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CC98: Minutes of meeting of Thursday 11th March 1999

Physics Consultative Committee

CC98: Minutes of meeting of Thursday 11th March 1999

Present: Ms Berry, Mr Buckley, Mr Chan, Mr Copp, Ms Deng, Mr Eldridge, Mr Holmes, Ms Klien, Mr Patel, Mr Wilson, Prof. Longair, Dr Waldram, Dr Ward, Dr Batley.

Apologies: Ms Farquhar.


1. The draft minutes of the previous meeting were approved with a minor modification.

2. Matters Arising

Examination skills: A draft document on examination skills prepared by Dr Ward had been circulated to the student representatives for comment. It was felt that the document covered all the relevant points very well and that it represented an excellent contribution. The intention is to circulate it to all physics undergraduates.

Marking of Part II supervision work: Dr Marseglia has sent a note to all Part II supervisors reminding them of what students can expect from Part II supervisions, and in particular that work should be marked ahead of the supervision. Students should contact Dr Marseglia directly if they experience problems.

Gender issues: Beth Avery, a student representative on last year's CC, is planning a meeting between female staff, undergraduates and research students, and it was suggested that it might be useful to invite Professional female physicists back to give talks about their work. Prof. Longair will contact Beth about this proposed meeting and feed in this suggestion. An attempt will also be made to produce a list of female physics undergraduates though there seems to be no easy way to do this.

Harassment: A notice has been put up in the Cavendish about the action a student can take if they feel they are being racially, sexually or disability harassed. Two members of staff, Dr Gibson and Dr Waldram, are available as contact persons if such problems arise. Most students seemed unaware of this notice however and it was suggested that it should be advertised more widely in lectures and at next year's induction day.

3. Teaching Committee Matters

Course changes: Dr Waldram summarised various changes of lecturer which will take effect next year:

  • Prof. Longair will move from the IA course on Fields, Relativity and Quanta to join Dr Waldram on the IA Michaelmas Term course on Mechanics and Molecules; Prof. Longair will be replaced by Dr Carter.
  • The syllabus of the Part II Atomic Physics and Light course is being revised and a new lecturer will replace Dr Butcher.
  • The Part II Nuclear and Particles courses will each consist of 12 lectures and will be lectured by Dr Shepherd-Themistocleous and Dr Gibson, respectively.
  • There will be a new lecturer for the Part IB course on Mathematical Concepts in Physics.

Course reviews: Reviews of various aspects of the physics course syllabus are currently underway:

  • A working group is reviewing the Part II Computing course and has met twice. A preliminary report has been submitted to the Teaching Committee. The Part II student representatives are fully involved in the review and have provided much helpful input.
  • A review of all physics courses involving material on waves is being steered by Dr Waldram and is now about half way through its work.
  • The ongoing review of Solid State physics courses has now reached Parts II and III.
  • A review of Single Subject IB physics will begin shortly.
  • In Part III, the possibility of offering joint Minor Options courses with the Department of Chemistry is being investigated.

4. Part III

(Owing to the large number of Part III Minor Option courses in the Lent Term, it was only possible to discuss a few of the courses individually.)

Gauge Field Theory, Dr Webber (11 replies, avg=3.4)

Information Theory, Dr Mackay (16 replies, avg=4.5)

An excellent course, extremely well received, despite covering a large amount of material.

General Relativity, Dr Carswell (15 replies, avg=3.0)

This course had a mixed reception, with some students very enthusiastic but others finding it hard-going. Several students had commented that the lectures tended to involve simply reading out the handout. The supervisions had not generally been found to be very helpful.

Low Dimensional Magnetism, Dr Bland (0 replies, avg=0.0)

Phase Transitions, Dr Simons (11 replies, avg=4.5)

A very good course, well structured and clearly lectured.

Superconductivity, Dr Cooper (6 replies, avg=2.0)

This course had attracted quite a lot of complaints from students. It attempted to cover too much material at too fast a pace and with insufficient explanation. Some of the handouts had been given out after the relevant lecture, and tended to be poorly legible or unclear.

