The tales from the practical class: Reloaded

by e_e_evans PhD student

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Teaching is in full swing at the University at the moment. I will preface this piece by saying that despite the hard work (and it is) of teaching I do enjoy it and love interacting with students. However, as with all things we love, we complain because we care.

First though, let’s indulge in some silly vignettes before I get onto the meatier things.

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Classic Undergrad Moments Montage

A student who wanted to bribe my colleagues with a quid for the answer in a minerals identification practical.

The student who didn’t have a lab coat or the 50p required to borrow one because they doesn’t carry cash. Ever. Not sure how they’re going to pay us back! And also, I didn’t know The Queen was studying in my department as she is the only person I know who doesn’t carry cash (except on Maundy Thursday of course).

The rag-tag group of pals who managed to convince the lecturer in charge of a field trip to stop off for MacDonald’s after an afternoon in the rain at 4 degrees above freezing plus wind chill. Bless.

All the students that keep turning up to practical classes without a ruler, then ask me how to work out the grain size of rocks. (Answer: Measure it)

The completely unsubtle students who tried to sneak a look at my answer sheet during an assessed practical.
0/10 for style, folks.

The post-Trump-win lamentations from students that dominated a practical, instead of, say, the work.

A field trip to caves being scuppered by the film crew of Doctor Who.

The student who arrived half an hour before the start of a practical… There by walking into the end of the previous session.

All the students who were late for an assessed practical because they went to the wrong room. (Actually, that wasn’t funny, it was kind of saddening)

Honourable mention goes to the two students who were wandering the corridors of the department lost and trying to find their tutor’s office… All offices are on the same floor on one long U-shaped corridor. Oh dear.

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Serious commentary time

Here follows 5 statements that I will draw on in the discussion below:

  1. This week I dug out a pile of lecture notes from a module I did in my 3rd year of undergraduate. It was a really hard module with a big piece of complex summative coursework making up a large part of the assessment. The module was about the structure and large scale processes of the planet including the driving forces behind plate tectonics and the complexities of earthquake fault zones (to name two aspects). One lecturer’s approach to easing(!) us into all this was to have every single one of his lecture slides have at least one equation on it, usually differential calculus. But we put our head’s down and got on with it. It was tough stuff but I’m glad I took the module.
  2. I wanted to get a first class degree (who doesn’t) but my efforts were tempered not by wanting that Damian Hirst (First) but learning as much as I could and trying as hard as I could. We all have a talent wall and I hit mine eventually in modules and topics I wasn’t as proficient in and ended up with a respectable, high 2:1 for my efforts. It got me to where I am now, so that’s what matters.
  3. When I was an A level student I took AS Maths. It did not go well. The only thing that saved me from an out and out failing mark was my ability to mechanically follow the rules of calculus and be able to do algebra and trigonometry. It was suddenly too abstract. I got to the point where I would stare at a blank page in my notebook and not even attempt to answer the question. Not because I couldn’t start it but because I knew I’d get it wrong. It was a really negative cycle to be in.
  4. I can remember things I learnt in primary school. Activities I did, trips we took and stories and facts we learnt. We visited the Farne Islands during the year of the foot and mouth disease, we learnt about Grace Darling, puffins, and the monastery of Lindisfarne to name but a few things. I first memorised “From a railway carriage” before I was 9. I treasure my ability to remember, like J K Rowling’s Pensieve I like to look anew at my memories. After all “man is the sum of his memories” [sic]
  5. I have watched the entirety of the following films start to finish: Lawrence of Arabia, the extended cuts of the Lord of the Rings films, Ben-Hur (the Charlton Heston version, sans the first 10 minutes because it was on telly and I missed the start), The Wolf of Wall Street, The Dark Knight and the meditative documentary Into Great Silence. This is not a gloat, or an “I’m better than you” declaration, basically what I’m saying is I possess an attention that when interested, becomes captivated.
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3D TV with Digital surround sound eat your heart out!

The above are all things that I have mused upon in light of the attitudes displayed with alarming regularity by the current crop of undergraduates. Perhaps it is an issue peculiar to where I am but frankly that would be terribly bad to assume that the students at my University are somehow worse than those at others. Granted, my own undergraduate experience is different from others in the sense that I have ended up in academia but I reflect on my contemporaries from my undergraduate days and I do see distinct differences between then and now.

Let’s start with point 3:
There seems to be an instinctive shying away of trying things when their is a risk of failing. I find myself encouraging students to commit to writing down an answer to a problem in class even when they have followed through the steps and therefore should be able to give the correct solution. It feels akin to watching a student work out an unknown angle of a triangle, going through the method, using the correct trig functions then at the end refusing to put down a value for theta.
I am therefore reminded of myself as an AS Maths student. The fear of getting it wrong is crippling. I think it is more so than ever tied up in the current teaching methods in schools. Education is becoming very perceptive. Besides the above example from a recent practical class I have also witnessed a student become distressed at the thought of having to put two opposing view points down in a essay. The lack of a “correct” answer clearly distressed them.
At University their is rarely a right answer to complex issues, merely well test and observed theories. In the case of observed phenomena I have to disagree with Master Obi-Wan Kenobi: he says “you’re eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them”, when I ask a student to tell me what they see I am not asking a trick question. Observe and record then discuss and theorise and finally test and comment.

On to points 1 and 2:
It is becoming increasingly common for students to demand far more of tutors’ and lecturers’ time than is reasonable. One student came to see a colleague about a piece of work outside of the tutorial time. I assumed that they had missed the last tutorial and were wanting to catch up. No, they wanted assurance that they were on the right track because they wanted to get a First. But no amount of time with staff is going to make up for the hard work and limits of a student’s talent. Not everyone will get a First. And that’s OK, or at least it should be.
I’m alarmed that there is an expectation that because students are now paying so much money for attending university that they deserve a good grade. That’s not what your paying for dear undergrad, you’re paying to be taught and have the opportunity to earn a degree, the rest is up to you. Unfortunately the business machine of universities are extremely interested in student (read, customer) satisfaction so courses are forced to remove from their modules topics and concepts deemed too advanced. Give these BSc students equations to do and your module satisfaction ratings will drop like a stone. But being pushed is part of learning. I am no natural talent myself, I have to work at what I do, especially when it comes to things that do involve post-GCSE level maths. But when I do achieve something difficult the feeling of accomplishment makes the hard work worth it.

Points 4 and 5:
I personally think that attention and engagement is a learned skill. Being attentive for an hour solid is something you have to work at. Recent pedagogy seems to run counter to training attention but instead caters to a lack there of. How did I learn to have good attention? I took notes in lectures; I was studying a subject I liked; attending church helps funnily enough because if you zone out you look like a right wally when the next hymn starts and you’re still sitting like a lemon; and making the effort to resist the call to daydream, however strong.
When I find myself repeating instructions given to students mere minutes ago, when they can’t seem to recall something they were taught in a lecture the day before and Sixth Form is “ages ago” one wonders if they’re in the right place. If you can’t remember information about a subject you’re studying it’s probably because you’re not interested, and if you’re not interested, well, perhaps you need to find something that does interest you and do that instead.

Blimey this has turned into a long one.
These are merely my thoughts and I don’t have any answers and this is not meant to generalise all students, it’s just common issues I have personally encountered.

The author is a PhD student who helps teach courses mainly on geology, environmental science and computer skills. All views are her own so send the lynch mob to her door not anyone else’s. 

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