When I were a lad…

…we’d have to get up for a morning tutorial at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before we went to bed… complete all 171,117 problems in each of Schaum’s Outline series on partial derivatives, fluid mechanics, and vector analysis before breakfast… work twenty-nine hours in the undergraduate lab (and pay the lab organiser nineteen and six for the privilege)… and when we got back to the halls of residence, the Hall Tutor would kill us and dance about on our graves while reciting Chapter 1 of Feynman’s Lectures In Physics, Vol I. 

But you try and tell that to young people today and they won’t believe you…

[With all due credit to Messrs Cleese, Chapman et al.]


There’s yet another one of those irksome hand-wringing “…tsk, kids these days…articles in the Times Higher this week. Here’s a sample:

Even science students seem to struggle with mathematics. During my last few years of teaching in the UK, I was aggressively confronted by science undergraduates because I tried to engage them in an exercise that required them to calculate percentages. I was told that this was unreasonable because they were not, after all, doing a maths degree.

In twenty-one years of undergraduate science teaching (to date) I have not once encountered a student who baulked at the calculation of percentages. Granted, I usually teach physicists, but I’ve also taught chemists, chemical engineers, biomedical scientists, and pharmacy students. (I should note that I’m also not the least cynical academic teaching at a UK university.) The reactionary “eee by gum, they don’t know they’re born” whining is teeth-grindingly frustrating because it does a massive disservice to so many of our students.

Last week (as a Christmas, um, …treat) I decided I’d ask my first year tutorial group to attempt questions from an exam paper from 2001. I have done this for the last four or five years so it’s becoming a bit of a festive tradition. Here are two of the questions:

2001-Exam-p1_trimmed.jpeg

My tutees tackled these questions, and others, with quite some aplomb, despite the paper having been set when they were still in nappies. You may note that the questions involve mathematical (and physics) reasoning significantly more sophisticated than the calculation of percentages.

Deficiencies in the secondary/high school education system are too often lazily attributed to a lack of engagement or effort from students; that THE article is, of course, only the latest in a long line of Daily Mail-esque “We’re going to hell in a hand-cart” polemics in a wide variety of online and traditional forums [1]. In my experience, student ability or commitment has most definitely not dropped off a cliff at some point during the last two decades. Indeed, students are instead generally much more focused now due to the imposition of the £9250 per year fee regime; too focussed in some cases, many would say.

So let’s put the pearl-clutching to one side for a while and instead highlight the positives in higher education: the talents and tenacity of our students. In the midst of the madness that is Brexit, let’s not succumb to the lazy narratives and sweeping generalisations that characterise so much of public debate right now. After all, don’t we teach our students that critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning are core to their education?

[1] …or fora for those who are particularly pedantic and especially wedded to that fifties idyll of English  Latin as it should be, dammit. (Sorry, “damn it”. (Oops, sorry again, make that deodamnatus.))

 

20,000 Leagues under the THE

This monstrous tome arrived yesterday morning…

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I subscribe to the Times Higher Education and generally look forward to the analogue version of the magazine arriving each week. Yesterday, however, it landed with a fulsome house-rattling thud as it hit the floor, prompting Daisy, the eight year old miniature dachshund whose duty it is to ward off all visitors (friend, foe, or pizza), to attempt to shred both the magazine and the 170 page glossy World University Ranking ‘supplement’ pictured above that accompanied it.

I should have smeared the latter with a generous helping of Cesar dog food [1] and have her at it.

Yes, it’s yet another rant about league tables, I’m afraid. I’ve never been one to hold back on the piss and vinegar when it comes to bemoaning the pseudostatistics underpinning education league tables (be they primary school OFSTED placements or the leaderboards for august higher education institutions). I’m lucky to be in very good company. Peter Coles’ annual slamming of the THE rankings is always worth reading. (He’s on especially good form for the 2019 season.) And our very own Head of School, Mike Merrifield, has described in no uncertain terms just why university league tables are bad for you.

