Archive for lectures

Back to Electromagnetism

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on February 1, 2022 by telescoper

So today I gave my first lecture of the new Semester, it being a gentle reintroduction to Maxwell’s equations for a 4th-year class on Advanced Electromagnetism. They have seen these equations before but it doesn’t do any harm to spend a bit of time refreshing the memory. In what follows I do some potential theory, applications to electrostatics (method of images, multipole expansions, use of the complex potential, etc), dielectric materials and polarization, magnetostatics, relativistic formalism of electromagnetism, gauge invariance, electromagnetic radiation and energy transport, and (if time) plasma physics (if time).

When I taught this module last year I did it all remotely from home – using the blackboard shown above – but this year until further notice I’ll be doing it in person in an actual lecture theatre, though I will be recording the lectures in case any students wish to look at them again for revision, etc, and webcasting them for any students unable to attend on campus. I know there are differences of opinion on this, but I think recording of lectures should become routine practice – as it is in all UK universities I’m aware of – but that is difficult here in Maynooth because the equipment available is inadequate (by which I mean virtually non-existent). Let’s hope the necessary investment will be made at some point.

Teaching + Learning ≠ Lecturing

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on January 13, 2022 by telescoper
Iontas Lecture Theatre, Maynooth University

The main purpose of this post is to encourage you to read a piece written by a second-year student at the blog run by Phil Moriarty of Nottingham University entitled Death of the Lecture: Musings of a second year student as it provides at least some first-hand reflections from a current student about the difficulties being faced by a student. So, go on, or as they say round here, gwan. Read it.

I couldn’t resist making a few tangential comments of my own.

First, on my philosophy of teaching (such as it is) which is largely formed by my own experiences both as a student many years ago and as a lecturer for many years since then. When I was an undergraduate I didn’t get much out of the lectures I attended at Cambridge and my attendance dropped off a bit as my course went on (though I still attended most). This was because the majority of lectures just involved transparency after transparency being put on and taken off the overhead projector, with students frantically writing down as much as they could but with little time to think. I think that’s what people nowadays call a “traditional” lecture. I agree with Phil Moriarty that these are pedagogically useless. If there ever is a return to normality, the New Normal – to use a very hackneyed phrase – should not be based on this as the primary mode of teaching.

I think this form of non-teaching evolved because it is cost-effective, but academics have gone along with it largely because lots of them actually enjoy standing up and talking about their subject; sometimes it’s difficult to get them to stop. As a matter of fact, that applies to me too. I enjoy talking about physics and astrophysics. I like to think that I can at least communicate some enthusiasm for the subjects through lectures, but I do realize that this does not necessarily make me a very effective teacher.

But in many ways I think the “traditional lecture” described above is a straw man. Many lecturers actually use the traditional format (50 minutes with a class in a large room) to do much more than I’ve just described. When we had to switch teaching online I bought a blackboard and did my lectures from home using it. I know a lot of people found it quaint that I adopted this “traditional” approach but I think explaining mathematical concepts through examples works well via a chalkboard and by standing up I could put more energy into the session than I could if sitting at a screen.

The point is that nowadays we provide students with many more resources to back up this kind of activity – besides my sessions the students get tutorials, and besides the live sessions they get printed notes, problem sets to do on their own, various online resources and of course video recordings. Having all that allows the lecturer to free themselves from the task of delivering material and instead try to cultivate understanding. I never lecture verbatim from notes; I prefer to cover the material in a complementary fashion, expanding on the bits I think need most explanation and/or are most important.

When I was a student I found I learned best not by attending lectures but by reading textbooks and doing problems. That’s just me though. Over the years I realized that different students learn in very different ways. The most important thing for teachers to do is to provide as many ways as possible for the students to learn so they can use what works best for them. In some respects I think of higher education as being more like a smorgasbord than a set menu.

But there lies the difficulty. There is now so much extra material available that many students find it hard to know where to start, just as when you arrive at a buffet table: it might look appetizing but you might not even know what’s in many of the dishes. There needs to be some structure, especially in the early years of a degree to help students find their own way to navigate the more independent methods of study required in an undergraduate degree.

