Archive for education

Examination Times

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on May 19, 2014 by telescoper

After a gloriously sunny weekend, it’s now a gloriously sunny Monday. There always seems to be good weather when students are revising for, or actually taking, their examinations. It’s Mother Nature’s special torture. The bus I was on this morning went past a large crowd of students waiting outside the Sports Hall in the bright sunshine for some examination or other.  The sight did remind me that I usually post something about examinations at this time of year, so here’s a lazy rehash of my previous offerings on the subject.

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. Unusually compared with the rest of the University, Physics students don’t have many examinations in the January mid-year examination period either. Although there’s still in my view 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 28th May) so I’ll find out if the students managed to learn anything despite having such a lousy lecturer. Which reminds me, I must get the rest of their revision notes onto the Study Direct website…

How should mathematics be taught to non-mathematicians?

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on February 25, 2014 by telescoper

telescoper:

This post from the estimable “Gowers’s Weblog” passed me by when it was originally published in 2012, but I saw the link on Twitter and decided to repost it here because it’s still topical..

Originally posted on Gowers's Weblog:

Michael Gove, the UK’s Secretary of State for Education, has expressed a wish to see almost all school pupils studying mathematics in one form or another up to the age of 18. An obvious question follows. At the moment, there are large numbers of people who give up mathematics after GCSE (the exam that is usually taken at the age of 16) with great relief and go through the rest of their lives saying, without any obvious regret, how bad they were at it. What should such people study if mathematics becomes virtually compulsory for two more years?

A couple of years ago there was an attempt to create a new mathematics A-level called Use of Mathematics. I criticized it heavily in a blog post, and stand by those criticisms, though interestingly it isn’t so much the syllabus that bothers me as the awful exam questions. One might…

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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.

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