Martin Orr's Blog

Part III and examples classes

Posted by Martin Orr on Sunday, 06 September 2009 at 16:47

Before I head off to Paris next week, I want to write a blog post about Part III. I greatly enjoyed Part III, particularly because of the friends I made and the experience of learning maths together with other people, while I have always done it as a largely solitary activity before. However when I sat down to write this, it turned out to be mainly about examples classes. These are, or should be, an important and useful part of the course, but I frequently found myself dissatisfied with my examples classes.

Through the year, I believed that the ideal class would consist of students presenting their solutions to the others. While I have never had any hesitation about presenting my solutions, it turns out that other people are more reluctant and my attempts to encourage people to take part had limited success. In part, this is sensible because it is difficult to explain to others how to solve a problem you did a few days ago and have not thought about since (a different skill from giving a prepared talk or lecture).

Furthermore audience-run examples classes have other problems. The easiest way of presenting a solution (as mentioned a difficult task) is to write up every line on the blackboard. This will probably result in the examples class taking too long, and is usually unnecessary - a summary of the key steps should be sufficient, along with pointing out any particularly fiddly bits.

At the end of the year, I had a chat with Jessica about lecturers' office hours, which are a standard part of US teaching. In Cambridge it is assumed that if you want to ask a lecturer something you will do so informally, by email or by ambushing them after a lecture. Lecturers are usually very generous in responding to such questions, but perhaps if they allocated a formal time for questions then people having difficulties would be more likely to think of using them. Also questions, even if asked privately, are usually better answered publicly because several people might have the same question (I am not sure if US office hours deal are public events).

One or two lecturers (usually with US experience) do offer office hours, but I think it would be worthwhile to conduct an experiment on a larger scale. If any Part III students are reading, I encourage you to ask your lecturers questions and, if you and your colleagues think it would be useful, suggest that they try an office hour, with an explanation of why it would provide benefits not otherwise achievable.

Tags lectures, partiii

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