Saturday, 14 May 2016

Experiments in Teaching and Learning

(Reflections on a life in science: #9a teaching at a university)

More than six months ago I promised a colleague that I would record a few reflections on my three-decade academic career. With this post I hope to complete what was originally envisaged as three or four posts, but which has evidently grown to nine. Given that my work with undergraduate students has been such a major part of my career, it’s perhaps not too surprising that this turned out to be a longer post than the average post, much longer. One post has therefore become two, with the prosaic sub-headings 9a and 9b …

Teaching (and learning) has always had a special place in both my heart: from the school teachers who inspired me (here), and despite those who did not, through to the final university lecture I delivered earlier this year, and to my continuing outreach and public engagement activities (pick almost any of my posts, e.g. here). There must be a focus however, and in the context of this post I intend to concentrate on my teaching as a university lecturer – one of the many aspects of my job that I loved. I’ll try to highlight a few examples of the sort of innovation (experimentation, or 'playing' in other words) that I have stumbled upon during my three decades as an apprentice to several masters, including my students. In one sense, nothing has changed: after all, the fundamentals of Physics at the undergraduate level are largely the same now as they were at the start of my career. There have been changes to the syllabus of course. These are usually introduced to cull material considered as ‘redundant’ in order to provide ‘space’ for new topics – and skills – as their perceived importance emerges, or to rework the way in which the material is handled. Some of the more noticeable changes are arguably those associated with modes of delivery and of study. In part, although not central in my opinion, this is driven by a change in the culture of the profession. One might contrast my first lecture, when I had been thrown in at the proverbial ‘deep end’ a couple of weeks after taking up my junior lectureship, to the more overtly constrained nature of today’s three-year probationary period in which extensive training, monitoring and mentoring support is provided within a ‘lightened’ workload. This supportive environment is potentially of significant benefit; it was not, however, a part of my own experience. Thus, my motivation owes almost nothing to formal training programmes but rather a lot to a cocktail of inspirational colleagues, a desire always to be doing something new, and for want of a better description, a fear of being seen to do a bad job. In other words I pick up on interesting ideas, I don’t like intellectual stagnation and I had a need to battle ‘Imposter Syndrome’. It is also important to note the fact that, irrespective of one’s motivation, much of this change has been technology-enabled in one way or another.

The manifestations of these driving forces need not be confined to the lecture theatre or teaching laboratory of course. Indeed, the very first memory I have of raising the eyebrows of more ‘traditionalist’ colleagues was when I introduced Earl Grey tea and ‘proper coffee’ into my weekly small-group tutorial sessions with first year students, and encouraged them to bring along biscuits or doughnuts. We also had a habit of rushing through the set-piece assignments in order to get to some more interesting contemporary science. Years later, one particularly successful graduate who had been a part of this regime recalled her introduction to Earl Grey tea with such fondness that I donated my teapot to her when I retired; she is herself now a talented physics lecturer, so perhaps the habit will live on in some way. On the larger scale, I remain proud of the fact that I used what influence I had accumulated by the mid ‘90s – so, about a decade after arriving – to establish a large and well-situated room in our department as a ‘study room’ for our students, and to equip it with decent furniture, a suite of PCs and copies of key textbooks. Even in the face of a change of building and the intense pressure on space that exists nowadays, I am delighted to be able to say that the Study Room is still going strong. In truth, it has become so integral to the working life of our students that it would take a brave person indeed to close it down.

