Sunday, 31 January 2016

Large US textbooks (UKPSF: K1, K2, A4)

I am just updating my lecture notes for my foundation course in Physics. I got the original notes from the people who taught it four years ago. I am now adding a summary at the beginning and a summary at the end. I have added a few more questions in the notes. I thought I was utilizing some of the ideas from Physics Education research. 

But now when I look at the results, my notes are starting to look like one of those big American text books on physics, such as University Physics with Modern Physics by Young et al. There is always a summary of basic equations, and little boxes with equations. These textbooks essentially contain all topics in an introductory course in Physics. I don't remember using that kind of text book, when I was a undergraduate student at Imperial College.  Each lecture would recommend different more specialized textbooks, such on waves.

It could be that the British way of using books is used, because the level of the courses was higher, so a large comprehensive book didn't contain enough information. My understanding is that, these big introductory courses were unpopular with the students.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Excel certification (UKPSF: V4, K1)

One of my colleagues went to visit a placement student in London. He found that the most useful thing that the student had learned on their mathematics degree was a familiarity with the spreadsheet package Excel.  I had the same experience.

We do teach some Excel to the students, but because the staff don't like to use it, apart from entering marks, we don't perhaps teach as much as we should. Excel is really rubbish at plotting histograms, so that biases me against it. Also a useful data analysis package only existed for Windows.

My colleagues suggested that we look into getting the students to take some exam to get  Excel certification. Now that I have done a quick web search, I see that Microsoft actually off a number of certification exams.    I have seen a University in the USA off certification in the SAS statistical language, but we don't use it because it is expensive.  It is not clear to me that a University department should be also be certifying students in Excel. It might be hard to organize. It is not clear how to pay for the student's exam. Also the exams are taken at special places.

Student understanding of electostatics (UKPSF: A1 K1 K2 K3)

The first lecture of Physics II is on Monday. The subject is on electrostatics and a starting to look at currents in electricity.  So the first example is rubbing amber and it becoming charged.

This was know to ancient Greeks. This is a good way to introduce charge. However, I don't fully understand the mechanism, behind how the charge is separated. The mechanism is not discussed in any standard textbooks. It looks as though the physics is called: triboelectric effect. 
This is what the great Feynman says:

Yet in all our long and involved discussion we have never explained why it is that
when we rub a piece of amber we get a charge on it. So you see, this physics of ours
is a lot of fakery  -- we start out with the phenomena of lodestone and amber,
and we end up not understanding either of them very well.
To really understand the basic physics of static electricity requires that the students know about atoms. I will briefly discuss atoms and things later on in the course, so now is probably not a good time to add much more detail.

When I read a few chapters of Five easy lessons by Knight, I see that from Physics Education Research, that many students really only learn the algorithmic nature of the electricity problems. They don't really understand physical principles, such as charge conservation. Also, from the
research quoted in the book -- they don't really understand important things such that an insulator can get charged.

When I was reading a paper called Matter and Interactions by Chabay et al. they claim that the syllabus needs to be made more modern. And that the atomic theory should be used more. They have written a text book, where they use a more modern approach to physics and not this is complementary to physics education research. 

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Thinking about teaching Physics II for the second time. (UKPSF A1 A2 K1)

I am just starting to teach a foundation year module called Physics II to the students. This is the second time I taught the course. So here are my thoughts on improvements.

  • I would like to add more applications. I have been reading about batteries and more about medical application of radiation. These are always good for motivation. With my better understanding of cognitive load theory, I need to  make sure that the applications are clearly separate from core course material.
  • I showed a few videos last time. I think it is better to download the videos from youtube if that is possible. The adverts and banners get in the way. I like the videos because they replace physics demonstrations, that we don't have. Also in the end of the course I used explicit questions, to focus their attention on the explicit thing I wanted them to think about.
  • The lecture motes had some inbuilt exercises. I need to add more particularly with the new 2 hour long lectures.
  • The students seemed to like the two mock tests that I ran. I provided solutions, but I could make the solutions more useful, by linking back to lecture material. Also I will add instructions on how to use the feedback in the self marking.
  • There is no white board in the lecture theatre, so I am going to have to use the visualizer, when I write the odd solution to problems.
I wonder if there is a literature on how to effectively use videos in lectures.

I am sure that more things will occur to me as time progresses....

Wednesday, 27 January 2016


I presented a quick example of embedding multiple choice questions into a video using the Edpuzzle online system at the recent meeting at Cardiff. I didn't make a presentation, but just did a basic "show and tell." The main comments I got were about integration with online course management systems such as moodle What I was told was that there is a common system to integrate different educational technologies together called SCORM. When I had a quick look at the web page for SCORM, I see it was invented in the USA, because of the many different educational technologies.  The technology education market is huge and worth many billions of dollars. This explains why the government got involved in the creation of standards to get educational software to talk together. It also stops "vendor lock in."

