Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Fine Art of Surfacing

I am coming up for air after a rather frantic start to the new year (hence the title of this post, and it's also one of the first albums that I ever bought...)

Every year I manage to forget just how hectic the start of the year is. I am sure that others do as well. This year it has been particularly manic as we have "over-recruited" into Physics (...but better not complain, eh?) My first year class is now over 300. The sheer number of requests, issues, problems, questions that 300 people away at University for the very first time seem to be able to generate surprises me every year....

But the show is rolling now; we have RF clickers that are working (sort of), workshops that are getting going and the first diagnostic test assessment coming in online. The best excuse I have heard so far this year was one student asking me to reset his online test submission, as the time expired "because I had to go to my tango class

Thursday, August 14, 2008

It's that time of year again.....

..... when exam results come out for entrance to Universities.

The BBC news site has an interesting video on the pluses and minuses of the A-level system.... I agree with bits of both the views here....


Further down the same article it states

Last year, 25.3% of A-level entries in the UK were awarded an A grade, with 96.9% of entries graded from A to E (pass).

For the A-level in maths, things were even more extreme; 67% of students sitting it got either an A or a B, with 44% getting an A. Nearly half the people sitting the exam got the highest grade.....

In contrast with the 97% pass rate in maths A level, it is 99% at Standard grade in Scotland, 71% at Higher Grade.

I shall be watching for the detailed breakdowns in Physics and Maths again this year....

Why don't we peer review our teaching?

I have to give a lecture in a couple of months as a result of getting a chair, which I have chosen to title "What Do I Know About Physics Education?". This morning, when falling awake, I found myself thinking about what sort of shape this lecture should have (...I have no idea how many people wake up thinking about such things but I would like to think I am not alone in this.... I vaguely recall something this morning about a thesis committee taking me out for Dim Sum as well this lunchtime. This, unlike the lecture, is a 100% dream....)

So, I was thinking : if the standard by which our research is examined and assessed is the peer review of articles, grants etc, why doesn't the same hold for the other side of the coin: our teaching?

I think that honest answer is that many places say they do this, but to what extent it is taken up I suspect is extremely variable, and likewise the spirit in which it is perceived. A quick and cursory Google brought up plenty of pages for institutions that ran similar systems to ours: a light touch Peer Observation Scheme. These examples included a couple I found in the US that used the process for formative purposes (ie for improvement of the individual concerned) and summative (ie appraisal and promotion considerations!)


But it is of course impossible to see from the pages that details schemes closer to home just how they are implemented on the ground.

A page detailing a lunctime development session held at the University of Cambridge (..I wonder how many turned out for this ... and was it 'the usual suspects'....?). One of the speakers highlighted the importance of a 'supportive culture for teaching'. I think that for this to happen, the value and importance of teaching to the institution has to be (made more?) visible for all to see in all aspects of what is done.....

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Lane of General Bewlderment

I don't know exactly where I found this, but it makes me smile every time I look at it. It hits the mark.

Institutional change and why it is so slow

I have been following the blogging activities about the AAPT meeting held this week in Edmonton (from afar still, but not quite as afar as usual....) I found loads of interesting stuff on this blog, particularly the last post on 'Twisting the Ivory Tower'.

I was reading through it thinking "yes......yes......yes" about the rationale for change and the drivers and barriers....similar issues once again (Plus Ca Change!)

(Also interesting to see that the MIT students when first introduced to TEAL in their E&M class petitioned against its introduction....!)

Critical mass

I went to give a talk today at SFU (that's about it for the Physics and
Education part of this one...!) After coming back across town I grabbed
my bike and headed downtown to the Art Gallery for something I had
previously been told about: Critical Mass - where many hundereds, or
even thousands, of cyclists take to the streets to remind the drivers fo
Vancouver that cycling is a Big Thing in the city. The route is not
pre-determined, but chosen by the people at the head of the queue and
traffic at intersections is 'corked' by cyclists who stop the traffic.

