Archive for education

The Student Education Paradox

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 24, 2014 by telescoper

An exciting new paper by a leading theoretical physicist prominent educationalist has just appeared on the arXiv. In it the author addresses the important question of whether information is destroyed in black holes students actually learn anything during lectures.

Until recently it was generally believed that any information falling into a black hole entering the mind of a student was lost forever even though black holes do evaporate students do take examinations after a finite time. This belief is motivated by the properties of Hawking radiation produced by black holes observations of examination scripts written by students, which some claim to be entirely random, i.e. devoid of any information content whatsoever.

This picture has however been challenged by a number of educationalists theorists with a variety of counter-arguments. For example, some have argued for a statistical interpretation in terms of the multiverse a very large class; although information may be destroyed in individual black holes students, in a infinite multiverse large enough class, there may be a finite number of examples in which some information is retained.

The latest article (referred to above) offers a different resolution of the Black Hole Information Student Education Paradox which rests on the idea that information radiated by black holes examination scripts written by students are not in fact entirely random, just produced so chaotically that, although information is present, for any practical purposes such information is so garbled that it is impossible to decipher.

This intriguing suggestion has led to a number of interesting, if somewhat speculative, extensions. Some have even argued that there may after all be some information present in the speeches of Education Minister Michael Gove, though this idea obviously remains highly controversial.

Stephen Hawking is 72.

Eleven Plus Forty Years On

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , on January 23, 2014 by telescoper

Today is the fortieth anniversary of an important historical event. Well, no. It’s not actually. It is however the fortieth anniversary of an important event in my life or, as they say on Facebook, a life event on my timeline.

On January 23rd 1974 (in the middle of the “Three Day Week“), I arrived at the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne to take the Eleven Plus entrance examination. The RGS was basically a private school, but it operated under what was called the Direct Grant system, which meant that applicants who did well in the entrance examination could have their fees paid by the local authority. That was the only possibility for me to go to there, in fact, as there was no way my parents could have afforded the fees. It wasn’t my idea to go for the examination either. I would have been happy to go to the local comprehensive with my friends from Pendower Junior School and in any case thought I faced humiliation in the examination, as I’d had no preparation for it (unlike many of the more well-to-do applicants). Nevertheless, my parents insisted and I turned up on a cold Thursday morning to take the test.

I remember little about the examination, except that it comprised several papers including one on English comprehension and another on Arithmetic. I’d never sat an examination before and I do remember that I found the whole thing excruciatingly hard. I think I found the Arithmetic paper so difficult that I almost decided to get up and leave; I may even have cried. I left with a sense of relief that it was all over, and a certainty that I would not be going to the RGS.

Nevertheless, a short time later, in February I think, I was summoned for an interview which experience terrified me despite the fact that the staff involved were really very kind and friendly. I was very surprised to have got that far.

School PlaceSurprise turned to astonishment in March when the letter arrived (left) confirming that not only had I passed but I had been awarded the scholarship that I needed to allow me to go there. And before you ask why I kept the letter, I’ll admit that I also still have all my school reports from the RGS. Vanity is part of the reason, I suppose, but the other is to remind me of how lucky I’ve been with the opportunities that have come my way. I remain completely convinced that I got my place and scholarship as a result of some form of administrative error, but I vowed to make the best of the opportunity.

The UK education system has all changed (several times) since then, of course, and I often wonder how many youngsters far cleverer than me from working class backgrounds would nowadays have any chance of following a path like that which presented itself to me.

Viva Elsewhere…

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on December 18, 2013 by telescoper

I just came back from a meeting of the Heads of  the science Schools here at the University of Sussex where, among other things, we discussed PhD completion rates across the University. I sat there smugly because ours in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences are pretty good. The meeting started at 10am which also happens to have been the starting time for a PhD examination in at Cardiff University involving my (former) student Ian Harrison. I would have liked to have been there, but unfortunately I have several appointments today in Sussex so couldn’t make it.

It’s not normal practice for the supervisor of a PhD to be present at the examination of the candidate. The rules allow for it – usually at the request of the student – but the supervisor must remain silent unless and until invited to comment by the examiners. I think it’s a very bad idea for both student and supervisor, and the one example that I can recall of a supervisor attending the PhD examination of his student was a very uncomfortable experience.

I always feel nervous when a student of mine is having their viva voce examination, probably because I’m a bit protective and such an occasion always brings back painful memories of the similar ordeal I went through twenty-odd years ago. Although I have every confidence in Ian, I can’t help  sitting in my office wondering how it is going. However, this is something a PhD candidate has to go through on their own, a sort of rite of passage during which the supervisor has to stand aside and let them stand up for their own work. Usually, of course, I would be there for the event (if not actually present in the examination room), but now I’m a considerable distance away it feels a bit strange.

