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Innovative teaching methods in Physics & Astronomy

Dr Elinor Bailey (UCL Physics & Astronomy) discusses how she has created a second-year module in which students connect across subjects and work as partners.

Dr Elinor Bailey

25 January 2016

The Connected Curriculum is UCL's unique way of embedding research-based education into degree programmes.

Intellectually curious students learn best when they experience first-hand the benefits of conducting research.

Developing communication skills for scientists

As a teaching fellow in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, I run the ‘Developing Effective Communication’ module for second year Physics students.

Teaching communication skills to science students is not always easy, but these are some of the most valued skills that employers look for in graduates.

The Physics department at UCL is already leading the way with this, running two compulsory dedicated modules, and so when re-writing the second of these I wanted to use fun and innovative teaching methods to create a stand-out example course in keeping with the Connected Curriculum vision.

The new coursework components I introduced were:

  1. The ‘Physics concept’ video
  2. Researcher press conference

Find out more about the second module

The Phys FilmMakers course: second-year undergraduate Physics students learn how produce their own YouTube style videos about research

1. The ‘Physics concept’ video

Students explaining concepts they found difficult, to benefit other students

One of the new coursework components I designed was the ‘Physics concept’ video. Students working in small teams were asked to make a short video to explain a concept from one of their Physics modules that they themselves had found difficult.

The best videos were then to be passed to the lecturer for the relevant module to be included as part of the online resources for that course.

The students were revisiting material from other modules that they found challenging as well as learning it well enough to teach it.

In addition, future cohorts would benefit from the material generated, with more videos useful to a range of modules produced every year.

By allowing the students to choose the topics that were difficult to them, it also:

  • gives more information to the lecturers about what aspects students are struggling with
  • mitigates the problem in future years by providing specifically targeted resources
  • with the students producing these resources, it also lessens the load on the lecturer.

An opportunity for students to network and build relationships

Another benefit from this piece of coursework was the social aspect; students were in small randomly assigned groups of around four, so many worked with people they might not have known before.

This piece of coursework was run early in the course for this reason; to try to give the students a group to go to if they had any problems in the course.

Assessing based around key themes

I wanted the marking of this coursework to be largely based on the questions of:

  1. whether the video would help other students struggling with that topic or not, as that was the aim.
  2. whether students were likely to remember what the video had taught them (creativity was strongly encouraged!).

For this reason only a small quota of marks was given to the ‘technical accomplishment’ of the videos, although in cases where the technical accomplishment aided the teaching (for example animations which were used to explain something more clearly than could be achieved with diagrams) then higher marks could be given for the teaching quality.

Students embracing the chance to be creative

The outcome of this piece of coursework was excellent. Students embraced the chance to unleash their creativity and some very useful and memorable teaching videos were created.

The students on the whole enjoyed the project and the chance to showcase any artistic talent, with most liking working in groups.

2. Meet the researcher: press conference format

Another new coursework item was the ‘researcher press conference'.

Students got the opportunity to meet UCL researchers, in small groups, to find out about their current research through a question-and-answer format.

What they learnt was then written up into articles describing the research, with the best submitted to the UCL Scientist magazine.

Not only was it inspiring for the students to hear about UCL research, they were effectively re-writing complex material for a public audience - a valuable skill for the future, whatever their career.

Many of the students were unsure how to approach scientific writing, so we gave them advice and tips through reviewing current scientific articles.

Further innovations include the piloting of a ‘PhD buddy’ scheme in which undergraduate students were paired with PhD students in order to hear about their research and life as a PhD student, and an optional public speaking workshop to help students overcome their fear of presenting.