The question for me is not whether lectures have a role to play in the New Normal – I think they do – but what is the best way to incorporate them in a blend. More importantly we need to do a lot more to help students develop their study skills and structure their time so they can learn most effectively. There was no time to do this when the pandemic forced us to change and we were given few resources to assist in the task, but it’s going to be necessary in future as we move inevitably to a more flexible future. Timetabled lectures do of course provide a structure, but there’s almost certainly a better way. As one concrete proposal, I’d call for a vastly expanded induction programme for new students focussing on study skills and other aspects of learning to put in place for the benefit of future intakes.

Like most universities, Maynooth University has a “Teaching & Learning Committee”. I sometimes wonder whether there is as strong a connection between these two words as we’d like to believe. At any rate, switching teaching online does not necessarily mean that learning goes with it!

Questions of Examinations and Lectures

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on November 20, 2021 by telescoper

The deterioration of the Covid-19 situation in Ireland continues apace, with a 7-day average of new cases currently around 4300 per day and 640 people in hospital with 121 needing intensive care.

No doubt due to vaccination the number of deaths remains mercifully low, just 43 reported last week. Let’s hope that lasts.

We have four more weeks of teaching at Maynooth University this semester after which we have the Christmas break and then, in January, the examination period. The current plan is for the examinations to be of the traditional kind, taken in an exam hall on campus but how long this will indeed be the plan is anyone’s guess.

Here at Maynooth we have been told here that a decision will be taken next Friday (26th November) on whether on-campus examinations will go ahead after Christmas. With just three weeks of the term left at that point, this seems very late. If the decision is taken next week to go ahead and the pandemic continues to deteriorate (which is likely, with a surge in transmission expected over the holiday) then that decision may have to be reversed in January.

The Minister responsible for Higher Education, Simon Harris, has indicated that third-level institutions may have to introduce special mechanisms to help students prevented from attending exams in person by Covid-19.

I really hope this is not going to be interpreted as meaning that we have to offer both online and on campus examinations.

That’s partly because of the workload issue: we’ve already written our examinations on the basis that they will be held in person and would have to write another set and get them ready with just three weeks of the term left. We’ve been landed with heavy increases in workload at short notice before I don’t think I’m the only person to be a bit fed with it. Another issue, is that is fairness. I think it is important that all students should take the same examination in the same way otherwise one group might be disadvantaged relative to the other. It would be fairer simply to allow students who can’t take the on-campus examinations in January to take the August repeat in the usual manner.

It’s not for me to decide, of course, but I think it would be sensible to take the decision immediately to switch to online examinations in January. That way staff and students will know straight away where they stand. If it turns out the pandemic does go as badly over the next two months then this might seem to have been excessively cautious, but what would really be lost? We have done three examination periods online now during the pandemic and I think that by now we know how to do it reasonably well.

Examinations are still some time in the future of course, but we still have four weeks of teaching to get through. I have seen anecdotal evidence from colleagues that attendance at lectures and tutorials has fallen rapidly since the mid-term break. I have heard directly from some students that they do not feel safe travelling to and from University and are wary of the large crowds on campus.

My own experience is that lecture attendance has held up reasonably well in my modules, but I deliver my lectures as webcasts and record them anyway so am quite happy if students want to watch them remotely or offline at a subsequent date. Many of them are taking other subjects which are taught in bigger classes which are all online anyway and in that case there is little incentive to come onto campus for one module when everything else is remote.

Simon Harris seems to have nailed his colours to the “return-to-campus” mast so even if there is a drastic surge in Covid-19 over the next few weeks I think the official line will be that we carry on teaching in person. Students however are probably more sensible that either politicians or University managers and will revert to online learning for all practical purposes by simply not coming to campus. And who could blame them?

Vaccination for Lectures?

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on August 20, 2021 by telescoper

The full guidelines on the return to on-campus teaching in September that I referred to on Monday have now been distributed to all staff, not without comment.

Basically the new advice is that in-person teaching will return in September (in fact a month from today in Maynooth) for all forms of class except lectures containing over 250 people, which will be online. Lecture halls and labs will be at full capacity, i.e. with no social distancing requirement. Students will be “asked” to wear face coverings, but we are told not to attempt to enforce this. Importantly, there will be no requirement for students to have been vaccinated in order to attend lectures.

