Teaching: On the front line

January 23, 2003

What is your experience of teaching? Pat Leon asks teachers how they manage.

Name: Kemal Ahmet

Age : 46 Job: Sub-dean (quality assurance), faculty of creative arts and technologies, University of Luton.

Salary : about £40,000.

Qualifications : BSc physics (Leeds); MSc astrophysics, PhD experimental particle physics, PGCE (London); higher education teaching certificate (Open University).

Experience : Even before graduating, I knew that I wanted to teach. I started in schools, took on some further education and then Open University tutoring. I liked working with adults, particularly at the OU where students give up evenings, weekends and spare time to work, so I did my PhD part time and, after completion, became a senior lecturer at Luton. It was a challenge. I'd taught pure, rather than applied, science. I had to find stimulating ways of teaching physical and materials science to students working for professional qualifications for the building industry. They are highly motivated, but never hesitate to say when they cannot see the curriculum's relevance to construction.

Hours spent on teaching : Variable, about 15 a week.

Hours on research: Depends on the time of year. During holidays, I'll push hard to get papers out. Research angles change. I originally researched experimental particle physics, now it's instrumentation, looking at moisture and dampness in buildings.

Hours on red tape: It can be half my working week (it's part of my job description). Working as sub-dean and lecturer has been an eye-opener. I used to see admin as a burden. My quality assurance work has shown its importance. I believe academics should work "with" administrators.

Academics are the fabric of a building, administration the structure.

Neither functions well without the other.

Teaching bugbear : Students' lack of enthusiasm for learning maths because of bad experiences at school. Nowadays, it's fashionable to change the name to quantative or numerical methods, but that doesn't get rid of the problem.

How would you solve it? Use of examples can convert meaningless figures into tangible facts. As an undergraduate, I remember doing mindless exercises of algebraic problems and asking: "What's this got to do with my subject physics?" I wish I had been given real-world examples. But they have to be varied and well thought out. One of my trigonometry students recently said: "I'm sick and tired of seeing examples of men standing on ladders."

Where students still lack enthusiasm, problem-based learning may help.

Asking groups to solve a real-life problem (carefully chosen to necessitate calculations) often leads to inspiration and fast learning.

There is no substitute for enthusiastic lecturers who, as well as having competence and credibility in maths, understand the students' main discipline. Having taught architecture, construction, design, engineering and surveying over many years, I know students do not take kindly to specialists who don't. Humour always helps.

Career highpoints : Becoming a principal teaching fellow. There are many other highpoints, but mostly to do with seeing students succeed. I have just had a research student get a PhD at 63 and I publish research papers with a woman who started with me as an access student.

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