The Study Room as it looks in its present form (during the Easter vacation when its use drops off for a week or two). Amazingly, despite several moves, the compilation of cartoons on the walls have survived from when I pulled them together almost 20 years ago (from here); they depict events associated with science and technology as seen through the eyes of newspaper cartoonists from the ‘60s onwards.
However, the principal focus of this post was to be innovation in teaching. My first really bold step started in the late '80s and was associated with exploring computer-aided learning of basic maths. and of scientific programming (in Fortran 7, should you be interested). A novel hypertext software package, Guide, written by someone at my own university, became available and I was keen to explore its potential. I possessed the lecture notes and a pile of textbooks, but had precious little time available to turn them into the student-paced self-learning tools I envisaged. I invoked then a scheme I have since used many times in various guises: to recruit a suitable group of motivated students to work as a team in order to pull everything together under my guidance. For two or three successive Summer vacations, and using small amounts of money I had managed to obtain from one organisation or another (e.g. the Nuffield Foundation), I paid these small groups first to draft and then to ‘polish’ the material. It worked wonderfully well: the project students, several of whom wanted to go into teaching as a profession, gained some great work experience and I ended up with working software packages. The programming course was successfully deployed immediately and continues to be used to this day, albeit within a more modern hypertext framework (HTML), and further developed and modified by my several successors. The maths. package never really saw the light of day: almost as soon as it became ready for ‘field- tests’ our course design changed in such a way as to render it redundant and I took on new teaching duties. C’est la vie. It survived for a few years as an online tool for those students who wanted to use it for their own purposes. These were the very first examples at my university, and amongst the first in the country, of an entire lecture module being presented in this way. The key reason it was appreciated by our students was the freedom it gave them to work at whatever pace suited their abilities: the autodidacts and those already competent at part or all of the syllabus could race forward, whilst those needing to go over things more slowly could do so – and I was released to focus my efforts on those students needing the most help. It saved me absolutely no time overall, far from it, but I remain convinced that the learning experience was improved for the student. For anyone tempted to suggest that this was a forerunner of today’s MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course), I can only say that I sincerely hope not: in my opinion, a key element to a university education is ‘social’ – learning with and from others, working within a team and so on, and I would always want to preserve this.

There have been exciting ideas and plans that have left only an ethereal legacy, or none at all, which is par for the course. One such project, which I led during the late ’90s but which never did come to fruition, was called Refreshing Physics (see here). This was predicated on the use of context-led learning: presenting physics not subject-by-subject in the traditional sense but through the context of ‘real-world’ phenomena and experimental data. For example, using natural phenomena such as earthquakes and storms as the setting for the physics of waves and vibrations, electric fields, angular momentum etc. (see here). Part of the philosophy was to make the transition between school ‘A’-level Physics and first year university work a lot smoother than is typically the case; we aimed to ensure that undergraduates were more enthused by Physics and less intimidated by it. Moreover it was a key tenet that we establish a strong advisory input from those companies and organisations that employ graduate physicists. Lauded by everyone we showed it to, from government ministries to professional bodies like the Institute of Physics, and by the educators we presented it to at conferences, we nevertheless failed to raise the financial backing required to explore it fully and to test it out. We found ourselves in a funding ‘Catch 22’, with our own University saying we needed to get external funding and the external organisations saying they expected, as a minimum, pump-priming funds from our university. To this day I remain utterly convinced of the value of this teaching and learning approach, but I have long since resigned myself to the fact that it’ll not happen – certainly not on my watch.

One of the very first things the Refreshing Physics team organised was an all-day meeting between some of our undergraduates and year 11/12 pupils (then called sixth-formers) and their teachers in order to understand better what the school-university transitional problems might be and how we might mitigate their negative effects.

The second installment will be uploaded in about a week ...

Earlier posts in this series:
1) The Girt Pikebeginnings and transitions. 
2) Do Labels Last a Lifetime? – people and other influences. 
3) Nomadic Research: random walk or purposefuljourney? – a timeline in research. 
4) Tools of the Trade – instruments and gadgets.
5) Suitcase Science: travelling in hope – tales from a travelling scientist. 
6) Why so many? – gender balance in the research team
7) Committees: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly– making things work: discussion, consensus and decision?
8) Large-scale Facilities for Small-scaleScience – the big ‘toys’ I’ve helped to build and to nurture

No comments:

Post a Comment