Archive for undergraduate

Advice for Prospective Physics Students

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , , on February 25, 2013 by telescoper

Just got time for a quickie this morning before I head up to the Big Smoke for the first meeting of the Astronomy Grants Panel of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). I had thought that the last round would be my last, but I must have misbehaved somehow and my sentence has been extended accordingly.

Anyway, I thought I’d follow up Saturday’s post with a response to a question that a few prospective Physics students asked me during our Admissions Day. Those attending these days have already applied to this University but, at this stage of the annual undergraduate admissions cycle, the applicants are still deciding which University to put as their first or firm choice. I see our job in the Admissions Days simply to make available as much information as possible to the applicants to help them make a choice. Quite a few people I spoke to on Saturday, however, said that they had already made up their minds and just wanted some advice about what to do during the summer after they have finished their A-levels to help them prepare for their undergraduate studies in Physics (and/or Astronomy).

The answer I gave was pretty simple: practice your mathematics, especially your calculus! 

The justification for exhortation is that the big difference between Physics at A-level and Physics at undergraduate University level is that the latter is taught in a much more mathematical way than the former. This is because the physical laws that underpin our understanding of the natural world are expressed in a mathematical language; the more fluent you are in this language the easier you will find it to assimilate the physical concepts. To put it another way, you will find it difficult to understand the physical meaning of what is being taught if you are struggling with the mathematical meaning of the symbols being used or the manipulations needed to obtain useful solutions to the relevant equations.

Newton’s Second Law, for example,  relates the rate of change of momentum of a body to the force exerted upon it. If you’re comfortable with calculus you don’t think twice about writing d(mv)/dt for the rate of change of momentum and then constructing a differential equation which you can (hopefully) solve. You won’t absorb the importance of laws like this unless you become so familiar with the mathematics that it ceases to occupy the part of your mind that’s needed to really think.

I think that learning to do Physics is a bit like learning to play a musical instrument. Practicing such basic mathematical procedures as integration and differentiation is analogous to the five-finger exercises you have to do when learning to play the piano. The more you practice them, the greater the extent to which they become hard-wired. Your brain can therefore concentrate on the more interesting conceptual stuff – that’s really the hard part of learning Physics. We do of course do as much as we can to help with this once you’ve got to University, but doing some preparation on your own beforehand would greatly smooth the transition.

So I’d tell any prospective physics student wondering what to do this summer to get hold of as many basic calculus exercises as they can and do them whenever they get the chance. It may not be the most exciting way to spend your post A-level holiday, but it is the single thing you can do that will best prepare you for life as a Physics student.

On the other hand, the advice I’d give to physicists rather later in their careers is to think very carefully before agreeing to be on committees or panels…

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Generational Guilt

Posted in Biographical, Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on November 23, 2012 by telescoper

Exhausted near the end of an exceptionally busy week, I found myself taking a short break after a two-hour lecturing session when a student knocked at my door to ask for some advice about applying for PhDs. I was happy to oblige, of course, but after he’d gone it struck me how much tougher things are for today’s generation, compared with how easy it was for me.

I got a scholarship to the local grammar school (The Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne) by passing the 11+ examination back in 1974. I got a good education that most pupils at the School had to pay for (or at least their parents did). I got good 0 and A levels, and then passed the post A-level examination to get me into Cambridge. Through contacts at school I got a job for nine months working for a British Gas research station in Cramlington, during which time I earned a nice wage. I went to Cambridge with a healthy bank balance on top of which I received a full maintenance grant. There were no tuition fees then either. When I graduated I was solvent and debt-free.

When I applied for PhDs I did so with no real idea about what research I might do. I wasn’t an outstanding undergraduate student and my personal statement was vagueness personified, but I got a place nonetheless. The stipend was modest, but one could live on it. I never had money worries as a PhD. Nor have I since. It all seems so simple, looking back.

Today’s students have no such luck. The Direct Grant system that paid my school fees was discontinued shortly after I benefited from it. I’m sure I wouldn’t have got into University had I gone to the local comprehensive. Then maintenance grants were discontinued and fees introduced (then rapidly increased from £1000 to first £3000 and then £9000). Graduates now are usually burdened with huge debts. Moreover, when students apply for postgraduate study are nowadays often expected to not only to know precisely what they’re going to do but also be outstandingly good

The pressure we put on graduates now is out of all proportion to what I experienced. The reason? There are more of them overall, so there are more with first-class degrees chasing PhD funding. Many students who are much better than I was at the same stage of my career won’t make it just because of the arithmetic. Many will be discouraged by the finances too. It’s tragic that talented young people should be denied the chance to fulfil their ambitions by not having wealthy parents.