In Ireland there is a vaccination passport system so that those who wish to dine indoors at a bar or restaurant have to show vaccination status. Perhaps someone can explain to me how it makes sense for this to be a requirement in a restaurant while it is not a requirement for a student having to sit for an hour in close proximity to up to 249 others with no social distancing and no mandatory face coverings.

This conundrum is taken to another level of absurdity when you consider that a student wishing to get lunch indoors on campus will presumably have to show their vaccine passport?

There is an article here that argues that a safe return in the presence of the delta-variant requires 90% of the student population to have been vaccinated.

A more acceptable plan would have students show their vaccination status when enrolling on the course. Those who are unvaccinated but willing to have a vaccination shot could be vaccinated there and then and be allowed to attend lectures when the vaccine takes effect. Or I should say “could have been” because the facilities required to do on-campus vaccinations have not been set up and now there probably isn’t time. Those that refuse to have a vaccine should attend lectures online on a permanent basis.

(How such a scheme would be policed is a difficult question: we don’t usually have people on the doors of lecture theatres checking student IDs or anything and there is a far greater rate of traffic at the start of a lecture than you would have at a restaurant…)

There will of course be some students who are at very high risk and should not be attending lectures anyway even if vaccinated. For them we should be providing lecture recordings. Unfortunately I don’t think we have good enough facilities to record live lectures from theatres as there has been inadequate investment in cameras etc. If we’re told we have to provide lecture recordings, for many of us that means doing the lectures twice. And so our workload increases.

On the other hand it seems increasingly likely to me that all this will be irrelevant. New case numbers are running at about 1800 per day, a level that the HSE admits to being “unsustainable”. When the first colleges return in September, a substantial surge can be expected and everything will be back online anyway.

It’s like déjà vu all over again…

Dreams, Planes and Automobiles

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on November 20, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve blogged before about the strange dreams that I’ve been having during this time of Covid-19 lockdowns, but last night I had a doozy. I’ve recently been doing some examples of Newtonian Mechanics problems for my first-year class: blocks sliding up and down planes attached by pulleys to other blocks by inextensible strings; you know the sort of thing.

Anyway, last night I had a dream in which I was giving a lecture about cars going up and down hills taking particular account of the effects of friction and air resistance. The lecture was in front of a camera and using a portable blackboard and chalk, but all that was set up outside in the middle of a main road with traffic whizzing along either side and in the presence of a strong gusty wind. I had to keep stopping to pick up my notes which had blown away, dodging cars as I went.

It would undoubtedly make for much more exciting lectures if I recorded them in such a situation, but I think I’d be contravening traffic regulations by setting up in the middle of the Straffan Road. On the other hand, I could buy myself a green screen and add all that digitally in post-production…

Asynchronous and Public Lectures

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on September 11, 2020 by telescoper

This morning I came across a very interesting blogpost by Philip Moriarty which is mainly about teaching quantum mechanics but also includes some discussion of his ideas of how he plans to conduct teaching for the forthcoming semester at the University of Nottingham.

We are in a rather different situation here at Maynooth University with Covid-19 different rules, different numbers of students and different levels of resource in terms of teaching software and equipment, but I think the primary constraints are similar.

Here is is graphic Philip uses to outline the major elements of teaching he plans to adopt (copied without permission):

I think the University of Nottingham has, in common with many other UK universities, moved all its large lecture classes online. Here in Maynooth we’re restricted by physical distancing to have an absolutely maximum of 50 people in any lecture theatre at one time, so effectively the big classes will be online too. However, many of our smaller classes and tutorials will be on campus `face-to-face’ sessions. Since Theoretical Physics is a relatively small Department many of our modules will run pretty much as normal.

This are a bit different for the first year Mathematical Physics module which I teach (MP110) where the class last year was about 90 students. This class will have to be split, but I am still planning to deliver face-to-face lectures for all students in some form. There are three lectures a week in this class and I’ll probably have to have about one third of the students in each session: the other sessions will be streamed and recorded – assuming our newly-installed Panopto system works (!) – and made available to students not at the class. In addition students will get a tutorial per week, also in person.

