Archive for STEM subjects

Is there a role for rote learning?

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , on May 7, 2019 by telescoper

So here we are, then, back to work here in Maynooth for the last week of teaching. Or, to be precise, the last four days – yesterday was a Bank Holiday. With university and school examinations looming, it is no surprise to find an article griping about the Irish Leaving Certificate examinations and the fact that teachers seem to encourage students to approach them by by rote learning. This is something I’ve complained about before in the context of British A-levels and indeed the system of university examinations.

Over my lifetime the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply, with the undeniable result that academic standards have fallen – especially in my own discipline of physics. The modular 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 memorizing 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 because that seems to imply that they think their brain is no more than a memory device. It has become very clear to me over the years that school education in the UK does not do enough to encourage students to develop their all-round intellectual potential, which means that very few have confidence in their ability to do anything other than remember things. It seems the same malaise affects the Irish system too.

On the other hand, there’s no question in my mind that a good memory is undoubtedly an extremely important asset in its own right. I went to a traditional Grammar school that I feel provided me with a very good education in which rote learning played a significant part. Learning vocabulary and grammar was an essential part of their approach to foreign languages, for example. How can one learn Latin without knowing the correct declensions for nouns and conjugations for verbs? But although these basic elements are necessary, they are not sufficient. You need other aspects of your mental capacity to comprehend, translate or compose meaningful pieces of text. I’m sure this applies to many other subjects. No doubt a good memory is a great benefit to a budding lawyer, for example,  but the ability to reason logically must surely be necessary too.

The same considerations apply to STEM disciplines. It is important to have a basic knowledge of the essential elements of mathematics and physics as a grounding, but you also need to develop the skill to apply these in unusual settings. I also think it’s simplistic to think of memory and creative intelligence as entirely separate things. I seems to me that the latter feeds off the former in a very complex way. A good memory does give you rapid access to information, which means you can do many things more quickly than if you had to keep looking stuff up, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. Our memories are an essential part of the overall functioning of our brain, which is not  compartmentalized in  a simple way.  For example, one aspect of problem-solving skill relies on the ability to see hidden connections; the brain’s own filing system plays a key role in this.

Recognizing the importance of memory is not to say that rote learning is necessarily the best way to develop the relevant skills. My own powers of recall are not great – and are certainly not improving with age – but I find I can remember things much better if I find them interesting and/or if I can see the point of remembering them. Remembering things because they’re memorably is far easier than remembering because you need to remember them to pass an examination!

But while rote learning has a role, it should not be all there is and my worry is that the teaching-to-the-test approach is diminishing the ability of educators to develop other aspects of intelligence. There has to be a better way to encourage the development of the creative imagination, especially in the context of problem-solving. Future generations are going to have to face many extremely serious problems in the very near future, and they won’t be able to solve them simply by remembering the past.

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Age, Memory and Learning

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , on August 20, 2018 by telescoper

Today’s a big day for prospective students at Irish universities. It’s the day when the Central Applications Office (CAO, the equivalent of the UK’s UCAS) makes offers of places to students based the Leaving Certificate results that were announced last week. Thus begins the process by which universities find out how many students we will have for entry next month. Lectures here at Maynooth start on 24th September, with an induction week before that, so there promises to be quite a rush to get everything sorted out.

The first thing that struck me thinking ahead to this year’s new entry of students was that the majority of students starting this autumn either here in Ireland or in the UK were born in the year 2000. That means that I’ve been a Professor (at four different universities: Nottingham, Cardiff, Sussex and Maynooth) all the time they have been alive! Yikes I feel old!

The other thing that struck me among all the press coverage of the Leaving Certificate in Ireland is the significant amount of griping about how these examinations are basically just memory tests and the system encourages rote learning. This is something I’ve complained about before in the context of British A-levels and indeed the system of university examinations.

Over my lifetime the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply, with the undeniable result that academic standards have fallen especially in my own discipline of physics. The modular 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 memorizing 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 because that seems to imply that they think their brain is no more than a memory device. It has become very clear to me over the years that school education in the UK does not do enough to encourage students to develop their all-round intellectual potential, which means that very few have confidence in their ability to do anything other than remember things. It seems the same malaise affects the Irish system too.

On the other hand, as a number of people have pointed out in opinion pieces (e.g. here) and letters (here and here), a good memory is undoubtedly an extremely important asset in its own right.

I went to a traditional Grammar school that I feel provided me with a very good education in which rote learning played a significant part. Learning vocabulary and grammar was an essential part of their approach to foreign languages, for example. How can one learn Latin without knowing the correct declensions for nouns and conjugations for verbs? But although these basic elements are necessary, however, they are not sufficient. You other aspects of your mental capacity to comprehend, translate or compose meaningful pieces of text.

