They were my bane and excitement, my time wasters and the biggest stimulators, my challenges, depressants and uplifters. At times I thought they were my biggest first year mistake, but mostly I really hoped I would be able to continue doing them throughout my stay in Cambridge, as this is actually how I improve myself and, hopefully, the world. Let me introduce you to the world of supervisions, also known as tutorials. In my opinion, the supervision system is one of the most important keys to Oxbridge’s success. If you, like myself, did your undergrad somewhere else, you would probably be familiar with university-level lessons of maths, physics, biology etc., where a group of 10-20 students meets with a lecturer to discuss the material - as opposed to lectures, where the students sit silently and note what their professor has to say. Well, here the supervisor normally meets with two students, for an hour a week. Which means they get 5-10 times more time per person than I did.
I sometimes think I made a mistake by taking up maths supervisions. It would have been more fun to teach physics, as physics problems are not that technical, they are something you can discuss, you can ask why and take different approaches. Since the beginning of my undergrad, I much preferred physics, and maths has been merely a tool for me. But is English language only a tool for me to communicate with? Does it not help if I know its rules, capabilities and limitations? Does it not make me more proficient if I learn about the grammar constructions that I will rarely use? Similarly, does it not make me a better physicists if I understand the language of physics? And I certainly understand a lot more today than a year ago. I’d never done Fourier series or PDEs, not even ODEs! For this I will hold a grudge against my uni forever. And this past year I had to learn it and be able to explain it.
The beginnings were hard, despite the familiarity of the material. The students gave me their worked problem sheets, and each Tuesday I spent hours, trying to follow their reasoning and marking the sheets. Then for one hour we were mostly going through the questions, addressing each mistake, half of them inconsequential. As the terms went by, I learned to do it more quickly, they became more proficient, and we had more time for past exam questions, which were both more useful and interesting. Advice for the future: don’t spend too much time on example sheets, if there is something the students don’t understand, you will spot it anyway or they will tell you. Spend the time on exam questions and the quality of your supervisions. The key to not spending too much time is… not giving yourself too much of it. You can start preparing an hour before the supervisions, but that’s taking it to extreme. Better give yourself a fixed amount of time and try not to exceed it.
For my students, I wish they had someone more experienced, or simply more able mathematically, for the teacher. Sometimes I had to say I didn’t know the answer, but I always promised to find it before the next supervision. Nevertheless, I got a few “that problem was interesting”, “now I get it” and “things are much clearer after this supervision”, which for a supervisor are the most coveted compliments.
I can’t really change what I will supervise next year. Supervising the same subject for the second year makes it much less time consuming, which in turn allows you to work on the form of the supervision rather than on the material that you must be able to explain. Even if it was physics, I would still need to prepare a lot, which I won’t have time for. So, given that the college will still want me to supervise, the plan for the next year is ambitious:
- During the summer, revise the Michelmas (first term) material. Give them what they pay for, give them expertise.
- Go through the problem sheets on your own! I (generally) didn’t, but it would help a great deal to understand the common mistakes.
- Find engaging, application-oriented problems that will be fun to go through with the students. Especially biology, which is so under-represented in the lectures!
- More interaction = less boredom. Find ways to stimulate discussion between them, let them learn from each other.
More often than not I set the maths vs. physics dilemmas aside and think that it is not so important what I teach. It is the skill of teaching itself that I am really interested in, as I see myself doing it in the future - not full time, but the sciences desperately need good advertising, and if you can become a good science communicator in Cambridge, why not avail yourself of the opportunity?
Alice, David, Mollie and Tim, thanks a lot. You are brilliant students, and you made my first teaching experience a great one. I will keep my fingers crossed for your success for the remaining two or three years that you have left here, and I am sure you will do wonderful things. But now, take your pens and solve a few more past exam problems, will you, for tomorrow’s exam is the most important!