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.