I’m often impressed (and even inspired) by those students who show a determination to pursue academic ambitions despite all the difficulties, but at the same time I feel guilty that it was so much easier in my day. Mine is the generation that decided to transfer the cost of higher education onto students and their families. Mine is also the generation that wrecked the economy by living beyond our means for too long.

To all those young people whose ambitions are thwarted by circumstances beyond their control all I can say is I’m sorry we oldies stole your future.

Credentialism and Overexamination

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2012 by telescoper

Only time for a quick post this morning as I have to go into the department to get my things ready for tomorrow, when the Autumn Semester starts and I have to begin lecturing (at 9am on a Monday morning). Anyway, the text for today’s sermon is provided by Ed Smith’s Left Field column in the New Statesman, the latest issue of which I read yesterday. His topic is the rise of credentialism and the resulting excessive amount of examination in the British school system:

It is now widely accepted that British pupils are excessively over-examined. Teachers are so busy focussing on examinations that there is little time left for education. Exam-led cramming has become the year-round norm – like an election campaign that consumes the whole political cycle. Exams are obviously necessary. But there is an optimal amount of assessment and it has been far exceeded. Grade inflation – notwithstanding this year’s controversial “crackdown” – is simply accepted as a fact.

It’s well said, and it’s not just the school system that suffers from disproportionate emphasis on assessment over education. It’s rife throughout the university system too, starting with the reliance on A-level grades as criteria for assessing students’ suitability for university study, through the “modular” undergraduate degree programmes with examinations twice a year for three or four years.

We examine far too frequently and the effect of this has been to turn the entire education system into a meaningless exercise in box-ticking.

It is an unfortunate irony: in our age of credentialism, exams have never mattered more. And yet they have never been more unreliable as gauges of academic quality.

I’ve felt for some time that in my discipline, Physics (and Astronomy) A-levels are virtually useless as indicators of the suitability of a student for doing an undergraduate degree. Some of the very best students I’ve ever had the pleasure to teach came into my university with modest A-level scores; and some students who came in with perfect grades at school never adjusted to the different, more independent type of study required of an undergraduate.

As Ed Smith points out, the increased emphasis on examination grades hasn’t expanded opportunity either.  It may appear to be fairer to base university entrance or award jobs on examination results rather than, say, interviews, but this has just led to a system that can be easily gamed – private tutors, cramming, re-sits to improve grades, and so on. He rightly concludes that the “correlation between exam results and intelligence has been steadily weakening”.

So what’s the alternative? Smith mentions the admissions process at Harvard University, which famously ignores high-school grades and relies on its own interview system. Interviews can be very biased if carried out in an inappropriate way. Subjecting a young person to a 30-minute grilling  in a room with a complete stranger can be enormously stressful for applicants who are shy, and would also play into the hands of those whose educational background has involved specific training for such ordeals. But one thing I’ve found by talking to students face-to-face is that it doesn’t take very long to identify precisely those things that the examination system does not: imagination, enthusiasm for the subject,  and a flair for thinking on your feet:

One teacher told me with regret that she had to advise her most academic pupil not to display her full intellectual range: in order to secure all the ticks, first you have to stop thinking freely.

If you don’t believe this, take a look at this GCSE Science Examination. A truly intelligent student would struggle to find any correct answer for many of the questions on that paper!

This is why we still place so much emphasis on interviews in the postgraduate admissions system: we take it for granted that all applicants for PhD places will have good undergraduate degrees. What marks out an excellent candidate for a position as  research student, however, is not the ability to pass exams but a mixture of creative flair and almost obsessive determination to surmount the difficult challenges involved in independent research. The correlation between these characteristics and degree results is by no means strong.

The problem for a UK University in adopting the Harvard approach is that credentialism is now running the system. Students apply to universities largely on the basis of their predicted A-level grades, lowering their sights if their predicted grades would not be expected to get them into a more “presitigious” department. But departments that take in students with low A-level scores also get marked down in the league tables for taking in “weaker” students. We’re all aware that A-levels are basically useless, but both sides are  bound so tightly into the system that there seems to be no escape.

So what’s the answer? I don’t know if there is one, but I’d love to see what would happen if all universities abandoned A-levels and instead set their own entrance examinations and interviews. It would be a huge amount of work, but it would make a refreshing change if universities could gather useful information rather than relying on the uninformative guff produced by the national examination boards.

And here is Smith’s closing remark that rings very true to me for personal reasons,

There is a further dimension to the problem of credentialism. It encourages life’s winners to underestimate their good fortune and to over-rate the extent to which they deserve their success. Far from advancing talent over privilege, credentialism has strengthened the grip of people already at the top.