I’ve actually blogged about a paper of Ian’s already. He finished his thesis well within the usual three-year limit and has moved to the Midlands (Manchester, to be precise) to take up a postdoctoral research position there.  He’s not technically allowed to call himself Doctor Harrison yet, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time. In the words of Miss Jean Brodie, my students are, without doubt, la crème de la crème.

It’s now 11.45. Fingers crossed for some news soon…

UPDATE: 13.00. Still no news…

UPDATE: 13.07. Congratulations, Dr Harrison!


The World’s Oldest Professor?

Posted in Education with tags , , , on December 1, 2013 by telescoper

Yesterday I was sitting at home listening to the radio when someone used the phrase “The World’s Oldest Profession”. Naturally, that made me think of those such as myself who Profess for a living (although that’s apparently not what the original expression applies to). Anyway, that idle thought made me wonder whether there is, in the Guinness Book of Records or elsewhere, a recognized holder of the title World’s Oldest Professor?

A short tweet about this elicited one suggestion: Professor Ephraim Engleman of the University of California at San Francisco who is an extremely distinguished Professor of Rheumatology and is still active at the age of 102. Blimey. That’s going to be a pretty though record to beat, but I thought I’d post about it to see there are any other contenders for (a) the world’s oldest professor in any discipline and (b) the world’s oldest professor in physics and astronomy?

Suggestions through the comments box please.

P.S. Apart from anything else, Prof. Engleman’s inspirational example has made me feel guilty for moaning about the advancing years at the tender age of 50; he’d reached my current age before I was even born!

The Russell Groupies

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , on November 29, 2013 by telescoper

There’s an interesting article in Research Professional upon which I thought a brief comment would be appropriate. The article is mainly about the recent demise of the 1994 Group of universities, made inevitable when some of its larger members jumped ship to climb on board the much posher Russell Group. I’ve always felt that mission groups of this type were of little interest or value, but the growth of the Russell Group has, in my view, become rather sinister because it involves a cynical attempt to manufacture status when none is justified by performance.

The piece in Research Professional says:

Vice-chancellors and principals are not the only ones playing the status game. Students, employers, academics and government ministers—who seem to love visiting Russell Group universities—all want to be associated with high-status universities, even if those institutions do not necessarily provide better education or research. A 2009 analysis of the results of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, carried out by the Higher Education Policy Institute, found that Russell Group institutions performed only half a percentage point better than the overall average, and that when universities in the golden triangle were excluded the score fell to below average. Truly, this is an emperor with very modest clothes.

This echoes my experience. Before moving to the University of Sussex earlier this year I worked in two Russell Group universities (and one which wasn’t in the Russell Group when I worked there but is now). All these institutions have much to recommend them – and I have no desire whatsoever to say negative things about former colleagues – but it is clear to me that they (or at least their Physics Departments) can’t claim to be any better than the one in which I currently work. Indeed the Physics department that performed best in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise was Lancaster, which is also not in the Russell Group.

It’s also noticeable that the primary characteristic of Russell Group universities in the National Student Survey tables is that they generally do quite poorly relative to non-members. Does Russell Group status mean promoting research at the expense of teaching and the student experience generally?

There’s no doubt that by many metrics there is a group of “elite” English universities – Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, and Imperial. The Russell group comprises these and a few other excellent institutions. But the later additions are simply a group of fairly average universities who thought the £500,000 joining fee was worth paying to try to convince students and others that they had elite status too. Worryingly, it seems that the Russel Brand Group Group Brand has been marketed so effectively that politicians are starting to talk as if “research intensive” and “Russell Group” mean one and the same thing.

Lecture Capture

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on November 27, 2013 by telescoper

One of the things that I found out when I came to the University of Sussex in February this year is that it provides something that I think is a very good thing for both staff and students – facilities for lecture capture which are in all the main lecture theatres on campus. These facilities allow lecturers to record videos of their own lectures which are then made available for students to view online. This is of course very beneficial for students with special learning requirements, but in the spirit of inclusive teaching I think it’s good that all students can access such material. Some faculty were apparently a little nervous that having recordings of lectures available online would result in falling attendances at lectures, but in fact the evidence indicates precisely the opposite effect. Students find the recorded version adds quite a lot of value to the “live” event by allowing them to clarify things they might not have not noted down clearly.

Anyway, I like this idea a lot and am very keen to do it with my own lectures. It does seem to be the case however that some staff are wary of this innovation. I thought this might be an interesting issue to put to a public poll open to staff, students and interested others either at Sussex or elsewhere to gauge the general feeling about this:

If you don’t like the idea I’d welcome a comment explaining why. I’d also be interested in comments from colleagues in other institutions as to the extent to which lecture capture technology is used elsewhere.

Should the passive voice be avoided?