SCORM is something the technology people at the University would have to install, so that may take sometime.  Interestingly enough the MapleTA system I use doesn't use SCORM to talk to Moodle.

One person (a national teaching fellow), at the meeting,  told me that she used a similar (non free system) to check that students had watched the videos, when she was teaching using the flipped classroom.  This system integrated with Moodle via SCORM. I now see that a SCORM plugin is already installed in Moodle at Plymouth University.

 Why is this important for students? It makes it easier for the students to log into the system, because with SCORM, they could in principle use the single sign in to login.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Beyond mathcentre: electronic resources for maths assessment and support (UKPSF A3 A4 K4 V1)

Last Friday I went to a meeting called Beyond mathcentre: electronic resources for maths assessment and support at the University of South Wales in Cardiff. This is part of the Sigma network, which is a network of lectures in Mathematics based in the South West of England.

The first talk was by Embedding computer-aided assessment and other electronic resources in the curriculum, Martin Greenhow from Brunel University. He had his own computer aided assessment system. It didn't use a computer algebra system as a back end, so he was using multiple choice questions. He thought that the multiple choice questions was good for the students. It was better motivation, if a student gets 2/10 on a multiple choice than getting 0/10 on a mathematical quiz.
He spent a lot of time making the mathematical problems relevant. For example his system was used for teaching nurses how to measure out the correct amount of medicine. He had learned about the correct doses of various pills. This report gives information about errors about medication. It claims that  7000 deaths occur annually, because of medication problems.  Some of these problems are not due to arithmetic issues, but miss-identification of the doctors written notes.

Martin was a big believer in using SVG (scalable vector graphics) for figures, because the students could easily resize them.  This is useful for students who have vision or reading problems. Like everyone else he was using, or planning to use, mathjax for displaying mathematics.

He found that the students really liked the detailed feedback he provided. He also tried to find the common errors that the students made and then he would provide detailed feedback to help them. He used the phrase mal-rules for mathematical mistakes the students were making. See this paper from a cognitive perspective.

He talked to me about the entropy of questions. Also he mentioned the idea of question-space from  Chris Sangwin  
to try to quantify the number of mistakes the students could make.

Martin also used project students to help author questions and the feedback. Writing such detailed questions is a lot of work.

He also seemed to claim that if a woman's name was used in a word question, then more female students would get the correct answer. So he designed the questions to take into account diversity.

He liked the idea of computer aided assessment and exams. The students relaxed when they saw the exam questions, because they had been trained on the algebra system. If they had done no work, or cheated on the assessment systems, then they got a low mark on the exam.

So what did I learn from it. Now that I see what people are doing, they are clearly in the lead in providing detailed feedback to students. The students like the feedback, when it is tailored to their
mistakes. I will have to look again at the feedback possibilities in the commercial computer algebra system I use (MapleTA).

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Adding questions to videos (UKPSF: K4 K2)

I often use screen casts when I am teaching students about programming. I am not really set up to use pod casting, where I write mathematics on a tablet. See this example by a colleague.

One of the local PGCAP people told me they thought  Martin stopped  video and then asked the students to do some questions. This turned out to be a misunderstanding.

It turned out that it is possible to embed questions into videos. See this example I have made
using edpuzzle. 

I really liked what I saw of edpuzzle. There is an equation editor, which seems to use latex to  create the questions. There is only the possibility of making multiple choice questions, but that should be fine. you.

It was easy to:
  • crop the video (a similar system to the editor in youtube)
  • add a question at a point in the time line of the video.
  • add audio commentary at various points in the timeline
The main disadvantage is that the students must log into the system with a google email or another type of account. This is done so that the student's mark's can be recorded. This is good, because it lets me see who has taken the test. But it is bad, because some of the students may not want to register.

It is a useful tool, if I want to comment on a video made by another person. The ability to add audio clips is very useful, because I may want to make a comparison between the video and  something I have covered in the class.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

An Introduction to the new A levels in Mathematics and Further Mathematics (UKPSF V2 V4)

Last night I went to an event called An Introduction to new A levels in Mathematics and Further Mathematics at the University of Plymouth. The event was aimed at teachers who teach mathematics at A-level. In the past, I have taught an introductory course on calculus and complex numbers. It is never very clear what knowledge of mathematics the students have when they passed A-level mathematics. Indeed I went to one course in Birmingham, where the consus views of the new lecturers present was that you could not assume any mathematics knowledge for students coming into University with A level mathematics.

The A-level mathematics courses are being redesigned. The module system is being scrapped. This is where the A-level is broken into modules and the students have to pass each module. There is an exam at the end of maybe each semester. In the new system, the modules are scrapped and the content is taught linearly. This can only be a good thing, because it seems that students  sometimes assume that they can forget material once they pass the module, rather than build up on top of material.

The new syllabus had an amazing amount of stuff in it. It would be great, if we could get more students with further mathematics.