Quantum Properties of Electron Systems, Dr Barnes (9 replies, avg=4.2)

A good course, well lectured, with a jovial style which was much appreciated. One complaint was that at the beginning of the course it was stated that it would not be necessary to know in detail all the derivations involved, whereas towards the end of the course the opposite statement was made.

Microelectronics and VLSI, Dr Jones (5 replies, avg=4.0)

Optoelectronics, Dr Greenham and Dr Richards (5 replies, avg=3.2)

An interesting and generally well received course. A lot of mathematical material was presented and it was not clear how much of this it was necessary to know in detail.

Shock Waves and Explosives, Prof. Field and others (5 replies, avg=3.2)

A well received course. It would be helpful if all diagrams shown could be properly annotated. The course had been jointly lectured by several people as Dr Bourne, one of the two original lecturers, had left Cambridge before the course started; this did not seem to have given rise to any problems however.

Polymers and Colloids, Dr Melrose (8 replies, avg=4.1)

Clifford Algebra, Dr Lasenby and Dr Doran (11 replies, avg=3.8)

This course was felt to be very overloaded and lectured in a style which was too evangelical. It would be very helpful if more intermediate steps could be included in the handout.

The Frontiers of Exptl Astrophysics, Prof. Hills (9 replies, avg=2.9)

Medical Physics, Dr Dendy and others (5 replies, avg=3.2)

Reasonably well received. It would help if more information could be included in the handouts as the course assumed a lot of background reading.

Advanced Quantum Field Theory, Prof. Landshoff (2 replies, avg=4.5)

Atomic Astrophysics, Drs Burgess and Mason (1 reply, avg=4.0)

Examples Class in General Physics, Dr Warner and others (12 replies, avg=3.0)

These had not always worked very well this term. Not enough demonstrators had been available at the earlier classes; this had improved later in the term but mainly as a result of a fall off in attendence. The class by Prof. Longair had been particularly good and had begun with a brief review which was much appreciated. It was suggested that in the last half-hour of a class, it would be useful if the lecturer could provide some hints on tackling the problems - this would also encourage students to remain till the end of the class. Another suggestion was to give out answers to the short questions half way through the class. Also, at present, answers to the problems are only made available on the web; it would help if the answers were also placed in the Part III library as web access is still difficult for some students.

Philosophy of Classical and Quantum Physics, Dr Popescu (13 replies, avg=3.5)

A very good and thought provoking course. Some students had been unable to attend because of a clash with a Part III Maths course at DAMTP.

Supercomputing in Physics, Dr Rajagopal (11 replies, avg=4.2)

A very well received course.

General Comments

Clarification of the position with respect to the marking of Part III supervision work was requested. The arrangements for Part III supervisions had been negotiated with Senior Tutors, and the position is that students can not expect to have work marked by supervisors.

5. Part II

Atomic Physics and Light, Dr Butcher (53 replies, avg=2.1)

Many students had had difficulties with this course. A coherent picture of the subject had not emerged from the lectures and many of the lecturer's comments had been too vague. It was difficult to take a clear set of notes, especially as no handout had been made available. The style of the examples sheet, involving a large number of short questions, was generally liked, but many of the questions seemed random and did not teach the necessary physics.

Systems, Dr Padman (54 replies, avg=2.9)

A reasonably well received course. It was felt that more explanation of the basic mathematics (e.g. Laplace transforms) was needed; this would especially have helped the first four lectures. More worked examples would also be useful. A large fraction (half?) the material is non-examinable, and the lectures on chaos had taken up too much time. The handout was very good.

Nuclear Physics, Dr White (56 replies, avg=3.4)

The enthusiasm of the lecturer was much appreciated. The handout contained a lot of detailed material and it would help if it were more structured and the key points highlighted. The background notes were very good.