I have thought a lot about this over the last few months and I’ve decided that the main `lectures’ (which will be with fewer than 30 students) will not be lectures but more like `workshops’ where I illustrate the main results that I would have given in a “normal” lecture using examples as well as getting students to work on problems in class.

Like Philip I plan to record videos of the “primary content” offline, probably in my office, so the students can view them at their leisure. I decided to record these primarily because I think the production quality of such lectures would be better. I’ve used Panopto before and it’s OK, but it has its limitations. I don’t have access to all the equipment Philip talks about, but at least in my office I can re-take and edit the video whenever I mess up (which will be quite frequently, I’m sure). These won’t be 50-minute lectures as I find that not having the interaction with the audience, going back over things when it’s clear they haven’t understood, giving them problems to try in class, etc, the time taken to cover the material in a video is far shorter.

Making these `asynchronous’ is, I think, extremely important. Timetabling teaching sessions looks likely to be extremely complicated for the forthcoming semester so I think it’s far better to make the content available for students to study wherever and whenever they want.

So my plan is that students will get each week:

  • A set of pre-recorded videos covering the material for that week
  • One interactive workshop on campus
  • Access to recordings of two other workshops
  • A full set of lecture notes
  • Coursework examples (assessed)
  • One tutorial on campus
  • A virtual office hour with the lecturer (me) for Q&A

It’s not the same “as normal” but I think it provides the best blend of learning approaches possible under the constraints we will have to operate. Note also that some students may be “at very high risk” for health reasons and consequently unable to come onto campus. The approach I have outlined here means that such students will miss as little as possible.

Unlike Philip, I don’t hate Moodle, so this will be where all the course materials will be made available. It will also be the principal channel of communication with the class.

Like Philip, though, I am in favour of putting all the primary content on Youtube so that anyone who wants to access it can do so. I have suggested this before and it received mixed reactions, but for me it’s more a point of principle. As my teaching is funded by the public purse, it seems reasonable to me that what I produce should all be in the public domain wherever possible. That obviously excludes some teaching activities (e.g. labs and tutorials) but I don’t see why I shouldn’t do it with lectures or other video content. I won’t make the workshop videos public, because they may accidentally identify students who do not wish to appear on a video.

I know many of my colleagues disagree with this, so here’s the unscientific poll I’ve been running to see what people think. Not that the voting will change my mind….

 

 

Littlewood on `the real point’ of lectures

Posted in Education, mathematics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 3, 2020 by telescoper

We’re often challenged these days to defend the educational value of the lecture as opposed to other forms of delivery, especially with the restrictions on large lectures imposed by Covid-19. But this is not a new debate. The mathematician J.E. Littlewood felt necessary to defend the lecture as a medium of instruction (in the context of advanced mathematics) way back in 1926 in the Introduction to his book The Elements of the Theory of Real Functions.

(as quoted by G. Temple in his Inaugural Lecture as Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Oxford in 1954 “The Classic and Romantic in Natural Philosophy”.)

Temple concluded his lecture with:

Classic perfection should be reserved for the monograph: the successful lecture is almost inevitably a romantic adventure. It is at once the grandeur and misery of a scientific classic that it says the last word: it is the charm of a scientific romance that it utters the first word, and thus opens the windows on a new world.

Modern textbooks do try to be more user-friendly than perhaps they were in Littlewood’s day, and they aren’t always “complete and accurate” either, but I think Littlewood is right in pointing out that they do often hide `the real point’ so students sometimes can’t see the wood for the trees. The value of lectures is not in trying to deliver masses of detail but to point out the important bits.

It seems apt to mention that the things I remember best from my undergraduate lectures at Cambridge are not what’s in my lecture notes – most of which I still have, incidentally – but some of the asides made by the lectures. In particular I remember Peter Scheuer who taught Electrodynamics & Relativity talking about his first experience of radio astronomy. He didn’t like electronics at all and wasn’t sure radio astronomy was for him, but someone – possibly Martin Ryle – reassured him by saying “All you need to know in order to do this is Ohm’s Law. But you need to know it bloody well.”

Back to Returning to Campus Again

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on September 1, 2020 by telescoper

Three weeks ago I was writing about our plans for returning to campus at Maynooth University only to be rudely interrupted the very next day by new restrictions that forced us to put those plans on ice. Now we have about four weeks to get everything in place so we have to crack on.

