Archive for education

Examination Time Again

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on May 11, 2015 by telescoper

Once again it’s time for examinations 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 18th 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.

The Critical Shortage of UK Physics Teachers

Posted in Education with tags , , on May 1, 2015 by telescoper

I came across this little video at the Gatsby Charitable Foundation website and thought I would share it here.

The video (or “motion graphic”) makes the point that the impact of innovative thinking and interventions resulted in an increase in the supply of physics teachers until 2012 but since then it has subsequently declined, with serious implications not only for physics but for the country as a whole.

I quote:

Modelling by the Department for Education (DfE) and the Institute of Physics (IoP) suggests that we need to recruit around 1,000 new physics teachers every year for at least the next decade in order to meet demand. This year, just 661 teachers started physics teacher training, down from a peak of 900 in 2012. The stark reality is that, if we are to meet the demand for physics teachers and ensure that all pupils have access to well-qualified, specialist teachers, we must look at new ways to recruit, train and retain physics teachers.

Indeed. We’re planning a bit initiative here in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex, of which more anon..

It seems to me that the basic problem is threefold: (a) that there aren’t enough physics students at University in the first place; (b) that good physics graduates are very employable and get snapped up quickly by employers; (c) that teaching doesn’t seem an attractive career option compared to the many others available. Many efforts focus on (c) but the root cause of the problem is actually (a)…

..nevertheless, I will use this opportunity to point out that bursaries of £25K are available to excellent physics graduates wanting to become physics teachers, courtesy of the Institute of Physics. The deadline for the latest round of applications is this Monday (4th May). Here’s a promotional video:

How Arts Students Subsidise Science

Posted in Education, Finance with tags , , , , on March 26, 2015 by telescoper

Some time ago I wrote a blog post about the madness of the current fee regime in UK higher education. Here is a quote from that piece:

To give an example, I was talking recently to a student from a Humanities department at a leading University (not my employer). Each week she gets 3 lectures and one two-hour seminar, the latter  usually run by a research student. That’s it for her contact with the department. That meagre level of contact is by no means unusual, and some universities offer even less tuition than that. A recent report states that the real cost of teaching for Law and Sociology is less than £6000 per student, consistent with the level of funding under the “old” fee regime; teaching in STEM disciplines on the other hand actually costs over £11k. What this means, in effect, is that Arts and Humanities students are cross-subsidising STEM students. That’s neither fair nor transparent.

Now here’s a nice graphic from the Times Higher that demonstrates the extent to which Science students are getting a much better deal than those in the Arts and Humanities.

Subsidy

The problem with charging fees relating to the real cost of studying the subject concerned is that it will deter students from doing STEM disciplines and cause even greater numbers to flock into cheaper subjects (which where much of the growth in the HE sector over the last decade has actually taken place in any case). However, the diagram shows how absurd the current system (of equal fee regardless of subject really is), and it’s actually quite amazing that more Arts students haven’t twigged what is going on. The point is that they are (unwittingly) subsidising their colleagues in STEM subjects. I think it would be much fairer if that subsidy were provided directly from the taxpayer via HEFCE otherwise there’s a clear incentive for universities to rake in cash from students on courses that are cheap to teach, rather than to provide a proper range of courses across the entire curriculum. Where’s the incentive to bother teaching, e.g., Physics at all in the current system?

I re-iterate my argument from a few weeks ago that the Labour Party’s pledge to reduce fees to £6K across all disciplines would result in a much fairer and justifiable system, as long as there was a direct subsidy from the government to make good the shortfall (of around £6K per annum per student in Physics, for example).

Essays in Physics

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , on March 6, 2015 by telescoper

In the course of a rare episode of tidying-up in my office I came across this. You can click on it to make it bigger if it’s difficult to read. It was the first paper of my finals examination at the University of Cambridge way back in 1985. Yes, that really was thirty years ago…

wpid-wp-1425648226410.jpeg

As you can probably infer from the little circle around number 4, I decided to write an Essay about topic 4. I’ve always been interested in detective stories so this was an easy choice for me, but I have absolutely no idea what I wrote about for three hours. Nor do I recall actually ever getting a mark for the essay, so I never really knew whether it really counted for anything. I do remember, however, that I had another 3-hour examination in the afternoon of the same day, two three-hour examinations the following day, and would have had two the day after that had I not elected to do a theory project which let me off one paper at the end.

I survived this rigorous diet of examinations (more-or-less) and later that year moved to Sussex to start my DPhil, returning here couple of years ago as Head of the same School in which I did my graduate studies. To add further proof that the universe is cyclic, this year I’ve taken on the job of being External Examiner for physics at the University of Cambridge, the same place I did my undergraduate studies.

Anyway, to get back to the essay paper, we certainly don’t set essay examinations like that here in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex and I suspect they no longer do so in the Department of Physics at Cambridge. I don’t really see the point of making students write such things under examination conditions. On the other hand, I do have an essay as part of the coursework in my 2nd Year Theoretical Physics module. That may seem surprising and I’m not sure the students like the idea, but the reason for having it is that theoretical physics students don’t do experimental work in the second year so they don’t get the chance to develop their writing skills through lab reports. The essay titles I set are much more specific than those listed in the paper above and linked very closely to the topics covered in the lectures, but it’s still an opportunity for physics students to practice writing and getting some feedback on their efforts. Incidentally, some of the submissions last year were outstandingly good and I’m actually quite looking forward to reading this year’s crop!

