Archive for lectures

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.

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Module Evaluation

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on May 31, 2017 by telescoper

It’s always with a measure of trepidation that I look at the feedback that students give on a module that I’ve been teaching, and this nervousness is considerably enhanced when it’s the first time I’ve lectured that material. This morning I grasped the nettle and clicked on the link to take me to my questionnaire results for my module Physics of the Early Universe. I was relieved that it was all fairly positive.

In the old days these things were done on paper, which meant quite a big job collecting and collating the results. Nowadays it’s all done online, which means not receiving any drawings or other artistic contributions that some students were wont to scribble on the questionnaires. Past experience has been that the response rate is lower for on-line surveys, but the response rate I got this time was pretty high – over 80%. Perhaps students are getting more accustomed to doing everything on line?

I never find the numerical scores particularly useful as one has no idea how to calibrate them, but the textual comments made by students are often interesting and helpful. They’re all anonymous, of course, to encourage students to be frank.

One thing that clearly went down very well was the use of Cardiff’s new lecture-capture system (called Panopto), which allows the lecturer to record everything – powerpoint, data visualizer, whiteboard and live action – for posterity. I recorded all my lectures and exercise classes in toto and put them up on our Virtual Learning Environment (called Learning Central) for the students to view at their leisure. It’s a significantly more sophisticated and flexible lecture capture system than the one we used when I was at Sussex, and the questionnaire responses showed that the students really appreciated the availability of the recordings; a representative comment can be found below.

Not all my colleagues are keen on the idea of lecture capture, but I like it a lot and am very happy to do it with my own lectures. It does seem that some university staff are wary of this innovation, but opinion may be changing. Please let me know what you think via the poll thatr I’ve been running on this for a few years:

It’s always difficult when you give a new set of lectures judging the pace appropriately. I spent more time on introductory material than I should perhaps have done, and also – as a number of students made clear in the module evaluation – should have done some more worked examples. I’ll try do better next time, and I am very grateful to those who took the time to complete the survey pointing out how I might improve. I always take constructive criticism very seriously.

It is of course the negative comments that are the most helpful in a practical sense, but it is always nice to find comments like these:

The lecturer is very passionate about the subject and that really helps as you can ask any question and he’ll be able to answer it. Furthermore, his enthusiasm helps to keep you engaged. I also found it helpful that the lectures were recorded, so I could look over them while working on coursework.

Before you accuse me of doing so, I admit that I have cherry-picked one of the good ones to show myself in a good light.

I’m less sure how to interpret this one:

The lectures were incredible.

Anyway, the students on this module have now finished the exam and will be waiting for the results which come out in a couple of weeks. If any happen to be reading this blog then thanks for your comments and

Lecture Capture

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

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

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

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

Dirac Lectures

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on April 11, 2013 by telescoper

Earlier this year I posted a review of a book about the great theoretical physicist Paul Dirac. Presumably by a complete coincidence, on the very same day that I wrote that piece, somebody put the following video on Youtube. It’s very rare footage of the man himself giving some lectures in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1975 (when he was in his 70s). A great deal of conflicting stuff has been written about what Dirac was like as a lecturer – now you can see for yourself. The video isn’t very high quality – it breaks up entirely in a few places – but it’s nevertheless fascinating to hear Dirac talk physics!

My opinion? I’ve had worse!

p.s thanks to Ian Harrison (@itrharrison) for drawing this to my attention!

The Quantum of Teaching

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on February 19, 2013 by telescoper

I’m gradually finding out enough about the way things are organized here at the University of Sussex to make some comparisons between teaching in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences here and in the School of Physics and Astronomy at my former employer, Cardiff University.

One difference I’ve noticed is probably something you find rather trivial, but I think it’s quite important. In the usual scheme of undergraduate teaching, which applies across most of the United Kingdom, students gain “credit” for taking and passing modules. A normal year would correspond to 120 credits, so that a three-year BSc degree involves a total of 360 credits and a four-year MPhys (or equivalent) is 480. In universities that run a two-semester teaching year the load per semester is thus 60 credits.

The question then is what is the best way to divide up that 60 credits into smaller pieces? Until recently at Cardiff the basic unit of teaching was a 10-credit module, which meant that students were typically doing six different things alongside each other. An ordinary ten-credit module would involve two lectures per week. Not all of these are lecture courses, however; there’s usually laboratory or computational work as one of the 10 credit chunks. During a recent course review it was decided to increase the size of some of the modules to 20 credits. That’s how it came to pass that I taught a new module of that size last semester (for the first and last time).

The motivation for increasing the size of modules was twofold. One is that having lots of small modules makes the overall study programme disjointed and “bitty”, with students having lots of things on the go at the same time and little opportunity to study any topics in real depth. The other is that having four hours per week instead of two allows the lecturer to use the time more flexibly, in particular with  sessions intended to develop problem-solving skills.

Although the “core” modules at Cardiff increased to 20 credits, the others remained at 10. There was a lot of discussion about increasing all modules, but in the end the new programme was left as a mixture.

Interestingly, here at Sussex the normal module size is 15 credits (and “modules” are also called “courses”), meaning that students actually only do four things at the same time in a typical semester.  In fact this was what I originally suggested when we started the teaching review at Cardiff, but it was thrown out immediately on the grounds that the University had decreed that modules must be multiples of 10 credits only. I’m not sure whether there was an educational reason for this, or just that it made the arithmetic simpler.

