Saturday, January 31, 2009

Oxbridge Education

The British college education system is quite different from that in the United States. First of all, you go to college to study only one topic (or “Read” the topic, as they say here). So, upon leaving high school, a student will apply to Oxford to Read Physics, and then when they get here, it is all Physics all the time for the length of their college career. Liberal Arts does not really exist over here (or in most of Europe for that matter). On the one hand, it risks developing people who are very one-sided. On the other hand, students coming out of this system can be extremely well prepared in their chosen subject.

The second difference is in how students are examined. As far as I can tell there are only two examinations in the entire student’s career. One exam, the “prelim”, at the end of the first year. This is basically a chance to fail out if you are really doing badly (very very few fail). It also stratifies the class a bit into those who are doing well and those who are not. In the case of physics, there is a three year degree and a four year degree, and if you do badly on the prelim, you can’t get the four year degree. The only other exam you have is the final exam at the end of your career. And that’s all. Of course, having only two exams means that some students can procrastinate learning for years – but most actually do try very hard to keep up – or at least the physics students do. These exams are not written by the people who taught the courses, but rather are put together by an exam committee to test what is supposed to be on the curriculum (which is decided by a curriculum committee). Apparently being on either of these committees is something to be avoided, as they inevitably result in fights.

The third difference is in how the classes are actually taught. There is one person who gives lectures to the entire class of 180 first year physics students. However much of the teaching is actually done by the tutor. Homeworks are assigned and graded by tutors, as well as mock exams (known as “collections”) – and the tutors may or may not be in sync with what the lecturer is doing. Both the tutors and the lecturers are both trying to teach the curriculum (and prepare the student for the real exam) but they are free to do so in different ways. In physics students typically meet with their tutors in a two-on-one setting roughly for an hour every other week per course. This adds up to a whole lot of individual contact with faculty.

Fourth, the terms here are extremely short (two eight week terms and one ~six week term per year), and then there are very long breaks between terms (during which the students are supposed to be studying too). As a result of the very short terms, things get very intense while the terms are in session, and then everyone recovers in the break and prepares for the next term.

We can have a debate about whether the Oxbridge system is better or worse than the American system, but the truth is that I suspect it really depends on the particular student.

This year, I’m doing tutorials for three courses, and I’m not lecturing at all. I have six students I tutor in first year electricity and magnetism, eight in second year statistical physics, and five in third year solid state physics. Truth be told, this is pretty hard work for me right now. ( I had this panic before I got here that the E+M course looked pretty hard – but in fact, it turned out I was looking at the wrong course – and the E+M course is pretty similar to what first or second year physics students get in the US.). I’m sure once I’ve gone through the curriculum once, I’ll find this much easier. Right now, trying to figure out what problems to assign my students is pretty time consuming. Then of course, I have to actually solve the problems myself to make sure they are all actually solvable. Plus of course grading homework, figuring out what students are having trouble with, and preparing for, and doing the tutorials. I’m sure next year, it will be much easier (I’ll already know which problems are good to assign, and I’ll know what students are going to have trouble with.) But for now, it is a lot of work. And it is kind of emotionally draining. The students are counting on the tutors to prepare them for the exams – and (at least most of them) are trying very hard to do well – so I feel I should try equally hard to help them.

I have the distinct feeling I am going to be completely exhausted before the end of my first term.

This is my excuse for not having posted anything all week.

Update: I was corrected by some of my students, they do take a final exam at the end of the second year as well, and it counts something like 20% of their final grade at the end of the degree.


Ilya said...

What's your opinion of the final exam then?

What I find appealing in the US system is that the frequent testing and impact-bearing evaluation together with a carefully crafted program can in principle pull up the less prepared students to the level the better prepared students are at, and then take them further and further at a common pace.
In practice this is rarely done well, and the fact that faculty teaches a different course every year or so removes any advantage from having done this recently and having the good problems, etc. Add to that the fact that curricula are set only very broadly, and different professors cover different amounts of the same course during their turn to teach it, and you find that it's very hard to maintain continuity of education: a group of students might sometimes have to start off the next course ill prepared by the classes previous, and have to spend a part of it catching up to where they should have already been. Does your UK experience so far point to similar state of affairs?

Steve said...

I think I had best not make a judgment yet as to how well pieces of this system work or not until I've seen it for a bit longer. Certainly i know at least a few people in the field who went through the Oxbridge system and thought it was great. So it works for some. But then again, for these people perhaps any system would have worked.

One thing that I think is notable though, is that there are 180 physics students per year here - that is a huge number compared to any American school I know of. Admittedly Oxford is a large school, with about 11,000 undergrads. Harvard is rightfully proud of their extremely large physics program, which has 50-60 students per year among the 7000 undergraduates. My alma-mater, Brown University, has about 6000 students, and probably only about 10 physics majors a year.

Carissa Aoki said...

Just curious, is there much attrition? That is, are there 180 students each year, with all 180 graduating? I'm assuming that the virtue of the American system is that by the time you decide to major in physics, you're pretty darned sure you're going to like it and stick with it. Does having to choose as a first year lead to any regrets on the students' part later on?

Steve said...

I don't think there is much attrition. Of 180 students, a mere handful (less than 5 I'm told) fail out after one year. Almost all of the remainder at least go on to get the 3 year degree. Most of the better students get the 4 year degree.

Note however, that all the degrees are graded here. You can graduate as a "1st" (the highest) a "2i" (the next highest but some of these are still pretty good), a "2ii" (not so good), or a 3 (really bad). Very very few get 3s though.