The same considerations apply to STEM disciplines. It is important to have a basic knowledge of the essential elements of mathematics and physics as a grounding, but you also need to develop the skill to apply these in unusual settings. I also think it’s simplistic to think of memory and creative intelligence as entirely separate things. I seems to me that the latter feeds off the former in a very complex way. A good memory does give you rapid access to information, which means you can do many things more quickly than if you had to keep looking stuff up, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. Our memories are an essential part of the overall functioning of our brain, which is not  compartmentalized in such a simple way.  For example, one aspect of problem-solving skill relies on the ability to see hidden connections; the brain’s own filing system plays a key role in this.

Recognizing the importance of memory is not to say that rote learning is necessarily the best way to develop the relevant skills. My own powers of recall are not great – and are certainly not improving with age – but I find I can remember things much better if I find them interesting and/or if I can see the point of remembering them. Remembering things because they’re memorably is far easier than remembering because you need to remember them to pass an examination!

The Culture of Over-Assessment in STEM

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on December 7, 2016 by telescoper

This afternoon I went to yet another meeting about assessment and feedback in University teaching involving members of staff and students from the School of Physics & Astronomy here at Cardiff University as well as some people from other schools and departments. Positive though this afternoon’s discussion was, it didn’t do anything to dissuade me from a long-held view that the entire education system holds back the students’ ability to learn by assessing them far too much. This is a topic that I’ve blogged about a few times before over the years (see, e.g., here) but given that the problem hasn’t gone away (and indeed is probably going to get worse as a result of the Teaching Excellence Framework which the Westminster government is trying to impose on universities),  I make no apologies for repeating the main points here.

One important point we need to resolve to pin down essentially what is meant by “Research-led Teaching”, which is what we’re supposed to be doing at universities. In my view too much teaching is not really led by research at all, but mainly driven by assessment. The combination of the introduction of modular programmes and the increase of continuously assessed coursework has led to a cycle of partial digestion and regurgitation that involves little in the way of real learning and certainly nothing like the way research is done. I don’t know why we’ve got into this situation but it can’t be allowed to continue.

I’m not going to argue for turning the clock back entirely but, for the record, my undergraduate degree involved no continuous assessment at all (apart from a theory project I opted for in my final year. Having my entire degree result based on the results of six three-hour unseen examinations in the space of three days is not an arrangement I can defend, but note that despite the lack of continuous assessment I still spent less time in the examination hall than present-day students.

That’s not to say I didn’t have coursework. I did, but it was formative rather than summative; in other words it was for the student to learn about the subject, rather for the staff to learn about the student. I handed in my stuff every week, it was marked and annotated by a supervisor, then returned and discussed at a supervision.

People often tell me that if a piece of coursework “doesn’t count” then the students won’t do it. There is an element of truth in that, of course. But I had it drummed into me that the only way really to learn my subject (Physics) was by doing it. I did all the coursework I was given because I wanted to learn and I knew that was the only way to do it. I think we need to establish that as a basic principle of education in physics (and similar subjects).

The very fact that coursework didn’t count for assessment made the feedback written on it all the more useful when it came back because if I’d done badly I could learn from my mistakes without losing marks. This also encouraged me to experiment a little, such as using a method different from that suggested in the question. That’s a dangerous strategy nowadays, as many seem to want to encourage students to behave like robots, but surely we should be encouraging students to exercise their creativity rather than simply follow the instructions? The other side of this is that more challenging assignments can be set, without worrying about what the average mark will be or what specific learning outcome they address.

I suppose what I’m saying is that the idea of Learning for Learning’s Sake, which is what in my view defines what a university should strive for, is getting lost in a wilderness of modules, metrics, percentages and degree classifications. We’re focussing too much on those few aspects of the educational experience that can be measured, ignoring the immeasurable benefit (and pleasure) that exists for all of us humans in exploring new ways to think about the world around us.

The Logistics of Scientific Growth in the 21st Century

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on June 8, 2014 by telescoper

Interesting piece that argues that the recent growth in STEM PhD and postdocs is not sustainable.

An Assembly of Fragments

ResearchBlogging.org

Over the last few months, I’ve noticed a growing number of reports about declining opportunities and increasing pressure for early stage academic researchers (Ph.D. students, post-docs and junior faculty). For example, the Washington Post published an article in early July about trends in the U.S. scientific job market entitled “U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there.” This post generated over 3,500 comments on the WaPo website alone and was highly discussed in the twittersphere. In mid July, Inside Higher Ed reported that an ongoing study revealed a recent, precipitous drop in the interest of STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics) Ph.D. students wishing to pursue an academic tenure-track career. These results confirmed those published in PLoS ONE in May that showed the interest to pursue an academic career of STEM students surveyed in 2010 showed evidence of a decline during the course of Ph.D. studies:

Figure 1. Percent of…

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Tuition Fees, Ponzi Schemes and University Funding

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , on March 30, 2014 by telescoper

Last week the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) finally released information on allocations for 2014/15. As expected, there are large cuts in recurrent grants pretty much across the board (a full table can be found here).  These cuts reflect the fact that government funding for teaching in many subjects is being progressively replaced by tuition fee income in most disciplines, the prominent exception being STEM subjects, which continue to attract a (small) element of grant support in addition to the £9K fees.  Grants for research are largely unchanged for the time being; the big upheaval there will happen when the outcome of the Research Excellence Framework is applied, from 2015/16 onwards.

