ViCE PHEC with the IOP

The looming threat of the government’s proposed Teaching Excellence Framework has left some universities wriggling, with funding being linked to quality rather than quantity of education. For some, this is of no concern: they have got a well-supported, well-respected group of teaching fellows who proactively campaign for the student experience. The Variety in Chemistry Education/ Physics Higher Education Conference (‘ViCEPHEC’) celebrates these people. I attended as I’m determined for undergraduates to get the most out of their education, I want more people working in physics (not investment banks) and I’m keen to find how teaching innovation translates to the school environment.

ViCE PHEC covers a range of interesting themes and wonderful ideas that make you so happy education exists. Much to my surprise there are whole departments with real-life PhD students researching education and even UK-based academic educational journals for teachers and researchers. Heads-up if you’re just finishing a PhD looking to get in to higher-ed research: in studies you can get away with a much smaller sample size, and you’ll likely get the keynote spot at a teaching conference. Whilst physicists were physically outnumbered by the chemists, with less interactive 3D molecular models, we weren’t any less engaged, and the higher education group of the IOP met a day early to formulate our plan.

Improve Labs: A big proportion of talks are from university groups using laboratories to promote scientific thinking. It became evident that to make sure undergraduates benefit from their time in undergraduate labs, they must do more than try to confirm known results. There are some universities who have really invested in teaching labs; employing dedicated lab coordinators and they see big improvements in the dreaded student satisfaction surveys (NSS). Labs can be structured so that errors/uncertainties are not what you Google frantically before a lab deadline and instead of storage rooms for broken multimeters, they become places to encourage group-work and enquiry.

School vs. University: There is comparison between graduate and secondary school teaching, where you may have an undergraduate degree in your discipline but (crucially) you’re taught how to teach. In universities, the lecturers are the experts in their disciplines, but not taught pedagogy or explicitly “how to teach”. The students change their study approaches too, recognizing that there is less guidance and they need more motivation and administration. Could teachers integrate decreasing levels of support into year 13? Can sixth form students become independent scientific researchers, who contribute to the academic community and learn how to be self-sufficient in a lab?

How can researchers support and improve exams and assessment?

  • Do multiple choice questions encourage “What” not “Why”?
  • Instead of marking numerical answers and calculator confidence, could we evaluate model-making and diagram skills?
  • Could ‘talking-mark schemes’ and self-assessment improve student expectations and study practice?

There’s some innovative/ terrifying way of students evaluating their teachers: from coded free-text on post-it notes to the real-time geographical anonymous social network “YikYak”.

Particularly impressive is that lots of the research has been carried out by summer project, MSc and postgraduate students, developed by students for students.

The extortionate student fees are making undergraduates more demanding. If they’re paying for it, should undergraduates should get what they “want”? Should physics departments be responsible for the delivery of professional skills courses to a next-generation of investment bankers?

One of my favourite talks was Ian Bearden from the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. In a matter of minutes, he had the whole lecture theatre on their feet playing with pendulums. Bearden points out that students can get everything they want online (particularly appropriate after MIT’s recent open publication of all their teaching materials), downloading free lectures with the click of a button. Universities have to offer something different: a community of scholars who can welcome and develop inquisitive minds.


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