Today the University wrote to all students outlining the general approach we are taking at Maynooth, but the details vary enormously from subject to subject. That is because the capacity of lecture theatres and laboratories and seminar rooms is reduced considerably to maintain the proper distancing between students. Classes will inevitably be smaller but we haven’t got any more rooms, so the number of face-to-face sessions will have to decrease. This affects every subject but hits very large courses much harder than smaller ones.

I will be in at the deep end on September 28th as I am teaching our first-year Mathematical Physics module, MP110. That is in Physical Hall, which has a normal capacity of 90 reduced to 27 by physical distancing requirements. Last year I had about 85 students in the class so it was full every time. This term I can fit only about one-third of that number in any session. There are three lectures per week in that module which means that if I have up to 81 students then each will be able to attend one lecture. Those unable to attend a lecture will be able to view recordings. Over the summer the University has been installing Panopto, a lecture-capture system we used to have when I was in Cardiff, so recordings of each session can be made. I also intend to record offline supplementary material for the class.

In addition to lectures each student on MP110 previously had a weekly tutorial. For the tutorials the students were split into 4 groups, but this year the reduced room capacities will probably require us to have more, smaller groups or to move to bi-weekly tutorials.

All of this is very sensitive to numbers, and we won’t know those until very close to the start of term. If we get more students than last year we will to revise the plans. The start of term is likely require quite a lot of last-minute adjustment.

For returning students on more specialist modules the classes are smaller and the impact less severe. I will also be teaching a second-year module MP201 Vector Calculus and Fourier Series next term. Not everyone who does Mathematical Physics in Year 1 continues with it to the second year so we expect roughly 50 on MP201. With that number we may be able to run lectures as normal (which means two a week) but may have to switch to bi-weekly tutorials. We expect third and fourth year classes to run quite close to normal. At least we will know the numbers of returning students fairly soon and can lock those plans in, leaving the 1st year to be dealt with last.

On top of all this we do have to have contingency plans in case the local or national Covid-19 situation deteriorates so far that we have to close the campus again. We will be in a better position to deal with that than we were back in March, as we have learned a lot very quickly and now have better equipment.

This afternoon the President of Maynooth University, Professor Philip Nolan, sent a message to all students that included the following:

Most of the large modules will use streaming of lectures so that you will receive some of the lectures on-line, and will be invited to attend less frequently than usual. Tutorials and practicals will also have reduced capacity, and in some cases the frequency will be reduced. The content of each module will remain largely unchanged, so you will be introduced to the same ideas, concepts and challenges. What will change is the format of delivery, and you will learn through a combination of live classes and on-screen material. We will publish more information, and details of the contact time in sample modules on the COVID page of the university website.

This reduced time on campus will mean that you will need to take more responsibility for your own learning, and ensure that you keep up with both the on-campus and on-line teaching.

Some of you are wondering if you need to attend at all, and whether you could complete your studies remotely. We are not a distance teaching university, and most of our courses are designed for on-campus delivery. So there will be times when you need to be on campus, and you will need to make sure that you can get to the campus when you need to.

I’ve seen some of the draft plans for other departments and it seems that the Department of Theoretical Physics is probably going to be one of the departments whose students will spend the most time on campus, with about 50% of the normal contact time. That’s primarily because we are small(ish) so can be a little more flexible. I also think that mathematical physics is a subject that needs students to take responsibility for their own learning anyway because much of it is problem-based. You can do physics problems at home or on the bus just as well as sitting in a room on campus.

I know some students are questioning the need to come on campus at all if they have so few contact hours and material is made available via recordings anyway. I can only speak for my own Department when I say that we think there is a huge value attached to in-person teaching, which is why we are trying so hard to maximize the on-campus experience for our students. It won’t quite be business as usual but will be the very best we can do under the constraints we have imposed on us. We’re doing the best we can but we do need students to play their part too!

P.S. I note that, for example, Waterford Institute of Technology is taking a quite different approach, with all lectures and tutorials going online for the whole academic year 2020/21.

From May to September

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , on May 28, 2020 by telescoper

So here we are, then. The final pair of examinations online timed assessments for students in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University have just started and the students’ submissions will come in later this afternoon. By a curious coincidence the last two comprise a 3rd Year module on Special Relativity and a 4th year module on General Relativity, both of which happen at the same time (in the reference frame of the students).