If you look at the table you will see that some big research universities have relatively small cuts, especially if they focus on STEM disciplines; the obviously example is Imperial College which has a cut of only 3%. Typical Russell Group universities seem to be getting cuts of around 15%. My own institution, the University of Sussex, has been handed a cut of 24%, which reflects the fact that a large majority (greater than 75%) of students here are doing non-science subjects. Universities with less research income and a higher concentration on Arts & Humanities subjects are having to bear cuts of up to 60%.  These reductions are larger than anticipated as a result of the government’s decision to increase the total number of places by about 30,000 this year.

These numbers look alarming, but in most cases, including Sussex, the net income (FEES+GRANT) will actually go up next year, as long as the institution manages to recruit a sufficient number of students. The ability of a university to generate sufficient income to cover its costs has always depended on its ability to attract students, but this has previously been managed using a student number control, effectively applying a cap on recruitment to institutions that might otherwise corner the market.   This year some institutions who failed to recruit strongly have had their cap lowered, but worse is in store from 2015/16 as the cap will be lifted entirely, so that there will effectively be a free market in student recruitment. I sure I’m not the only person who thinks the likely outcome of this change will be a period of chaos during which a relatively small number of institutions will experience a bonanza while many others will struggle to survive.

As if this weren’t bad enough, there is also the growing consensus that the current fee regime is unsustainable. Revised estimates now suggest that about 45% of graduates will never pay back their tuition fees anyway. If this percentage grows to about 50% – and I am very confident that it will – then the new tuition fee system will end up costing the Treasury (i.e. the taxpayer) even more than the old regime, while also saddling generations of graduates with huge debts and also effectively removing the sector from public control.

Apparently, the response of the government to the level of default on repayments is to consider increasing fees to a level even higher than the current £9K per annum. It seems to me that the likely consequence of this would simply be to increase the default rate still further, largely by driving UK graduates abroad to avoid liability for paying back their loans, and thus drive the system into runaway instability.

The more one looks at the fees and loans debacle the more it resembles  a Ponzi scheme that’s destined to unravel with potentially catastrophic consequences for England’s universities; note that Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland are not covered by HEFCE arrangements.

So what can be done?

I’ll assume at the outset that the only really sensible plan – taking the entire system back under public control – is, by the very nature of the British political system, unthinkable.

My first suggestion reflects the fact that I am a scientist and that I think  science education and research properly should be a very high priority for any system of university funding. Whatever is done therefore must address the point I made a post about the threat to STEM subjects presented by HEFCE’s policies the essence of which is that the £9K flat-rate fee across all disciplines does not reflect the true difference in cost of teaching between, say, English and Physics. Differential fees would have a disastrous effect on recruitment into science subjects while the current system underfunds STEM disciplines so severely that it offers a perverse incentive for universities to focus on non-science areas. Under the current system, fees from Arts disciplines are effectively subsidizing science subjects rather than providing education to those paying the fees; in other words, Arts students are being ripped off.

Second, if the taxpayer is going to foot a significant part of the bill for higher education then HEFCE (or whatever organization replaces it in future) must have sufficient clout to manage the sector for the public interest, rather than allow it to be pulled apart by the unfettered application of market forces.

Third, any new system must be designed to reduce the level of graduate debt which, as I’ve mentioned already, simply encourages our brightest graduates to emigrate once they’ve obtained their degree.

I’ve actually never really been opposed to the principle that students who can afford to should contribute at some level to the cost of their education; I have, on the other hand, always been opposed to fees being set at the level of £9K per year. The Labour Party’s suggestion that fees should be cut to £6K would go some of the way to satisfying the third requirement, but would be disastrous unless the cut were offset by increased state funding through recurrent grants. I think a better suggestion would be to cut fees by a greater amount than that if possible, but to have a much bigger differentiation in the unit of resource paid to different subjects. I’d say that the net income per student should be about £15K per annum in STEM subjects, whereas for Arts and Social Sciences £6K probably covers the full cost of tuition.  So if the fee is set at £X across the board, STEM disciplines should receive £(15-X) from HEFCE while Arts subjects get a subsidy of £(6-X).