Helping Blind Physicists

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on February 4, 2015 by telescoper

The Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex has been supporting some fantastic research into the accessibility of science education. Daniel Hajas, a blind second year physics undergraduate student has been working with Dr. Kathy Romer, Reader in Astrophysics, on a research project related to innovative assistive technology.

Daniel came up with the idea of an audio-tactile graphics display (TGD) that should allow representation of graphical information in audio and tactile modalities, mostly focusing on figures used in mathematical sciences such as graphs, geometric shapes etc. The TGD is a device  with approximate dimensions of a tablet that can sit on a table top and can be connected with a PC using either a wired or wireless solution.

During the summer of 2014, Daniel wrote a research proposal, attended an assistive technology oriented conference and since the beginning of this academic year has been searching for partners/funding. Daniel and Kathy recently submitted an application to the Inclusive Technology Price (ITP).

Since October they have made contact with IT and cognitive science experts from the Sussex IT department and are also in contact with an LHC Sound project (CERN) team member to assist with sonification. Daniel and Kathy plan to establish collaboration with experts from various fields, find research partners and funding. Such an interdisciplinary research requires collaboration of various Sussex Departments if not other Universities from across the UK.

Daniel's 3D Vector Board

Daniel’s 3D Vector Board

Daniel has also been busy inventing the ‘3D vector board’, a small plastic board with two flexible rubber stripes perpendicular to each other which can be can moved around such that they show the axes of a coordinate system. The board has a grid on it with 1×1 cm squares. At the junctions four little holes are drilled in the corner of the squares. This allows the vectors (metal sticks of different length) to be fixed on the board. Since there are horizontal, diagonal and vertical sticks i.e. the sticks are either in the plane, perpendicular to or in an angle respect to the plane of the board 3D vector scenarios can be modelled easily.

Although Daniel intended to use the board solely for his own purposes, feedback suggests this relatively simple tool could be used efficiently in education for demonstrational purposes. Both visually impaired and sighted students could benefit from it. Sketches on paper or black boards only allow 2D representations. The 3D vector board might also work well in illustrating aims of the TGD project. Although the main goal is to develop a very advanced high-tech assistive device over a period of years, Daniel and Kathy might also come up with a number of low-tech ideas to improve accessibility of mathematical sciences for visually impaired students.

See Daniel’s project website for further details about his research.

Graduation Engagement

Posted in Education with tags , , on January 23, 2015 by telescoper

Yesterday I took part in the Winter Graduation ceremony for students in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) at the University of Sussex; as Head of School it was my very pleasant duty to read out the names of the graduands as they passed across the stage at the Brighton Dome, where the ceremony takes place.

Let me first of all congratulate again all those who graduated yesterday!

The Winter ceremony is largely devoted to students graduating from postgraduate programmes, either taught (MSc or MA)  or research-based (PhD). We don’t have huge numbers of such students in MPS so I had relatively few names to read out yesterday. Most of our students graduate in the summer ceremony. Sharing the ceremony with us this time was the School of Business, Management and Economics which, by contrast, has huge taught postgraduate programmes so the acting Head of School for BMEC (as it is called) had a lot of work to do!

It was nice to have Sanjeev Bhaskar back in place as Chancellor (he was absent on filming duty for last year’s summer ceremonies), who is charming and friendly as well as frequently hilarious.

Anyway, getting to the point, graduation is a special moment for all students involved, but there was an extra extra special moment for two students in particular yesterday.

I was sitting in the front of the platform party very near Sanjeev when a male student from BMEC graduated. As well as shaking the Chancellor’s hand he had a fairly long discussion with him and slipped him what appeared to be a small box in such a way that the audience couldn’t see it. Then, after walking across the stage, the student waited at the far side instead of returning to the auditorium by going down the stairs.

Funny, I thought, but at that point I had no idea what was going on.

The next graduand was a female student. When she got to Sanjeev he shook her hand as usual but then called back the previous one, still standing on the stage, and gave the box back to him. Of course it contained an engagement ring. And so it came to pass that Jing Liu (kneeling) proposed to Qin Me (standing).

proposals

It was a wonderful moment, although it struck me as a high-risk strategy and it wasn’t at all obvious at first sight how it would turn out. She doesn’t look that sure in the picture, actually! She did, however, say “yes” and the couple are now engaged to be married. I wish them every happiness. I’m sure I speak for everyone at the ceremony when I say that it brought an extra dimension of joy to what was already a wonderfully joyous occasion.

Our lives seem to revolve around rituals of one sort or another. Graduation is one, marriage is another. This is definitely the first time I’ve seen this particular combination.

I love graduation ceremonies. As the graduands go across the stage you realize that every one of them has a unique story to tell and a whole universe of possibilities in front of them. How their lives will unfold no-one can tell, but it’s a privilege to be there for one important milestone on their journey.

UPDATE: Here’s a video of the ceremony. The big event happens about from 44:48…

Graphic Display

Posted in Art, Biographical with tags , , , , on November 29, 2014 by telescoper

Two days ago, on Thursday, I had the pleasure of spending all day at an “Awayday” trying to work out how to implement the University of Sussex Strategic Plan, Making the Future. My main contribution was this beautifully clear diagram summarising a lengthy discussion on research strategy:
IMG_0974
Obviously the diagram needs no further explanation, but members of the audience were so impressed with it as a piece of graphic art that the end of the day I was asked to sign it.

Research Strategy

Now, who’s going to nominate me for the Turner Prize?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,058 other followers