Remote Learning, Active Learning

Given the current pandemic, all of our learning has been moved online. The most readily apparent impact of this is that our physics exams are now remote and open book. This is a welcome change, at least for me, as I always found the need to memorise content for exams a bit redundant, when in real physics work we will always have access to reference material.

Additionally, all of our tutorials and other meetings are conducted over video call. The efficacy of this has been mixed, in some cases people are quite open to working over call, using video when possible, while others seem to be able to sit in a breakout group call for 15 minutes with their microphone muted, trying to avoid putting themselves out there. Most irritatingly, my lecturer for one module, problem solving, seems to have lost all awareness that no student has the attention span to listen to him work through problem solutions for 60 minutes and forgotten that his own worksheets include the words “students should attempt the next question in groups.”

On the flip side, our relativity lecturer has been trying some new techniques and tools to improve the teaching. Seminars are a new introduction to our course this year and despite some roughness at the start of the year, some of the latest ones have been very well planned and paced, including last week’s, on the seemingly paradoxical effects introduced by acceleration in special relativity and their resolution by limiting the speed at which forces propagate to the speed of light. I really liked how the lecturer guided us towards exploring the problem and how to get closer to an explanation before giving us the answer.

The same lecturer has also been employing a separate tool with us, Peerwise. This is an online platform where students create multiple choice questions which other people can then attempt to answer. I’ve found it to be quite engaging and fun. The platform offers plenty of opportunity for discussion and debate over the right answer to questions (people don’t always know how to answer their own questions), which I’ve found to be a great way to deepen my understanding of concepts. It’s also a great place to practice the topic if the questions of the problem sheet aren’t enough. Finally, some students have managed to find online sources for problems and discussions which go beyond the course content, which has been particularly enjoyable. It’s a tool I really love and hope we get to use more on the course.

Overall, I definitely approve of the department’s exploration of active learning, as the benefits are quite significant (this speech goes into discussion of the overarching philosophy in much more detail). Although, it’s strange that some staff in the department are working so hard to improve upon the flaws in traditional lecture based teaching, while others serve to epitomise everything wrong with it.

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