Anyway, I like 15 credits as a basic unit but am not sure how many other Schools and Departments run that system. I’d be interested to learn about module sizes favoured elsewhere through the comments box, and here’s a poll so you can vote:

Another difference is that although Sussex has two teaching semesters, the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) does not have mid-year examinations, so First Semester courses are examined in the Summer along with the Second Semester ones.  In Cardiff, modules are examined at the end of the semester in which they are taught. There are pros and cons with this. I think students who are used to mid-year examinations like the fact that the examinations are not all concentrated in one period during the summer and also that they get some feedback on their progress during the year. On the other hand, students may see an end-of-semester examination as an encouragement to close the lid on a particular module and forget about it as soon as it is over, making it harder to understand how different aspects of physics interconnect.

Students at Sussex seem keen not to have mid-year examinations, while those at Cardiff seem equally keen to retain them. I don’t know what that means, so here’s another  poll to see if there’s any clear opinion one way or another among my readers…

Taking Notes…

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on November 6, 2012 by telescoper

As if this week wasn’t busy enough, I’ve just received back the student questionnaires for my second-year module The Physics of Fields and Flows (which includes some theoretical physics techniques, such as vector calculus and Fourier methods, together with applications to fluid flow, electromagnetism and a few other things). I’ve only just taken up this module this year and was planning to prepare it over the summer, but circumstances rather intervened and I’ve had to put together more-or-less on the fly. I was, therefore, not inconsiderably apprehensive about the reaction I’d get from the students.

Fortunately most of the comments were fairly positive, although there were some very useful constructive criticisms, which I’ll definitely take into account for the rest of the term.

However, one recurring comment was that I write too fast on the whiteboard. In fact I go far more slowly than the lecturers I had at University. That brings me back to 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 about how inefficient many students are at taking notes during lectures, so much so that the effort of copying things onto paper must surely prevent them absorbing the intellectual content of the lecture.

I dealt with this problem 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 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. That’s probably because they get much less practice at school than my generation. Most of my school education was done via the blackboard..

Nowadays,  most lecturers use more “modern” methods than this. Many lecturers using powerpoint, and often they give copies of the slides to students. Others 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.

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 complete as possible. I don’t mean copying down what they see on the screen and what they may have on paper already, but 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 module I’m doing now I don’t 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.

I 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 default option.

I don’t think I ever learned very much about physics from lectures, 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 a dying art.

Lecture less, teach more…

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on January 2, 2012 by telescoper

I was just about to go to the shops just now, but the weather is so extreme – dark apocalyptic skies and violent hailstorms – that I thought I’d have a quick go on the blog in the hope that  things quieten down a little. I was going to write something a bit earlier, as I was up at 7am, but all that came into my head were dark imaginings about the future and I didn’t want to depress myself and everyone else going on about that. The e-astronomer has already done something along those lines anyway.

Fortunately I saw something on Twitter that is a more appropriate theme for a blog post, namely a very interesting article about the role of lectures in university physics education. This is a topic I feel very strongly about, and I agree with most of what the article says, which is basically that the traditional lecture format is a very ineffective way of teaching physics. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that lectures are inherently useless, but I think they should be used in a very different way from the way they are used now.

When I was an undergraduate, in the dim and distant past, I attended lectures assiduously because that was expected of students. To put it bluntly, though, I don’t think I ever learned anything much from doing so. My real learning was done back in my room, with books and problem sheets as well as my lecture notes, trying to figure out how the physics all went together with other things I had learned, and how to apply it in interesting situations. Sometimes the lecture notes were useful, sometimes not, but I never felt that I had learned anything until I was confident that I knew how to apply the new concepts in solving problems.

But I did find some lectures very enjoyable and worthwhile, because some lecturers were good at making students feel interested in the subject.  The enthusiasm and depth of understanding conveyed by someone who has devoted their life to the study of a subject can be  infectious, and a very enjoyable form of entertainment in its own right. That’s why public lectures remain popular; their intrinsic educational value is limited, but they serve to stimulate the audience to find out more. That’s if they’re good, of course. They can have the opposite effect also.

At Cardiff – like other universities – we hand out questionnaires to students to get feedback on lecturers. Usually the thing that stands out as making one lecturer more popular than others is their enthusiasm. Quite rightly so. If someone who has made a career out of the subject can’t be enthusiastic, why on Earth should the students?

For other comments on what makes a good lecture, see here.

What makes a lecture useless is when it is used simply to transfer material from the lecturer to the student, without passing through the mind of either participant. Slavishly copying detailed notes seems to me a remarkably pointless activity, although taking notes of the key points in a lecture devoted primarily to concepts and demonstrations is far from that. Far better to learn to use resources such as textbooks and internet sites effectively than to endure an hour’s dictation. We don’t want our students to learn physics by rote; we want them to learn to think like physicists!

While I’m on about lectures, I’ll also add that I think the increasing use of Powerpoint in lectures has its downside too. I started using it when I moved to Cardiff, but never felt comfortable with it as a medium for teaching physics. This year I’m going to scrap it. I would revert to “chalk-and-talk” if we had any blackboards, so I’ll have to make do with those hideous whiteboard things. Not all progress is good progress.

Anyway, what we’ve recently done with our new courses in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University is to start to move away from an over-reliance on lectures. One way we’ve done this is to merge some of our smaller modules. Whereas a 10-credit module used to have two lectures a week, the new 20 credit modules now have the same number of lectures, complemented by two hours of problems classes in which the students work through exercise with staff members lending assistance. Initial reaction from the students is positive, though there have been some teething troubles. We’ll just  have to wait for the examination results to see how well it has worked.

I dare say other departments around the country are making similar changes in teaching methods in response to the availability of new technologies and changes to the school curriculum. But of course its a path that other trod before. It’s good to have the chance to end by congratulating Derek Raine of the University of Leicester for his MBE in the New Years Honours List for his contributions to science education. He was arguing for a different approach to physics teaching when many of us were still in short pants. It’s just a pity we’ve taken such a long time to realise he was right.

Now the sky’s blue so I can go and do my shopping. Toodle-pip!