Success and challenges in teaching

It is week four of the second of our two semesters of the teaching year. The exam results from last semester are out, and our final years can see the end of their course in sight. They have only one more set of university exams. Last week was our MPhys Research Year Symposium, where our MPhys students gave talks on what they did during a year doing a research project. As usual the talks I caught (I had to miss some) were excellent. Also last week, I was on a panel interviewing some of our final years for funding for a PhD. For all these reasons I have surrounded by evidence that many of our final years have learnt huge amounts over the last 3 or 4 years. They are transformed in terms of what they can do, and in their self-confidence, from the eighteen-year-olds that arrived a few years ago. As an academic who has taught them, this is really satisfying.

I teach a fair amount of computing. This is a useful skill that many students use on their research projects, and it is very pleasing to see skills I have helped teach being put to real use.

But not all our final years are going from strength to strength. A few are struggling. Those who learnt a lot in the first year, were well prepared for the second year and were more confident, and so could learn a lot in the second year, and so on. This is a virtuous circle. But some did little more than pass the first year, and as a result were poorly prepared for the second year. Then by the final year, they end up struggling.

To some extent this will always happen. Every student is different, and this difference will tend to be most marked at the end of 16 or 17 years of education. But this does not mean that we can’t do better. Of course we tell students that they need to learn stuff in the first and second years for subsequent years, but our modular system does encourage cram-for-exams-then-forget learning. In this sense we give our students mixed messages, which is unhelpful.

A particular problem is with relativity. This is often described as the ‘most beautiful theory’ and many students (and academics) think it is cool. It is also a mathematical theory. So students who cram-for-exams-then-forget maths in the early years can really struggle with final-year relativity modules. We can probably do more to show our students the link here, I should certainly think about how to better motivate some of the maths I teach.

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