Further tales from the Practical Lab

by e_e_evans PhD student

So it’s Sunday, I’m rocking out to music by Miracle of Sound, let’s do a blog post!

Now that I’m back into demonstrating for the new year I thought I’d return to my previous format of “tales from…”; thoughts on teaching undergrads and the like.

As usual I will name no names nor give identifiers to any individuals, in fact this time some of the ‘students’ will be more pastiches of several rather than individuals.



This bit is going to be addressed to a hypothetical student:

You may have heard it said that all writing is rewriting. If not:


Seriously, those four words right there needs to be tattooed onto the inside of every student’s eyelids. Yes, even yours hypothetical student, even yours. All too often people who have to communicate their thoughts and ideas through the medium of words get paralysed by starting because they worry that what they put down will be rubbish or not what they meant at all. I still get those days but I try to combat that paralysis.

There is only one person I know of in history who wrote one draft of something and that was Coleridge, and even then he got half way through, went to answer the door and forgot the rest of the poem. (Kubla Khan is the poem if you’re interested). The rest of us take a good few attempts. (Fun fact, this blog post is edited, I put in this text in brackets upon re-reading, I am actually speaking to you from the future compared to the sentences around this one. Oh, spooky!) And just think, when I was at school I had wrote nearly all my essays pre-A level by hand not on a computer!

So repeat after me:

“I give myself permission to suck.
All writing is rewriting,
So I give myself permission to suck.
I can do a second draft so this time
I give myself permission to suck.”

when gotham is in ashes.png

If you need some more help here’s a couple of resources from a poet and an author. There is very little difference between writing academically and creatively, you are both communicating ideas to an audience:

Lauren Zuniga: http://www.laurenzuniga.com/new-blog/2015/5/19/4-steps-to-getting-the-poems-out-of-your-throat
Maureen Johnston: https://youtu.be/Nyhv80HDSj4


“Can you just tell us the answer?”

This is actually more  of a rare refrain than most would think… but it happens. I will resist voicing my opinions on the current state of High School education that leads to tracks of students being taught to test with little space for critical thinking and personal learning for the sake of league tables even though many children still leave without a grasp of basic reading, writing and maths and…


*Ahem*, Anyway,
We all have moments where we just want to just be told the answer. From the big problems (what should I do with my life after school/university/this job) to the little problems (picking a film to watch for a movie night with pals). And yes, there are situations where deferring the issue is actually the right thing to do, especially in relationships where compromise and meeting people half way is needed.

But a degree is not just a fancy piece of paper, it represents that you possess the knowledge and skills expected of someone holding your degree title (this is why plagiarism is such a big deal, to get away with it is to commit fraud but possessing a qualification you did not earn).
Now some of these skills you learn can be very general and/or abstract (essay writing and problem solving come to mind) but knowledge has to be committed to memory. And in the case of classroom based geology, which I am a demonstrator for, the knowledge is learning how to deduce what a mineral or rock based on a series of physical tests and deductions.

My students often get annoyed that when they ask me “is this X?” my response is “Why do you say that?”. But the reason is the answer is actually immaterial unless you go through the process that leads to the answer. Or to put it a more wordy way, it’s the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning.

Software blues

Are you sitting comfortably everyone? Then we’ll begin:
As part of my 3rd year dissertation I had to write up the analysis and discussion of the fieldwork I had performed over the summer holidays. This also included making a geological map from scratch. Oh, and we had just one term to do this in. To assist in this task we were recommended a few pieces of software to make our map. I used Inkscape because it was free and with a bit of jiggery-pokery it worked ok on my laptop. (I highly recommend it if you want a figure making program and don’t want to buy Photoshop).

Everything I know about Inkscape I learnt myself either by playing around until I got the results I wanted or looking up guides online. And I had to get on with it because of the aforementioned one term deadline. In fact, almost everything I know about any piece of software is via that method, playing around or looking things up. Only after I exhaust those avenues do I ask people (if there are people to ask!). One other thing, I never refuse the offer of being shown how to do something.

To summarise, to learn software you should:
Get on with it (and learn good time management as a result)
Playing around with the software
Accepting help when it’s handed to you

Those above things weren’t done by a student I had a run in with this week. Needless to say I wasn’t impressed (especially with the latter point although I suspect said student was probably a bit embarrassed about how little time they had spent with the software).

Last year I demonstrated on a Statistics class. I was a bit surprised by the lack of knowledge of using Excel. But again, almost everything I know about Excel I learnt myself using the above process (and then had to relearn in most cases because updated versions change things!)

You’d think that the proliferation of video gaming would give students the edge in intuiting a few things with software but apparently not. (Side note: I have actually witnessed someone use Makerware 3D who intuitively worked out the camera controls because they were the same as with The Sims. Transferable skills right there! It does happen!)

So those are some of my thoughts on student learning. Please direct all your rotten fruit in the opposite direction… thanks.

The author is a PhD student and was, as a result, a ridiculous goody two-shoes as an undergrad. A former lecturer of her’s did once tell her and her degree class the tale of how he turned up to an exam still drunk from the night before so there’s hope for everyone really! She also has video games on the brain because of listening to Miracle of Sound and the recent release of Fallout 4.