I don’t want to jinx this afternoon’s proceedings but the switch to online assessments has gone much more smoothly than I imagined it would. I’ve been keeping an eye on all of them and there have been very few problems, and those that did arise were sorted out relatively easily. I’m immensely relieved by this, as I think I’ve been more nervous during these examinations than most of the students!

After this afternoon we will have to knuckle down and get these assessments marked in time for the round of Exam Board meetings. We have been allowed an extra week to do this because grading will be a slower process than usual, especially for the kind of mathematical work we do in the Department of Theoretical Physics. We’ll have to see how it goes but I’m confident we can get the results ready by 18th June, which is the date of our (virtual) Exam Board.

After the Exam Boards we would normally be thinking of relaxing a bit for the summer, and doing a bit of research, but there’s no sign of that being possible this year.

Among the urgent things to deal with are managing the `return to work’ of staff during the various phases of the Irish Government’s Roadmap. This document does not give much detail and there are serious issues to be solved before we can even start Phase 2 (due to commence June 8th) never mind finish Phase 5 and return to some semblance of normal working.

Iontas Lecture Theatre, Maynooth University

Slightly further off, but no less urgent is the matter of how to deal with the start of the next academic year, assuming the progress of the pandemic allows this to happen at all. One of the big uncertainties is how many potential students will defer their university study until next year, which makes it difficult to predict how many students we will have to cater for.

I have to say I’m very annoyed by recent reporting of this issue in the Irish Times, which includes this:

The fact that most lectures will take place online, along with changed economic conditions facing families and inability of students to secure summer work, may make it less attractive for many students to go to college in the coming year.

The second word fact (my emphasis) is the problem, as it describes something that is not a fact at all. A lot can happen between May and September, but we are currently planning on the basis that most of our lectures in Theoretical Physics will go ahead pretty much as normal. That may in the end turn out to be impossible, e.g. if there is a second wave of infection, but at the moment it is a reasonable scenario. And even if we do have to move some or all lectures online we will still have face-to-face teaching in the form of tutorials, exercise classes and computer laboratories.

A slightly less misleading article can be found in the same newspaper here.

A couple of weeks ago, Cambridge University announced that there would be no face-to-face lectures at all next academic year. I was amused to hear a representative of that institution on the radio sounding as if he was saying that “at Cambridge, lectures have very little to do with teaching”. I think what he meant was that tutorials and other teaching sessions would still go ahead so the loss of in-person lectures was not as important as it sounded. That may very well be true of Arts and Humanities subjects, but I was an undergraduate in Natural Sciences at Cambridge (many years ago) and I can tell you the vast majority of my tuition there was in the lecture theatre.

Neither is it the case that Oxford and Cambridge are the only UK universities to have tutorials or small group tuition, but I digress…

My point is that, while I can’t promise that it will be business as usual from September 2020, it’s quite wrong to give potential students the impression that it would be a waste of their time starting this academic year. I can assure any students reading this of the fact that we’re doing everything we can to give them as good an experience as possible.

You shouldn’t believe everything you read in the newspapers!

The Importance of Taking Notes

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , on September 24, 2018 by telescoper

Well, term has officially started and the campus of Maynooth University is looking very busy. Taking a short break from the task of preparing notes and problem sets for the modules  I’m teaching this term.  I’ve just remembered an old post I did some time ago about  lecture notes. I won’t repeat the entire content of my earlier discussion, but one of the main points I made in that was that many students are simply not used to taking notes and find it difficult to do so effectively during lectures, so much so that the effort of copying things onto paper must surely prevent them absorbing the intellectual content of the lecture (assuming that there is any). Since it’s the first week of teaching here, I thought I’d share some thoughts, for the benefit of those starting a new term.

I dealt with the problem  of taking notes when I was an undergraduate by learning to write very quickly without looking at the paper as I did so. That way I didn’t waste time moving my head to and fro between paper and screen or blackboard. Of course, the notes I produced using this method weren’t exactly aesthetically pleasing, but my handwriting is awful at the best of times so that didn’t make much difference to me. I always wrote my notes up more neatly after the lecture anyway. But the great advantage was that I could write down everything in real time without this interfering with my ability to listen to what the lecturer was saying.