It is a wonderful atmosphere; like a carnival - there were people with
speakers on the back of their bikes, bubble machines, people in fancy
dress. I saw tandems, unicycles, recumbents, dogs and children being
towed along. We rolled around the city in the Friday evening sunshine
for two and a half-hours - and the peleton was still rolling on as I
left to come back of Burrard St bridge to get home by dark! The best bit
was stopping the traffic on both directions on top of the Lions Gate
Bridge. People raised their bikes above their heads to cries of "We're
not blocking traffic: we ARE traffic".

Most delayed motorists took it in good heart, some tooting support,
which was greeted with furious bell-ringing and cheers. There was the
odd arse giving people abuse (It raises some people hackles for reasons
other than being held up for a few minutes. There's a political
dimension to this whole idea, which started in San Fransisco and is now
held regularly around the globe).

It's the law here to wear a helmet while cycling, yet about half of the
riders yesterday did not. Some saw it as a chance to ride hat-less,
without fear of being fined. But if anything, the risk of falling off in
a tightly-packed group of cyclists seems to me to be higher than when
cycling in regular traffic here. I saw at least 3 spills, one person
quite badly injured coming down a slope in Stanley Park, with what
looked like a nasty bang to the head.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Snowshoes in July

"... All work and no play" as the saying goes, so we spent this weekend doing the Tourist Thing. On Sunday we cycled downtown and took the SeaBus over to North Vancouver and then up to Grouse Mountain. The main trail up - the Grouse Grind - was heaving, even at 10am, so we opted for the 'road less taken' (as some American poet once wrote), the BC Mountaineering Club trail.

Once at the top, it is like a tourist theme park at 11oom; all very nice, but far too busy for my liking. So we headed on up the trails, aiming for Goat Mountain. Surprised to find that once we got off the beaten path, we encountered snow. And lots of it, too. A sign suggested that the trail beyond Dam Mountain was 'closed due to adverse winter weather conditions' - and in July! It'll start snowing again in a couple of months time!

The strange thing was it was well over 20 degrees, even that high up, with the snow that was lying melting from underneath. Very cool. We could have done with snowshoes.....

The students know best; 'the curse of knowledge'

Have been hearing and reading some interesting stuff while here on the problems caused by the chasm between 'expert' and 'novice' views of a subject. The general idea is that when you know something, it is extremely difficult to think about it from the perspective of someone who does not know it. This has been termed ' the curse of knowledge' by educational psychologists.

Carl Wieman, writing a piece for the APS News 'back page' feature has offered this as a reason for the gap between the good intentions of physics lecturers and the lack of achievements of a (growing) number of students. In other words, we're all nice guys and gals really and want our students to succeed, but we've forgotten (or we don't know) what it is to not know. So, our carefully-crafted instruction - be it lecture, demonstration, lab, tutorial or exam - can go wonderfully well (from our point of view), but in some cases not effect student learning as much as we *think* it does, or sometimes not at all! (Some studies have shown a decrease in understanding of concepts after things like a lecture demonstration!)

So knowing what our students know, and how that changes over a period of time, seems to be an essential ingredient. I am struck by the amount of effort that has gone into developing various instruments to evaluate just that. Of course, I knew about the FCI and the MBT tests for classical mechanics, but there are many more (and a few lists are at the bottom of this post).

Concept tests / evaluation instruments list

from Maryland

workshop physics (Priscilla Laws)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

1500, and counting

I was learning today about Physics 101, UBC's equivalent of Physics 1A. It is delivered annually to a monsterous 15oo students. Yes, 1500.... 3 lots of 500 a term. Incredible. The people in charge of it must have to spend literally half their lives on admin and logistics. It puts into perspective the scale of our largest course, at nearly 300. I shall never whinge again about course organisation admin.

At the same time, I heard that the faculty member who is in charge of the course (who coincidentally shares my surname....) is also an academic advisor. To all 1500 first year students.....

I shall trot this out the next time I have to 'persuade' one of my colleagues to take on a course, or a measly 30 student directees......

As I approached the Physics building the other day, I saw this chalked on the ground. You never see that kind of thing chalked outside JCMB.....