It wasn't totally clear when the new A level will be taught, but it could be that we don't see any new students until 2019.  We will have to wait and see whether the students are better prepared. It was also interesting to get an insight into what the teachers were thinking.

How does it help my teaching? It would be good, if we could start a course by revising reminding them about material we have previously taught them. This is slightly complicated, because there are four different exam boards.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Derrida on education (totally unreadable as usual) (UKPSF K2 V4)

While I was reading about multiple choice questions on Wikipedia, I found that the philosopher Derrida was opposed to multiple choice questions. So I did make the effort to try and read a discussion of his work on education. One quote from the linked paper is;

For nothing can be taught or learned other than what is believed to be known and understood.
OK, that is either very profound or just gibberish. Things go downhill very quickly in the paper, as the quote below shows:
Derrida characterizes the conventional or classical act of teaching and learning to be the pragmatic reproduction of the “metaphysics of presence” as cultivated from the premises of the interchangeable chain-linking of its orienting function at the fabulaic center of the syntagm of the Western mythos of “pure origins,” uncorrupted beginnings. 
Perhaps I should have struggled to understand the rest of the article, but really I don't see anything useful for teaching of anything. Of course, I didn't believe I was going to get anything out of the essay, so in that case, why did I try to read it. The PGCAP community who control education in higher education, love this kind of writing.

Socrative (UKPSF A4 K4)

It is very popular in physics education circles to use "clickers" to allow the students do simple quizzes in the class. For example this is the method advocated by Eric Mazur. The idea is to do active engagement of the students with the material.

One issue is just how to actually use clickers in the classroom. It would be better to actually hand out the clickers, but they are quite expensive. In the mathematical sciences department at Plymouth, we give each student a clicker, but in service courses for other departments, the students typically don't have access to clickers.

One possible option would be to get the students to use  a smart phone or tablet, rather than an expensive clicker. There is website called socrative , which allows tests to be taken by studemts on
mobile device. A couple of years ago I made a presentation on using socrative at a HEA workshop.

I have not actually used Socrative in a classroom setting. One issue was whether the wireless signal would be strong enough for a class of students all using mobile devices. Also, it has to be remembered that not all students will have access to a smart device.

Now that the standard lecture length is two hours at Plymouth, I should think about using socrative again.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

laziness and student engagement (UKPSF A4 V4)

I have just finished reading

Enhancing Learning And Teaching In Higher Education: Engaging With The Dimensions Of Practice  by John Lea

This is not a book I would read for pleasure. I mostly read it to help me pass my second attempt at passing the PGCAP exam.  The book was probably the best one I have read in which was written in
PGCAP style, but many things in the book annoyed me. Unlike other books, written by people who
believe the PGCAP world view, there were a few useful ideas in it.

One section annoyed me. The author wanted to show that the number of undergraduate students has grown by a huge amount. Rather, then the authors finding the information out, they proposed that the reader as an exercise should find it out and they subtly hinted that Wikipedia should be consulted. One od the reasons, I buy books is so that I am not reliant on Wikipedia. I can see that the author, thought that, this exercise of collecting student number in Universities as a function of time, would engage the readers. I just felt the author was being lazy. If they wrote the chapter, they should have found out the information and perhaps created a good graph.

This is one of the problems with some of the ideas of pushing more of the work to the students. Sometimes it makes the module leader lazy.

Multiple choice (UKPSF K3 K4 V3)

It has been a very long time since I was at School, but I can dimly remember doing some exams which were assessed with multiple-choice questions.  I didn't really like them. I think, I found it confusing to try and understand the wordings of the questions. I don't remember that much of the exams at Imperial College, when I was an undergraduate there, but I don't think that there were many multiple choice questions.

So I have always been a bit biased against multiple choice questions, versus free answers. In Physics and Mathematics assessments, we very rarely ask the student to write essays. In the course I inherited, there were multiple choice questions, but these were mostly for numerical answers to calculations.

On issue within multiple choice questions is what happens when students guess between the typically four possible choices. I have been to a talk, by a person from the medical school, where they gave students -1/4 if they got an answer wrong.  The famous SAT test in the USA, also uses a system where 1/4 is subtracted for an incorrect answer. I have not had time to study it, but there are statistical tests, to try and discover, where a student is just guessing.

More interestingly, there are banks of multiple choice questions called concept inventories. The teaching method for maths and physics is to show some theory, then work some examples. The students then attempt to solve additional problems.  What has been found is the students focus too much on  the problem solving and don't attempt to master  the underlying physics or theory. So banks of multiple choice questions have been designed to test a student's knowledge without any calculation. The physics education community have also carefully studied student's misconceptions of physics and thus the questions are designed to contain common incorrect answers.

So perhaps I should revise my dislike of multiple-choice questions.

Of course, if you think that knowledge has nothing to do with learning, then you will not want to use multiple choice methods, and just rely on the students writing their opinions in an essay.