An alternative to this approach is to learn shorthand, or invent your own form of abbreviated language. This approach is, however, unlikely to help you take down mathematical equations quickly.

My experience nowadays is that many students simply aren’t used to taking notes like this – I suppose because they get given so many powerpoint presentations or other kinds of handout –  so they struggle to cope with the old-fashioned chalk-and-talk style of teaching that some lecturers still prefer (and which actually works very well in mathematically-based disciplines). That’s probably because they get much less practice at school than my generation did. Most of my school education was done via the blackboard..

Nowadays,  many lecturers  give copies of their powerpoint slides to students and others even give out complete sets of printed notes before, during, or after lectures. That’s all very well, I think, but what are the students supposed to be doing during the lecture if you do that? Listen, of course, but if there is to be a long-term benefit they should take notes too. In other words, entirely passive learning is unlikely to be effective.

Even if I hand out copies of slides or other notes, I always encourage my students to make their own independent set of notes, as completely as possible. I don’t mean by copying down what they see on the screen and what they may have on paper already, but by trying to write down what I say as I say it. I don’t think many take that advice, which means much of the spoken illustrations and explanations I give don’t find their way into any long term record of the lecture.

And if the lecturer just reads out the printed notes, adding nothing by way of illustration or explanation, then the audience is bound to get bored very quickly.

My argument, then, is that regardless of what technology the lecturer uses, whether he/she gives out printed notes or not, then if the students can’t take notes accurately and efficiently then lecturing is a complete waste of time. In fact for the modules I’m doing this term I don’t intend to hand out lecture notes at all during the lectures, although I do post lecture summaries and answers to the exercises online after they’ve been done.

As a further study aid, most lectures at my previous institutions (Sussex University and Cardiff University) are recorded and made available to students to view shortly after the event. Contrary to popular myth there’s no evidence that availability of recorded lectures lowers the attendance at lectures. It appears that students use the recordings for revision and/or to clarify points raised in the notes they have taken, and if anything the recordings allow the students to get greater value from lectures rather than persuading them that there’s no need to attend them. Unfortunately we don’t have lecture capture at Maynooth, but I hope it can be introduced  here at some point.

I do like lecturing, because I like talking about physics and astronomy, but as I’ve got older I’ve become less convinced that lectures play a useful role in actually teaching anything. I think we should use lectures more sparingly, relying more on problem-based learning to instil proper understanding. When we do give lectures, they should focus much more on stimulating interest by being entertaining and thought-provoking. They should not be for the routine transmission of information, which is far too often the default.

I’m not saying we should scrap lectures altogether. At the very least they have the advantage of giving the students a shared experience, which is good for networking and building a group identity. Some students probably get a lot out of lectures anyway, perhaps more than I did when I was their age. But different people benefit from different styles of teaching, so we need to move away from lecturing as the only  option and ensure that a range of teaching methods is available.

I don’t think I ever learned very much about physics from lectures – I found problem-based learning far more effective – but I’m nevertheless glad I learned out how to take notes the way I did because I find it useful in all kinds of situations. Effective note-taking is definitely a transferable skill, but it’s also in danger of becoming a dying art. If we’re going to carry on using lectures, we old fogeys need to stop assuming that students learnt it the way we did and start teaching it as a skill.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the way we* teach physics these days, however,  is not really about the mode of delivery but the compartmentalization that has crept in via the school system which encourages students to think of each `module’ as a bite-sized piece that can be retained until the examinations, regurgitated, and then forgotten. I’ve no doubt that a great many students pass the examinations we set by simply memorizing notes with little genuine understanding  needed or problem-solving ability demonstrated. We promote physics as a subject that nurtures these skills, but I don’t think many physics graduates – even those with good degrees – actually possess them at the end. We should be making much more of an effort in teaching students how to use their brains in other ways than as memory devices, and getting them engaged in more active teaching activities seems to me to be a very high priority. That said, I think we probably do much more of this in physics than in most other subjects!

*by `we’ I mean physicists generally, rather than my current Department (where we do actually make a lot of effort to develop these skills through small group sessions that complement other teaching activities.