Turns out there was an outreach programme in town, evidence for which was soon obtained once I got in the building and was almost taken out by a gaggle of excited 10 year olds, resplendent in matching bright red T-shirts.

It got me thinking about the number of our students that would chalk that after their degree, and how many of them would have swapped 'ro' for 'su'...? But then again, maybe some of those that think that never get to graduate anyway and fall by the wayside en route.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Journals, journals everywhere

One of the things I am often wondering is where to publish some of the
stuff that we done (.. or less egotistically, where can we find out
about other stuff that people have done)

I cam across these lists of journals:




Next job will be to sort out the wheat from the chaff and to annotate these lists. I sense a task coming up for one of my new MSc students .....

Plus ca change.....

'.... plus c'est la meme chose', as the saying goes

Or for those of you without the fantastic command of 1980s O'level French that I still retain (...ahem) 'The more that things change, the more they stay the same'.

Why that for a title, you might be wondering? Well, I am happily ensconsed in the offices of the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative on my first day here. It is Monday here (...but feeling distinctly like Tuesday already.....) and after the usual battle to get signed on to the wireless network as a visitor, I have just been signed up to 'CWSEI Basecamp', (built from www.basecamphq.com) a mailing list / discussion group about all things SEI.

It's a treasure trove of info, discussions and resources. Despite it being the middle of July, there's no less than 4 events this week (one of them being my talk tomorrow). Goodness knows how busy it must get during semester time. I am off to do some homework for the reading group meeting this coming Friday :-)

Based on the few conversations I have had thus far, it does seem like things over here, in the education sphere are much the same as we face over in the UK. A recent poster prepared by the folk here has the following under its 'Results so far" section; "Significant minority of faculty resistant to change (expected)". Sounds all too familiar, doesn't it? Also I have learned today that a current challenge being tackled here is to try and address the Hons level courses, much of the previous innovation having started off in early years teaching. Familiar, again then....

Onto other matters (or as they say in the news bulletins over here: 'sports and weather'). We are now settled in the flat, have done a bit of exploring and met some of the natives. One of them is of the feline variety ("Elvis") and bears a stunning similarity to his namesake in the late 70s (ie incredibly fat). I shall post a photo later to prove it.....

For now though, the attached photo is the view from the flat. We have acquired bikes now so are fully mobile; this is the view looking north towards the downtown area, complete with picture-postcard mountains.

Having told Susanne that the grid system on to which Vancouver's roads are laid out mean that it is "impossible to get lost", my natural navigation skills have already shone through, and resulted in us getting a little bit lost already. Twice already, in fact; slight matter of confusing north and south. Plus ca change, once again.....

Friday, July 4, 2008

To hell in a handcart....

You'd have to try pretty hard to avoid the doom and gloom that is coming
out of the UK media about Physics at secondary and tertiary level at the

Barely a week goes by without something deeply worrying for the subject coming out: here's a selection from the past few months from the BBC Education section of their website:

And it is not much better over at the Guardian, either:
... and so on. It doesn't make for happy reading. Why are more people not jumping up and down about this? I was preparing some slides earlier this week for a talk soon after I get to UBC; it paints a rather depressing picture that when you see all the pieces of, it is striking the point that things have got to. I think most people in Physics departments in the UK vaguely know about this on some level, but I guess would prefer not to have to think about. 'Surely someone else will solve these problems....?' I don't think that they will.

Oooh Canada!

I am off to Canada in a week to take a holiday.

No, wait, that should be to undertake a Royal Society funded fellowship visit to the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at UBC.

I thought that this would give me a good opportunity to re(start) my blogging..... doubly so, because it is going to be an interesting few months for Physics, what with Wakeham, the HEA Subject Centre Review etc.... And then there's the almost constant supply of news stories about how the subject is going to hell in a handcart (more on that later....)

So back to the holiday. At present, I am considering the whole work-life balance thing while out there, and reports of the weather forecast ('scorching', in the words of a colleague's mother) are suggesting that the scales may well tip towards life rather than work to start with.....

As for working conditions, compare and contrast: