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“What do you mean by ‘teaching’ – what is actually happening?”

The title of this blog is a quote from Personal Theories of Teaching (Fox 1983) 1 and nicely sets the theme for this post. As a PhD student, and a final year MSci student, I have been a tutor and demonstrator across a number of undergraduate geoscience courses. I really love teaching. It’s is a great opportunity to boost your confidence, consolidate a lot of the basic knowledge you learnt yourself as an undergraduate, and pocket some extra money. And having been an undergraduate not that long ago, I know how important good tutors and demonstrators can be in a lab or the field. In September 2019 I enrolled onto a course organised by the Institute for Academic Development (IAD) at the University of Edinburgh, called Introduction to Academic Practice (IntroAP). Aimed at PhD students, postdocs and teaching assistants, the course provides a guided route to Associate Fellowship of Advance HE (HEA). I think I initially enrolled with the mindset that getting a formal accreditation for my teaching would be useful for the CV. But across the semester I learnt an awful lot, and realised this was likely to be more than just a certificate. So I wanted to use this space to share some of my experiences on the course.

Teaching comes in all formats. Whether it’s pen and paper maths tutorials, demonstrating practical labs or teaching in the field (Photo credits: Meredith Corey)

UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) and Peer Reviewed Literature

Any individual can pursue their own application for fellowship, but the alternative route is to take a structured course through your own institution (like IntroAP). Educational research and lots of the surrounding literature was a whole new venture for me and so this structured course was a good option. Your application is centred around how you demonstrate and can reflect upon different elements of the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) in your own teaching. These fall into three categories – your areas of activity, your core knowledge and your professional values. The activities can include lab demonstrating, marking, leading tutorials, supervising student projects and taking part in CPD. You’re not assessed on your core knowledge (there’s no exam, so don’t stress!). You’ll just need to acknowledge that you have experience in that field, perhaps from your previous degree or training. And finally, the values. You’ll likely recognise all of these values in your teaching without even thinking about it, but the IntroAP seminars introduce these with lots of examples. You can have a read of the full UKPSF document, here.

The UKPSF values address diversity in the classroom. We discussed the difference between equality and equity and how to adapt teaching to ensure there are opportunities for everyone to engage. Source: Wokandapix (Pixabay)


In order to complete the course, you need to fulfil the following:

  • Attend 3 seminars during the semester where different elements of the UKPSF are introduced and discussed
  • Attend 2 IAD courses for Tutors & Demonstrators (if you have done any of these previously you can check to see if these qualify).
  • Complete ‘homework’ tasks, including short (~200 word) contributions to the message boards in the online classroom for the cohort
  • Organise a teaching observation exchange
  • Submit a draft essay extract ahead of the final essay
  • Submit a final essay (~1500 words) via Turnitin addressing all the required elements of the UKPSF and citing relevant peer reviewed literature.

The contributions to the blog were fairly short and I often made this my Sunday afternoon job, but they do require some time to sit and think about them. The final essay I perhaps spent a couple of days putting together. Arguably the hardest part is actually getting it under the word limit. Especially if you’re able to get someone to proof read a draft or discuss your essay with – you’ll realise you probably have endless examples from your own teaching to cite the required elements of the UKPSF. (Thanks to Meredith Corey, for help with this one!)

I hadn’t taken any IAD courses for tutors before starting IntroAP so I had to complete those in addition to the three seminars. The seminars and courses were typically 3hrs on Wednesday afternoons so you need to be prepared to commit at least 5 full Wednesday afternoons during a semester. This is worth bearing in mind when enrolling.

*Disclaimer* As with a lot of things at the moment, I think there are plans to deliver this course in a virtual/hybrid format. Full details for future IntroAP courses can be found on the course website, I just wanted to use this space to document my own experience taking the course in Semester 1 2019/20.

Back in the classroom

So, as well as just recounting tales from your own teaching, your statements need to be supported by some kind of evidence. The seminars in particular were great for introducing some key peer-reviewed literature as well as more informal blogs and magazine publications. This blog opens with a quote from Fox’s Personal Theories of Teaching which investigates the models to describe teaching. These compare for example, whether a teacher is there to simply transfer knowledge to a student, or to guide students through material to encourage their own questioning, or to mould a student to a particular shape. I also particularly enjoyed the series of blogs by Graham Gibbs, 53 Powerful ideas all teachers should know about  – many of these articles are very relatable as both a student and a teacher.

Some students adopt a confident or anxious approach to all aspects of their studying. There seem to be students who hope for success and take risks, expect to succeed and are not too worried about the potential consequences. And there are others who are driven by fear of failure, who are conservative in their approach. – Graham Gibbs

Particularly the posts ‘Fear and anxiety are the enemies of learning’2 (quoted) and ‘Lectures are used far too often’3 were useful starting points for discussions around approaches to teaching. With support from the IntroAP tutors, we then discussed how these relate to aspects of the UKPSF. For example, two of the values (V) elements are:

  • V1 – Respect individual learners and diverse learning communities
  • V2 – Promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners

Sometimes with the literature or the UKPSF values, I found it very easy to get a bit ‘word-blind’ to unfamiliar terms and struggled to process what they really meant. This is where and the seminars were so helpful in picking apart the values. It is important to distinguish between V1 where we acknowledge the different backgrounds that our students are coming from, what they bring to the classroom and how that diversity of experiences is really important for a good learning environment; and V2 where we actively engage in levelling the playing field and providing the right support for individual students to help them succeed.

What is the future of large, on-campus lecturing like this? Source: Nikolay Georgiev (Pixabay)

In hind-sight, with the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing and lots of universities looking to virtual or hybrid methods of teaching, I’m certainly re-reading the ‘Lectures are used far too often’ blog in a different way. Whilst this piece from Times Higher Education praises the rapid switch to virtual teaching, it also suggests this is unlikely to wholly replace in-person teaching in the long-term4. I’m not 100% sure what the plans are for Semester 1 here, but I delivered a couple of online tutorials at the start of the lockdown in April and I’m looking forward to doing a mixture of in-person and online teaching again later this year.

[Students] don’t like coming to thousand-person lectures very often. But when they do come on campus, the thing our students really [value] is that in-person engagement where you interrogate ideas. So, let’s spend our time doing that. – Professor Brian Schmidt, ANU4

In the search for subject specific material for my final essay submission, I stumbled across a study in the Journal of Geoscience Education where I was even a subject and contributor to the data!5 Having taught Python computing labs in various formats over the last 4 years, it was nice to reflect on some of these experiences and how people have worked really hard to make teaching computer programming as accessible (and enjoyable!) as possible.


If you are a University of Edinburgh student or member of staff thinking of taking this course then all the course information is on the IAD website. The course spans one semester and the certificate is awarded at the start of the next semester. There are some formal eligibility requirements for the course, but one of the main ones is teaching experience. Lots of activities in the seminars and the final essay submission require you to reflect on previous teaching experiences. So I’d definitely recommend doing this after at least a couple of semesters teaching so you have a variety of examples to call upon. The course also requires you to do a teaching observation exchange. Now when I took this course, one of my office mates was also enrolled, and this made our exchange very easy to organise as we were already friends and in the same office. We were also both in our third and fourth years of our PhDs respectively, and with busy schedules, the logistics suited us. Our exchange was still valuable even though we were in the same school, as I was demonstrating in a Python programming class and my partner was leading a practical lab. However, you might like to broaden your horizons and observe a reading seminar in the School of Divinity or a discussion group in the School of Social and Political Sciences. It’s up to you, but certainly worth thinking about. The course also does require time and commitment, so I’d definitely spend some time reading the handbook on the website before signing up as it’s not something that can be done half heartedly.

All in all, I’m really pleased I took part in this course and would recommend it to any other PhD students who enjoy teaching. This guided approach to introduce educational theory really suited me as I had a busy semester of teaching and PhD and I probably wouldn’t have been so confident seeking out these materials myself. It’s also provided a good starting point should I pursue an application for Fellow of HEA later on in my career.

If anyone has taken a similar course or is currently working through their own individual fellowship application I’d love to hear your thoughts on the process. Did you complete your application before COVID-19 or do you perhaps now have some new experiences with distance-learning to reflect upon? Do you have any tips or recommendations for further reading?


1 Fox, D., 1983. Personal theories of teaching. Studies in higher education8(2), pp.151-163.

2, 3 Gibbs, G., 2014. 53 Powerful ideas all teachers should know about, SEDA, url:

4 Ross, J., 2020. Pandemic ‘confirms face-to-face teaching is here to stay’, Times Higher Education, url:

5 Jacobs, C.T., Gorman, G.J., Rees, H.E. and Craig, L.E., 2016. Experiences with efficient methodologies for teaching computer programming to geoscientists. Journal of Geoscience Education64(3), pp.183-198.

“Can you hear me? I think you need to unmute yourself…”

Well, this isn’t how I imagined the end of the 3rd year of my PhD panning out – but I don’t think anyone really imagined 2020 going quite like this. When we were asked to start working from home in March, I certainly thought that it seemed quite novelty and that we’d probably back in a couple of weeks. Now 14 weeks since the lockdown was imposed in the UK, I thought it was time to check in here. As well as a wee update on my goings on, it would be lovely to hear from other PhD students and ECRs – what have you been up to?

Adjusting to life at home

My work from home set up in my bedroom

I’ve never really been one to work from home. Throughout my undergraduate and my MSci year, I always opted to revise for exams in the library or the department at university. So even just adjusting the mindset was tricky at first – my flat was going to be a place to work now as well as a place to relax. I’d always admired folks at work that opt to take working-from-home days. How did they do it? The fridge and kettle are all too close, to not be a constant distraction. Just out of shot in this photo, about three steps back is my bed, and the temptation to work from the sofa is huge. But after the first few weeks I guess I learned that you do formulate new routines and hobbies. Initially when the weather was OK, I found just taking a 20-30min walk before starting work made a huge difference in the morning. Maybe it’s something that felt familiar like a commute to work.

Online teaching

Inspiring the name for this blog post I think we’ve all had more than our healthy dose of screen time and video conferencing in the last 3 months. When we went into the lockdown here in the UK, there were still a few weeks of teaching left in Semester 2 and so I had my first taste of delivering tutorials online. It was initially very daunting and it can certainly be a draining experience just talking to your webcam with little response. But actually, I think virtual attendance figures were higher than in person attendance for tutorials. And for undergraduate students who were possibly at home and feeling a little lost and out of routine, the normality of a tutorial and the material itself was gratefully received. I think we are likely to be in store for more virtual or hybrid teaching come September, so I hope to take forward what I learned from my experiences in March and April.

Messages of positivity around Edinburgh city centre

I completed my Introduction To Academic Practice course, delivered by the IAD here at the University of Edinburgh and was awarded Associate Fellow HEA in January this year. I definitely felt more confident with teaching this semester which probably helped with online delivery. I’ll be doing a follow up post to talk about this certificate.

Virtual …everything really

As well as teaching, pretty much everything else has also gone online. I attended my first ever EGU as the conference went virtual and opened up for free. It has also been nice to stay connected with the research community by a whole host of webinars. Particularly the PhD Horizons Seminars organised by the University of Edinburgh IAD  and the IAVCEI ECR-Net webinars have provided some interesting insights for future career prospects.

And everything else

Aside from work, it has felt more important than ever to keep busy with hobbies and exercise during my spare time. Some long-term (and often abandoned) embroidery projects have finally got some much needed attention and made good progress. And the empty streets around Edinburgh city centre have been the perfect playground to get out and do some cycling and running.

Cross stitch projects have been a great distraction during the lockdown
The empty streets of Edinburgh have been perfect for getting out and exercising (loc: Camera Obscura, Royal Mile)










It looks like we are a long way from normal service and popping in and out of the office every day. Although the lockdown has been challenging in so many respects, there are certainly some small silver linings to take from 2020 so far. Stay safe and well everyone!

VMSG 2020

Hello and happy new year!

The end of last year was quite a whirlwind! Alongside tutoring on three undergraduate courses during semester one, I also completed a teaching course organised by the Institute for Academic Development (IAD) in order to gain Associate Fellowship. In my own research I’ve been trying to write my first paper (which is a whole other blog post for another time!) and preparing for the VMSG conference in Plymouth in the new year. I took a well earned break over the Christmas period, at home with friends and family, and I hope you were all also able to take some time away from work.

Blue skies making an appearance over the Barbican on Thursday.

This is the third annual VMSG conference I have attended during my PhD and I think it always gets the new year off to a great start. It’s hard to leave not feeling buoyed up and full of inspiration for the year ahead. Plymouth’s winding cobbled lanes and picture-perfect harbour front made for the perfect backdrop for the this years meeting.

I’ve previously found conferences to be a little overwhelming sometimes. Perhaps it just comes with experience, but this was the first conference I’ve really enjoyed and felt like the discussions and interactions I was able to have with fellow scientists were really positive and productive. This was the first talk I’ve delivered at a conference, and with no parallel sessions, my aim was to communicate my message clearly to a very broad audience. My fitbit watch recorded a peak heart rate at 124 bpm which I think means I was particularly nervous, but as we say in the lunch time running group in the Grant Institute – it’s retrospective fun. I really enjoyed being able to talk about my work to this audience.

My talk featured in session 5 on the theme of Volcanic Hazards & Monitoring. Photo credit: Sally Law

I’m in the process of getting this work written up, so hopefully you will be able to see some of these results very soon. Broadly speaking though, I was presenting my findings from the analysis of a drumbeat episode that occurred at Tungurahua Volcano in Ecuador. Drumbeat seismicity is the name we give to episodes of highly similar, repeating, periodic long-period earthquakes. I’m interested in what volcanic processes generate these curious phenomena and I’m open to discussions with folks about these source mechanisms. So if you have ideas about plug processes in intermediate volcanoes or magma bodies degassing, I’d love to have a chat.

Across all 7 themes in both posters and talks, there was a huge variety of research on show and it was great to see so many students presenting! I particularly enjoyed VMSG Award Winner David Pyle’s talk, using a number of historical references and accounts of volcanic activity.

I’d like to say thank you to both the VMSG and local organising committee for putting together such a great week of science. Congratulations go to all the prize winners, including colleague, friend and room mate for the week, Sally Law, who was awarded the Bob Hunter Prize for Best Student Talk. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone next year in Manchester for VMSG 2021!

A new academic year

As the Edinburgh Festival Fringe comes to a close for another year, the tourists vacate, the air turns cooler and the evenings draw in. Autumn has arrived in Edinburgh and so has Freshers week. Although PhD students don’t tend to follow the academic calendar as undergraduate students might do, there does seem to be a fresh lease of life around campus.

Although the festival was very overwhelming and busy, I saw some great shows and can’t wait to see what is on offer again next year. (Lewis Capaldi at The Princes Street Gardens Summer Sessions, 14 August 2019)

With a new academic year, comes new teaching responsibilities. The majority of PhD students in my office here, take part in tutoring and demonstrating on undergraduate courses, at some point or other. I really enjoy teaching – it is a great confidence booster, it brings some structure to my working week and it’s a neat way to earn some more money.

Getting students to grips with powerful programming languages (Source: Pixabay).

This semester I will be a demonstrator in the computer lab, introducing Python programming to students for the first time. I help out in these practical sessions for both 2nd year Geophysics and 3rd year Geology and Environmental Geoscience students. They get to grips with reading and writing files, graph plotting, statistics and spatial data analysis. I do a lot of programming in Python on a daily basis, but I learnt how to code in an undergraduate course just like this. I really enjoy watching students have the ‘lightbulb’ moment when they manage to answer their own question and figure out the problem.

I will also be tutoring on a 4th year Geophysics course, Natural Hazards & Risk. This is a little different as each week I independently lead a 1hr tutorial covering material from the previous week of lectures. This is an integrated course taught by 6 lecturers, so the tutorials vary from chalkboard mathematics, to Python programming exercises, to seminar style discussion. Last year I was very nervous, standing up and teaching in the first few weeks but I am really looking forward to getting started this year.

Finally, I am also taking a course called Introduction to Academic Practice run by the Institute for Academic Development (IAD). Over this semester through a series of seminars, workshops and teaching observations I am hoping to become an Associate Fellow of AdvanceHE. This is a great, supported way to earn accreditation and I’m really enjoying meeting tutors and demonstrators from other schools across the university. I’ve even got my own homework to do for the first time in years! In the first seminar we were introduced to some reading materials on teaching and educational theory. I particularly enjoyed a series of blog posts – `53 Powerful Ideas All Teachers Should Know About’. You can read the collection here, but an article that rang with me as a student and a tutor, ‘Fear and anxiety are the enemies of learning’.

One of the effects of students perceiving that there is simply too much stuff is that they drop down from a deep approach to a surface approach – settling for memorising so that there is at least some solid ground and some sense of making progress. – Graham Gibbs

I’d love to hear from any other PhD students involved in tutoring and demonstrating, and about your experiences.

27th Annual IUGG Conference

Last week I headed out to Canada, to my first international conference during my PhD. Over 4000 participants gathered in Montreal for the 27th meeting of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG). The union itself is formed of 8 individual associations covering everything from deep Earth seismology to atmospheric sciences, so there was a hugely varied programme of talks and posters available over 10 days.



Myself, Hannah, Gina and Ashley at the view point from Mont Royal on our penultimate evening

As such, a good group of Edinburgh PhD students from all fields of geophysics were in Montreal for the week. Hannah, Gina and (recently handed in!) Ashley, all gave great talks in their sessions. My poster presentation on Saturday was also a really good experience. It’s the first time I’ve been involved in such a specific Volcano Seismology and Acoustics session and it was great to hear so many talks from those really advancing the field. I had some interesting discussions about the use of the quality factor (Q) across different applications in seismology and plenty of ideas for wrapping this work up into something publishable. The IAVCEI meeting began with a day reviewing 100 years of volcanology and concluded with the most recent advances in monitoring and modelling. With over 250 IAVCEI delegates in attendance, the Sunday night social was lots of fun – even bumping into some of my supervisors old students!