Particle Physics, Dr Gibson (52 replies, avg=3.5)

An excellent course, clearly lectured and with a good handout. Many students felt that the course was too qualitative in nature.

Fluids, Dr Warner (56 replies, avg=3.8)

An interesting course, enthusiastically lectured. The interactive style of the course and the demonstrations were very much appreciated. However, while the majority of students liked the concept of taking notes in class (and enough time was given to copy them down), the resulting notes were not sufficient to understand the material on their own; they were incomplete, missed important basic explanations and sometimes failed to convey the structure of the subject. There was a strong feeling that this aspect of the course needed revision. It would also be useful if the assumptions and approximations being made at each stage could be clarified.

Concepts in Physics, Prof. Longair (49 replies, avg=4.1)

A very interesting, well lectured and well attended course. A typical comment was that it was nice to see how real physicists do real physics. The lecture on dimensional analysis was excellent; this had not been covered elsewhere and proved very helpful for the Fluids course.

TP2, Prof. Littlewood and Dr Rajagopal (25 replies, avg=4.2)

A very good course with excellent lecturing. The examples sheet contained 91 problems which was felt to be excessive - it would help if a core set of problems could be highlighted. The TP1 exam had resulted in a large fraction of students getting third class marks. This was discouraging a lot of good students from taking TP2, despite being interested in the material in the course.

Physics in Action, Prof. Brown and Dr Ansorge (3 replies, avg=2.7)

The teaching of presentational skills which was promised for this course had not in fact taken place. The teamwork aspects of the course had been problematic as not all members of a team had carried out their fair share of the work. It was also felt that Part II students taking Option A should be advised not to take Experiment E3 as this coincides with their group project deadline.

Experiments E2 and E3, Dr Duffett-Smith and others (29 replies, avg=3.1)

The experiments had generally gone well, though a few (mobility, gadolinium, semiconductor junctions) had given problems with insufficient or inadequate demonstrating.

General Comments

The student representatives asked if they could join the course reviews (e.g. in Atomic and Light) currently under way. The TC would consider this request and think about how best this could be put into practice.

6. Part IB Advanced

Optics, Dr Hughes (70 replies, avg=3.3)

A well structured and clearly lectured course. Too much time was spent on geometrical optics early on in the course, while the material on coherence, which was entirely new, was covered too fast. It would be appreciated if numerical solutions could be provided for the examples.

Electromagnetism, Dr Gull (69 replies, avg=2.6)

The typeset handouts provided in the later parts of the course were very good and a big improvement over the earlier handwritten variety. The lectures tended to rely too heavily on simply reading from the handout however and it would help if more explanation of the basic physics underlying the mathematics could be given. The summary of the previous lecture provided at the start of each lecture was very useful. The examples sheet was felt to be quite hard up to the questions on electromagnetic waves.

Thermal Physics, Prof. Howie (85 replies, avg=2.0)

The course assumed too much previous knowledge of thermodynamics (e.g. the first and second laws had been introduced with very little explanation) and lacked overall structure. The lecturer's handwriting was sometimes illegible and it was not always clear at which points it was expected that students needed to take their own notes. The lectures on statistical mechanics were much clearer than those on thermodynamics. The examples sheet was fine, though many questions required knowing some tricks and more guidance here might help.

Practicals, Dr Adkins and others (86 replies, avg=3.3)

There were quite a few complaints this term about the quality of demonstrating and the variability in demonstrator marking. The practicals were generally felt to be too long (especially the ultrasound practical), except that the Michelson interferometer practical was ridiculously short (apparently because a section on the Fabry-Perot interferometer had been removed). The wave tank practical proved problematic for many students. The linkage between the practicals and the lectures was very good. The deadline for handing in the Head of Class write-up was too early, as students were still doing experiments while also writing-up.

