Archive for education

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:
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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?

Life, Work and Postgraduate Research

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords, Education with tags , , , , on September 21, 2014 by telescoper

A very busy Freshers’ Week at the University of Sussex is now behind us and lectures proper start tomorrow morning. As far as I was concerned all the Freshers’ events were superimposed on a week that was already filled with other things, some good (of which more anon), and some not so good (of which I will say nothing further).

After welcome receptions at the weekend, Freshers’ Week for me began with an induction lecture with all the new students in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) or at least as many as could rouse themselves for a 10am start the day after a big welcome party. In the event, the turnout was good. I then gave another little speech at a much less formal event in the Creativity Zone (which is situated in the building occupied by MPS. I then had to dash off to a couple of meetings but when I returned a couple of hours later the party was still going, so I helped myself to a beer and rejoined the socializing.

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Welcome to the new students in MPS!

And so it was for the rest of the week, dominated by meetings of one sort or another including one in London, until Friday and my last formal induction task in the form of a session for new postgraduate students in MPS. Since this happened at the end of Induction Week there wasn’t much of a practical nature say to the students that they hadn’t already heard during the School-based induction sessions that preceded it, so I decided to scrap the Powerpoint I had planned to use and just give a general pep talk. Doing so was quite an interesting experience because it reminded me of the time I started my own postgraduate education, here at Sussex.

As a matter of fact it was on the corresponding day in 1985 (Sunday 22nd September) that I moved down to Brighton in advance of starting my DPhil (as Sussex doctorates were called in those days). It’s hard to believe that was 29 years ago. As it turned out, I finished my thesis within three years and stayed on here at Sussex as a postdoctoral research fellow in the Astronomy Centre until 1990, whereupon I left to take up a teaching and research position at what is now Queen Mary, University of London. That was the start of a mini-tour of UK universities that ended up with me returning to Sussex last year as Head of the same school in which I started my research career.

This morning I noticed a story in the Times Higher about the loneliness and sense of isolation often faced by postgraduate research students which often leads to a crisis of confidence. I can certainly attest to that, for reasons I will try to explain below, so tried to reassure the students about it in the induction session on Friday.

The point is that a postgraduate research degree is very different from a programme of undergraduate study. For one thing, as a research student you are expected to work on your own a great deal of the time. That’s because nobody else will be doing precisely the same project so, although other students will help you out with some things, you’re not trying to solve the same problems as your peers as is the case with an undergraduate. Your supervisor will help you of course and make suggestions (of varying degrees of helpfulness), but a PhD is still a challenge that you have to meet on your own. I don’t think it is good supervisory practice to look over a research student’s shoulder all the time. It’s part of the purpose of a PhD that the student learns to go it alone. There is a balance of course, but my own supervisor was rather “hands off” and I regard that as the right way to supervise. I’ve always encouraged my own students to do things their own way rather than try to direct them too much.

That loneliness is tough in itself, but there’s also the scary fact that you do not usually know whether your problem has a solution, let alone whether you yourself can find it. There is no answer at the back of the book; if there were you would not be doing research. A good supervisor will suggest a project that he or she thinks is both interesting and feasible, but the expectation is that you will very quickly be in a position where you know more about that topic than your supervisor.

I think almost every research student goes through a phase in which they feel out of their depth. There are times when you get thoroughly stuck and you begin to think you will never crack it. Self-doubt, crisis of confidence, call it what you will, I think everyone who has done a postgraduate degree has experienced it. I certainly did. A year into my PhD I felt I was getting nowhere with the first problem I had been given to solve. All the other research students seemed much cleverer and more confident than me. Had I made a big mistake thinking I could this? I started to panic and began to think about what kind of job I should go into if I abandoned the idea of pursuing a career in research.

So why didn’t I quit? There were a number of factors, including the support and encouragement of my supervisor, staff and fellow students in the Astronomy Centre, and the fact that I loved living in Brighton, but above all it was because I knew that I would feel frustrated for the rest of my life if I didn’t see it through. I’m a bit obsessive about things like that. I can never leave a crossword unfinished either.

What happened was that after some discussion with my supervisor I shelved that first troublesome problem and tried another, much easier one. I cracked that fairly quickly and it became my first proper publication. Moreover, thinking about that other problem revealed that there was a way to finesse the difficulty I had failed to overcome in the first project. I returned to the first project and this time saw it through to completion. With my supervisor’s help that became my second paper, published in 1987.

I know it’s wrong to draw inferences about other people from one’s own particular experiences, but I do feel that there are general lessons. One is that if you are going to complete a research degree you have to have a sense of determination that borders on obsession. I was talking to a well-known physicist at a meeting not long ago and he told me that when he interviews prospective physics students he asks them “Can you live without physics?”. If the answer is “yes” then he tells them not to do a PhD. It’s not just a take-it-or-leave-it kind of job being a scientist. You have to immerse yourself in it and be prepared to put long hours in. When things are going well you will be so excited that you will find it as hard to stop as it is when you’re struggling. I’d imagine it is the just same for other disciplines.

The other, equally important, lesson to be learned is that it is essential to do other things as well. Being “stuck” on a problem is part-and-parcel of mathematics or physics research, but sometimes battering your head against the same thing for days on end just makes it less and less likely you will crack it. The human brain is a wonderful thing, but it can get stuck in a rut. One way to avoid this happening is to have more than one thing to think about.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been stuck on the last clue in a crossword. What I always do in that situation is put it down and do something else for a bit. It could even be something as trivial as making a cup of tea, just as long as I don’t think about the clue at all while I’m doing it. Nearly always when I come back to it and look at it afresh I can solve it. I have a large stack of prize dictionaries to prove that this works!

It can be difficult to force yourself to pause in this way. I’m sure that I’m not the only physicist who has been unable to sleep for thinking about their research. I do think however that it is essential to learn how to effect your own mental reboot. In the context of my PhD research this involved simply turning to a different research problem, but I think the same purpose can be served in many other ways: taking a break, going for a walk, playing sport, listening to or playing music, reading poetry, doing a crossword, or even just taking time out to socialize with your friends. Time spent sitting at your desk isn’t guaranteed to be productive.

So, for what it’s worth here is my advice to new postgraduate students. Work hard. Enjoy the challenge. Listen to advice from your supervisor, but remember that the PhD is your opportunity to establish your own identity as a researcher. Above all, in the words of the Desiderata:

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

Never feel guilty about establishing a proper work-life balance. Having more than one dimension to your life is will not only improve your well-being but also make you a better researcher.

Advice for Mathematics, Physics and Astronomy Students on Clearing!

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on August 14, 2014 by telescoper

Got your A-level results? Not made your first-choice University? My advice is:

1-dont-panic

We still some have places in the School of Mathematical & Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. Whether you’re interested in Physics, Astrophysics, Astronomy or Mathematics (or even a combination of those subjects), why not just take a look at the University’s Clearing Page and give us a ring?

As a matter of fact, I’ll be around myself from 8am this morning to talk to interested students!

Click the relevant link for more information on our courses in Physics & Astronomy or for Mathematics!

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.

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