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on May 1, 2013 by telescoper

It’s another very busy day (as well as another lovely one) so I thought instead of sitting indoors this lunchtime writing a typically verbose blog item I’d just pick something out of my back catalogue and give it another airing because it deals with something that’s come up a couple of times recently.

This is the time of year when final-year students are drafting their project reports. Yesterday I was back in Cardiff giving feedback on two such articles.  I usually quite enjoy reading these things, in fact. They’re not too long and I’m usually pretty impressed with how the students have set about the (sometimes quite tricky) things I’ve asked them to do for their project work. I think the project report is quite a challenge for UK physics students because they generally haven’t had much practice in putting together a lengthy piece of writing before or during their university course, so haven’t developed a style that they feel comfortable with and are often unfamiliar with various conventions (such as reference style, punctuation of equations, etc). Some of these are explained in quite a lot of detail in the instructions the students are given, of course, but we all know that only girls read instructions….

The thing that strikes me most forcibly about the strange way students write project reports is that they are nearly always phrased entirely in the passive voice, e.g.

The experiment was calibrated using a phlogiston normalisation widget….

I accept that people disagree about whether the passive voice is good style or not. Some journals actively encourage the passive voice while others go the opposite way entirely . I’m not completely opposed to it, in fact, but I think it’s only useful either when the recipient of the action described in the sentence is more important than the agent, or when the agent is unknown or irrelevant. There’s nothing wrong with “My car has been stolen” (passive voice) since you would not be expected to know who stole it. On the other hand “My Hamster has been eaten by Freddy Starr” would not make a very good headline.

The point is that the construction of a statement in the passive voice in English is essentially periphrastic, in that it almost inevitably involves some form of circumlocution – either using more words than necessary to express the meaning or being deliberately evasive by introducing ambiguity. Both of these failings should be avoided in scientific writing.

Apparently, laboratory instructors generally tell students to write their reports in the passive voice as a matter of course. I think this is just wrong. In a laboratory report the student should describe what he or she did. Saying what “was done” often leaves the statement open to the interpretation that somebody else did it. The whole point of a laboratory report is surely for the students to describe their own actions. “We calibrated the experiment..”  or “I calibrated the experiment…” are definitely to be preferred to the form I gave above.

That brings me to the choice of pronoun in the active voice. One danger is that it can appear very bombastic, but that’s not necessarily the case. I don’t find anything particularly wrong in saying, e.g.

We improve upon the technique of Jones et al. (1848) by introducing a variable doofer in the MacGuffin control, thereby removing gremlins from the thingummy process.

But the main issue is whether to use the singular or plural form. It can be irritating to keep encountering “I did this..” and “I did that..” all the way through a journal paper, and I certainly  would feel uncomfortable writing a piece like that in the first person singular. I think it feels less egotistical to use “we”, even if there is only one author (which is increasingly rare in any case). If it’s good enough for the Queen it’s good enough for me! However, I just looked “we” up in Chambers dictionary and found

..used when speaking patronizingly, esp to children, to mean `you’.

which wasn’t at all what I had in mind!

However in the case of a student project that I’m assessing I actually want to know what the particular student  writing the report did, not what was done by person or persons unspecified or by a group of uncertain composition. So I encourage my students to put, e.g.,

I wrote a computer program in 6502 Assembly Language to solve the Humdinger equation using the Dingbat-Schnitzelgruber algorithm.

I also (sometimes) like “we” when there’s, e.g., a complicated mathematical derivation.  Going  line by line through a lengthy piece or difficult technical argument seems friendlier if you imagine that the reader is trying to do the calculation along with you as you write it:

if we differentiate the right hand side of equation (8), use the expression for x obtained in equation (97), expand y in a power-series and take away the number we first thought of we find…

The “we” isn’t necessarily an  author with delusions of grandeur (or schizophrenia), but instead denotes a joint operation between author and reader.

Anyway, to resume the thread, it seems to me that sometimes it is appropriate to use the passive voice because it is the correct grammatical construction in the circumstances. Sometimes also the text just seems to work better that way too. But having to read an entire document written in the passive voice drives me to distraction. It’s clumsy and dull.

In scientific papers, things are a little bit different but I still think using the active voice makes them easier to read and less likely to be ambiguous. In the introduction to a journal paper it’s quite acceptable to discuss the background to your work in the passive voice, e.g. “it is now generally accepted that…” but when describing what you and your co-authors have done it’s much better to use the active voice. “We observed ABC1234 using the Unfeasibly Large Telescope..” is, to my mind, much better than “Observations of ABC1234 were made using..”.

Reading back over this post I notice that I have jumped fairly freely between active and passive voice, thus demonstrating that I don’t have a dogmatic objection to its use. What I’m arguing is that it shouldn’t be the default, that’s all.

My guess is that a majority of experimental scientists won’t agree with this opinion, but a majority of astronomers and theoreticians will.

This guess will now be tested by reactivating an old poll..


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