept students whose grades have been reduced. The answer to that is simple. If they do, they will go down in the league tables. And for many senior managers that’s all that matters.

*which means, of course, (indirect) racial profiling too.

Time, Money and Guidance in Higher Education

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on July 27, 2020 by telescoper

There was a welcome announcement last week of a package of supports for further and higher education institutions and students in Ireland to cover costs incurred by third level institutions during the Covid-19 pandemic and enable further and higher education students to return to college this September.

There wasn’t much sign of any help at all coming under the previous Government, so this is perhaps a sign that the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science might be a force to be reckoned with in the new administration.

If this funding is to achieve its aim, however, it will have to reach its targets very quickly. The new academic year is to commence at the end of September, which is just two months away. The slice that is intended to go directly to students to help them buy laptops or tablets can probably be spent quite quickly, but the money intended for colleges and universities to buy equipment will take much longer to filter through.

Speaking for myself, as Head of a Department of Theoretical Physics I’d say we desperately need better video equipment for both live and recorded material. At present we have no lecture capture facilities at all in any lecture theatres. We also need graphics tablets to help lecturers show mathematical working via remote means. There is likely to be a big rush for this sort of thing between now and September, and no guarantee we will have it in time for the start of lectures.

You might well ask `why don’t you buy this stuff now?’. The answer is simple: I haven’t got the money!

Things are even tougher for schools. Here there is another big support package on the way, this time of €350 million to allow them to open at the end of August. Getting kids back to school is obviously important not only for their education but also to allow their parents to return to work. However, the time available to prepare all the things necessary is just a month, even shorter than it is at third level.

Among the funds being made available is €75 million for `building works’. I’m sure that investment is very welcome, but can it do anything between now and the end of August? It’s actually rather difficult to spend money that quickly if due process is followed. Just look at how the UK government has squandered tens of millions on phony contracts, such as the £12 million it blew on a Covid-19 tracing app that never worked.

On top of that 1000 new schoolteachers are going to be provided. Will they be recruited in time?

Another announcement to appear last week contained guidance for further and higher education on returning to on-site activity in 2020. This guidance has been interpreted in the media in a rather unhelpful way, causing many of my colleagues to go into a panic. This, for example, from the Irish Times:

Physical distancing rules of two metres will apply on college campuses from September in a move which will severely limit the ability of universities to hold lectures and graduation ceremonies.

A strict requirement of 2 metre distancing at all times would indeed severely reduce the capacity of lecture theatres, but if you look at the guidance it is considerably more nuanced than this. The real problem with this guidance is that it is so vague. We can only hope we get something a bit more concrete soon so we can plan for September. Alternatively we could just wing it. All of it. At the moment this seems the only viable strategy.

How to Solve Physics Problems

Posted in Cute Problems, Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff, YouTube with tags , , on May 14, 2020 by telescoper

Since the examination period here at Maynooth University begins tomorrow I thought I would use the opportunity provided by my brand new YouTube channel to present a video version of a post I did a few years ago about how to solve Physics problems. These are intended for the type of problems students might encounter at high school or undergraduate level either in examinations or in homework. I’ve tried to keep the advice as general as possible though so hopefully students in other fields might find this useful too.

Winging IT

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education with tags , , , , , on April 2, 2020 by telescoper

The current restrictions resulting from the Covid-19 outbreak have forced many of us academics to adapt to using IT in ways we hadn’t even imagined just a month ago. It’s not only remote teaching via virtual learning environments with live and/or prerecorded video lectures, but also meetings held by videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Few of us have had much training in the use of these things, so when it comes to Information Technology we’re all winging it. Still, necessity is the mother of invention and we just have to get on with it.

I’m gradually getting used to Microsoft Teams, for example. I’ve even got proper kit to wear.

Incidentally, yesterday I learned that the expression ‘to wing it’ actually comes from the Theatre, where it alludes to an actor studying their lines in the wings (at the side of the stage) because they haven’t had time to learn their part before the performance (usually because they are replacing another actor at short notice).

Nowadays ‘winging it’ means generally improvising or making it up as you go along. I’m finding winging it to be rather hard work but quite fun, actually. While we’ve been trying to flatten the Covid-19 curve the learning curve has definitely been getting steeper.

Boards and Consultations

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

Back from Helsinki, I’m now in the midst of Examination Board business. That’s two Boards for me, one for the Department of Theoretical Physics and the other for the Department of Engineering (as I’ve been teaching Engineering Mathematics).  We’ve already Preliminary meetings for both and this afternoon had the `Final’ Board for Engineering in the presence of the external examiners. The Final ‘Board’ for Theoretical Physics with the external is on Thursday. But that’s not the end of it – there is an overall University Examination Board that covers all courses in the University to formally bring an end to the examination process.

That’s quite a lot of Boards.

It is not until after all the Boards have done their business that the students get their marks and not long after that we have a Consultation Day, where

Staff will be available in all Departments to discuss results with students. Students are entitled to see their examination scripts if they wish, these will be generally available on this day or at another mutually convenient time.

When I was Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex University I tried to introduce such a system there, but it was met with some resistance from staff who thought this would not only cause a big increase in workload and but also lead to  difficulties with students demanding their marks be increased. That has never been my experience elsewhere: only a handful take up the opportunity and those that do are told quite clearly that the mark cannot be changed.  Last year I had only one student who asked to go through their script. I was happy to oblige and we had a friendly and (I think) productive meeting.

If I had my way we would actually give all students their marked examination scripts back as a matter of routine. The fact that we don’t is no doubt one reason for relatively poor performance in student satisfaction surveys about assessment and feedback. Obviously examination scripts have to go through a pretty strict quality assurance process involving the whole paraphernalia of examination boards (including external examiners), so the scripts can’t be given back immediately but once that process is complete there doesn’t seem to me any reason why we shouldn’t give their work, together with any feedback written on it,  back to the students in its entirety.

I have heard some people argue that under the provisions of the Data Protection Act students have a legal right to see what’s written on the scripts – as that constitutes part of their student record – but that’s not my point here. My point is purely educational, based on the benefit to the student’s learning experience.

Anyway, I don’t know how widespread the practice is of giving examination scripts back to students so let me conduct a totally unscientific poll. Obviously most of my readers are in physics and astronomy, but I invite anyone in any academic discipline to vote:

And, of course, if you have any further comments to make please feel free to make them through the box below!