Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Much of the teaching at Oxford is done in “tutorials”: one, two, or three students at a time with one professor (A similar system exists at Cambridge with the one important difference being that they are called “supervisions.” Oxford students insist that the word “tutorial” is better because you can shorten it to “tute”, which they do more often than not).

The tutorial system is very manpower intensive, but reasonably effective in forcing the students to keep up. I’ve been handling a full load of tutorials since the first day I joined here last year.

In addition to tutorials, there are also regular lectures. Last term, (Hilary 2010) I gave my first lecture course. It was a softball intended to ease me into the hard work of lecturing: a graduate course with only one lecture per week for 8 weeks. (Graduate courses are considered easier to teach as there are fewer students, the students are all very motivated, you can talk about whatever you want, and if you do a bad job there is far less carnage).

For those who are interested, the topic of this course was “Topological Matter”. If you want more details you can check out the web page here. (Feel free to try some of the homework assignments for fun. Many of the problems can be done without having attended lectures, and they are meant to be fun – well, fun for physicists).

As I probably should have expected, in 8 lectures I made it through about a third of my intended course outline. For a graduate course this is not so much of a problem. The course is meant to introduce the students to certain topics that they want to know about. If they learn fewer topics, but learn them better, that is fine too. Maybe another year I’ll teach the remaining two thirds.

Next year, however, I will be lecturing Condensed Matter (aka Solid State) Physics for 180 undergraduates (give or take). In this case the syllabus is very constrained, and I am required to cover certain topics –-- as these are the topics that will be examined. An interesting feature of the Oxford system is that the lecturer is not the person to write the exam. Instead, a syllabus is agreed upon before the course starts, and the exam is written based on the syllabus. The lecturers, as well as the tutors, are responsible for imparting the information in the syllabus and hence preparing the students for the exam. If a lecturer does not cover all the material, then the students could be in some trouble, and this makes everyone very unhappy. I have until January 2011 to prepare this course, and it already feels like I’m going to be very squeezed for time!


Neil said...

I didn't realise Oxford ran such a system - it makes much more sense than the system a lot of British universities run, where the lecturer writes and marks the exam for their own subject. Certainly, in my experience, this leads to heavy prompting and hinting from the lecturer as to the content needed for the final exam - if anyone fails they have to spend their summer rewriting exams, administering resits and remarking. It seems a pretty easily corruptible system. However, it does mean that students don't run the risk of sitting an exam in which possibly they've never seen a subject as the lecturer/tutors haven't taught it! It seems both systems have pros and cons, but I've got to say the Oxford system seems the most infallible and fairest.

Tony said...

I think the Oxford system makes sense also because it would force the lecturers to cover the entire course. While I agree with previous posts regarding the sometimes questionable content forced into undergrad syllabi(?), I have to say that having had a lecturer who despised Jackson for making (mathematical) mountains out of molehills, I remember thinking I would have appreciated someone or something forcing him to teach electrodynamics in various coordinate systems.

The problem I have with the Oxford system is the exact opposite. I often dream of teaching an undergrad condensed matter course with basic many-particle theory thrown in - second quantization, diagrammatic methods, and propagators. But it sounds like you'd never get away with this at Oxford... Perhaps for the best?