Presenting in the session Advances in Volcano Seismology
7am roof top yoga organised in the conference schedule

In a first for me, the conference also hosted a yoga session at 7am on the penultimate day. In the 7th floor conference room that opened out onto the roof of the venue, 12 delegates started their morning totally re-energised with the sunshine pouring in. This is definitely something I hope more conferences can include in the schedule.

The city of Montreal was a beautiful place to explore in between talk sessions. As well as trying the local favourite, poutine, the conference venue was based in the middle of Chinatown so we had plenty of good food. The Canadian F1 Grand Prix circuit is also in the city and the track is open to the public throughout the year – so of course I had to go for a run around it!

The Canadian F1 Grand Prix track

It was a brilliant opportunity to present my work at such a large conference. Plenty of interesting discussions were had and I’m looking forward to drawing some conclusions in this most recent piece of work on Tungurahua.

I’d like to thank the IUGG for awarding a Student Grant to cover my registration costs – having one less expense to worry about in the lead up to the conference really made preparation so much easier.

A downloadable copy of my poster from this meeting is available here.




PGR Conference

Surgeons Hall Museums, Edinburgh – 13 and 14 May 2019

The PGR Conference is an internal event hosted each year in the School of GeoSciences. It gives 1st year students a chance to deliver a talk for the first time, and students in the 2nd year of their PhD, like me, are tasked with a research poster. With the School of GeoSciences being so broad, it’s a fine art pitching the content of your research topic to be accessible to everyone – from human geographers, to ecologists to computational geophysicists.

I was presenting some recent work on the quality (Q) factor – one particular quantitative way we might describe an earthquake. It was great to have discussions with people from outside the field, particularly those in climate modelling, who have great experience with time-series analysis and might be able to lend a hand with some of my own questions. I’ll be presenting this work in a specific volcano seismology session at a conference this summer in Canada so it was great to get a test run presenting with fellow researchers in the department.

The invited keynote speaker this year, Anson Mackay, proved that 3 talks is better than 1. In a whistle-stop tour covering his own research in Holocene carbon dynamics, the importance of pre-print opportunities for early career researchers and some the challenges that LGBTQ+ scientists face – it’s fair to say the audience questions were varied.

On the Tuesday evening, the GradSchool hosted a ceilidh to celebrate the end of the conference. After an unprecedented 48hr heatwave, the temperature in Teviot Debating Hall sky rocketed from Gay Gordons all the way through to Strip the Willow.

A huge thanks go to the PGR team for organising another enormously successful conference.

‘Hello world!’

Hello and welcome! My name is Sophie and I’m here to talk about all things solid Earth geophysics. I’ll be writing about exciting discoveries in my research, geology based pieces that make the news and some insights into the day to day life of being a PhD researcher.

To introduce myself a little,  I’m currently in the second year of my PhD at the University of Edinburgh. I’m trying to understand how the tiny earthquakes generated by active volcanoes, can give us more insight into eruptive processes. In particular I have spent the last 18 months working on Tungurahua Volcano in Ecuador. Tungurahua began to show signs of activity in 1999 and through cycles of Vulcanian and Strombolian eruptions, activity continued through until mid 2017. Although the volcano sits relatively quietly now, there is still vast amounts that can be learnt from these 18 years of activity. The volcano is closely monitored by the Instituto Geofísico in Quito, Ecuador – and you can read a little more about their work here ( The popular tourist town, of Baños sits just to the north of Tungurahua. Its population of over 10,000 people, as well as many more farming communities throughout the Tungurahua province are particularly exposed and vulnerable to volcanic hazards. I hope that my research can contribute to ongoing studies of this volcano and many other analogous systems around the world.

Aside from seismology and volcanology I have a broad interest in most things solid Earth geology and geophysics. At undergraduate level I presented a passive seismic analysis of the New Zealand tectonic system as part of my dissertation, and during my masters I studied magnetic anomaly mapping in the Lesser Antilles subduction zone.

During term time, I am a tutor and demonstrator for undergraduate Earth Science students, here at the University of Edinburgh. I tutor an Introductory Geophysics course for 2nd year students, covering principles of global seismology, electromagnetism and gravity. I am also a demonstrator in a weekly Python computer lab for Geochemists – Python is my programming language of choice for day to day work (pun intended in the welcome to this post), but I have dabbled a little with C++ and MATLAB, and I’m always keen to learn new computing skills.

I have a number of conferences and workshops coming up across the summer, both in Edinburgh and overseas, and I’ll be sure to add content as they happen. I’m most active over on twitter (@sophie_butcher_), so drop me a message and I’ll be sure to follow back. Thanks for having a read and keep your eyes peeled for more volcano content soon!





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