Examples Class in Mathematical Physics, Prof. Littlewood and others (44 replies, avg=3.4)

Most students had found these classes to be useful. It was suggested that attendance could be improved by selling the classes as being good maths revision rather than simply as being necessary for TP1 and TP2. It was also suggested that summaries could be provided at the end of the class to encourage students to remain throughout. It was not clear how to start many questions and more guidance here would be useful. The sheet on tensors was excellent. The standard of demonstrating was rather variable.

7. Part IB

Quantum Physics, Dr Ford (8 replies, avg=3.3)

This was felt to be a very good course, with a good, if huge, handout. It would be appreciated if numerical solutions could be provided for the examples.

Practicals, Drs Linfield and Warner (8 replies, avg=3.1)

The practicals were generally considered to be too long. The demonstrator marking was based on a scheme with three checkpoints per experiment. This was felt to be a good scheme per se but students often had to wait a long time for the demonstrator to check their work.

8. Part IA

Oscillations and Waves (course A), Dr Gibson (84 replies, avg=3.6)

A very good, well lectured, course, though the subject matter itself was generally felt to be not especially interesting. Many students found that the handout was too comprehensive and that nothing needed to be added in the lectures.

Oscillations and Waves (course B), Dr Batley (154 replies, avg=3.9)

Many students felt that the handout was too complete and that it was harder to concentrate in lectures if no notes had to be taken. Partial derivatives had not been covered in the IA Maths course until after they were needed for the material on waves.

Practicals, Drs Jones and others (180 replies, avg=3.0)

In general, those who already had some experience of electronics found this term's practicals reasonably straightforward, but those coming to electronics for the first time found them difficult. Most sudents found that there was too little time to complete the practicals and that they had to rush through the latter parts which generally contaned most of the physics content. The practical on digital electronics was not directly linked to lectures but was nevertheless a useful and interesting practical. Following a suggestion made at the IA Physics Year Group Meeting, this term's student questionnaires were formatted to ask for separate information on each of the practicals (Digital Electronics, Electrical Resonance and Op-Amps). The overall averages for each practical were 2.9, 3.0 and 3.2 respectively.

It was asked whether the Head of Class write-ups could be done on the Michaelmas Term practicals as well as the Lent Term ones. However, the Michaelmas practicals are carried out by students in pairs rather than singly, and the HoC markers are not familiar with the Michaelmas practicals.

9. Any Other Business

Exam results: It was pointed out that, according to statistics presented in Table 23 of Special Issue No 20 of the Reporter of 21 August 1998, the fraction of students getting a II.2 or less in Part II Biochemistry (9%: 3 students out of 34) was much lower than in other Part II NST subjects such as Physics (36%: 35 students out of 98). The same table indicates that in Physiology and Psychology no students at all got a II.2 or lower. The class of degree obtained could be very important not only for students wishing to pursue research but also for job applications outside physics. There are no formal guidelines about the uniformity of degree class fractions across subjects and there is little we can do about this situation. However, Prof. Longair will raise this issue at the Faculty Board.

Questionnaire guide: Following a suggestion by the Subject Review inspectors, a copy of the `How to' Guide on Student Satisfaction Surveys written by the University of Central Lancashire has been obtained. However, the guide is aimed at the preparation of a comprehensive university-wide survey of student satisfaction (or otherwise) with a wide variety of provision such as accomodation, bus services and food outlets, and is probably of limited use in helping with the preparation of questionnaires aimed at assessing the quality of individual lecture courses.

Guide for new lecturers: It was pointed out that there was often a poor response by lecturers to the feedback they receive from students on lecture quality (e.g. quality of handouts) and that similar complaints from students tended to keep resurfacing in subsequent years. Dr Waldram is currently revising the Staff Teaching Handbook, which includes advice on good lecturing practice. A draft version would be circulated to the student representatives for feedback.

External examiner's reports: These are now being made available on the Department's teaching web pages.

10. Next Meeting

To be arranged; the usual date for the Easter Term meeting clashes with a visit to the Cavendish by a team from the Institute of Physics and an alternative date may have to be found.


JRB, 13th April 1999