But this time round, and notwithstanding that WB Yeats quote I love so much [2], there’s going to be a slightly more upbeat message from yours truly. We need to give students rather more credit when it comes to seeing through the league table guff. They’re a damn sight more savvy than some imagine. Before I describe just why I have this degree of faith in the critical thinking capabilities of the next generation of undergrads, let’s take a look at a few representative (or not, as the case may be) league tables.

I’ve got one more year to go (of a five year ‘gig’) as undergraduate admissions tutor for the School of Physics & Astronomy at Nottingham. Throughout that time, I have enjoyed the healthy catharsis of regularly lambasting league tables during not only my University open day talks (in June and September) but for every week of our UCAS visit/interview days (which kick off again in mid-November).

I routinely point to tables like this, taken from the annual Graduate Market report [3]:

GraduateMarket2017-2018

Tsk. Nottingham languishing at #8. Back in 2014-2015 we were at # 2:

GraduateMarket2014-2015.png

Clearly there’s been a drop in quality to have slipped six places, right?

No. There’s nothing “clear” about that supposition at all. Universities and university departments are not football teams: it’s ludicrous to judge any institution (or department therein) on the basis of a single number.

Not convinced? Just sour grapes because Nottingham has ‘slipped’?

Well, take a slightly closer look at Table 5.8 directly above. Let’s leave the Nottingham “also-ran”s to one side, and focus on the top of the pops, Manchester. They’re an impressive #1 when it comes to employer perception…yet #28 in the Good University Guide. So which number do you prefer? Which has more credibility? Which is more robust?

Still have residual doubts? OK, let’s instead focus in on individual schools/departments rather than consider entire universities. (And don’t get me started on the university-wide Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)’s gold, silver, and bronze medals…) Here’s where Nottingham stands in The Times’ Physics and Astronomy league table:

TimesTop10.png

Yay! Go Nottingham! In at #5 with a bullet. Up a whopping thirteen places compared to last year. (Incidentally, our undergraduate applications were also up by over 20%. This correlation between league table placement and application numbers may not be entirely coincidental…)

Wow. We must really have worked hard in the intervening year. Or perhaps we brought in “star world-class players” on the academic transfer market to “up our game”?

Nope.

So what was radically different about our teaching and/or research compared to the previous year that led to this climb into the Top Ten?

Nothing. Zilch. Nada.

Feck all.

Indulge me with one last example.  Here’s the most recent (2014) Research Excellence Framework ranking for physics…

REF2014.png

Nottingham is the only school/department to remain in the Top 5 over two rounds of this national research assessment exercise. (Last time round (in 2008) we were joint second with Bath and Cambridge). Again, Yay Nottingham!, right? Or does it perhaps speak rather more to a certain volatility in the league table placements because any peer review process like the REF is very far from being entirely objective?

Both Peter Coles and Mike Merrifield (among many others) have pointed out key reasons underpinning league table volatility. I’m not about to rehearse those arguments here. Instead, I’ll highlight a couple of rather encouraging Reddit threads I’ve read recently — and that’s not something I tend to write too often — related, at least partially, to Nottingham’s open days. The first of these Mike has very helpfully highlighted via Twitter:

 

There is indeed a lot to be said for brutal honesty and I am delighted that the pseudostats of league table placements are being questioned by open day audiences.

The responses to this rather snobbishly overwrought comment elsewhere on Reddit also made my heart sing:

Reddit.png

You can read the responses at the thread itself but I especially liked this, from ‘Matthew3_14’:

Reddit_response.png

I’d quibble with the “outside of the top 5ish” proviso (as you might expect), but otherwise “Matthew3_14” echoes exactly what I’ll be telling visiting applicants for our courses in the coming months…

If you like Nottingham, the rankings are irrelevant.

If you don’t like Nottingham, the rankings are still irrelevant.

Go to the place where you feel best.


[1] …for small, yappy-type dogs.

[2] “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy that sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

[3] Yes, it’s irritating that we now unblinkingly refer to students as a market. That’s a whole other blog post or five.