Old-School Physics

The recent circulation to his staff of daft (and in some cases erroneous) rules to be used when writing documents has led to much hilarity on the media we call social. Among the obvious errors are that the correct abbreviation for `Member of Parliament’ is `MP’ not ‘M.P.’ and that `full stop’ is actually two words (not `fullstop’). On top of those his insistence that civil servants use Imperial units for everything actually may be unlawful as the official system of units for the United Kingdom is the metric system.

The latter exhortation has caused a particular outcry among people under the age of about 50 (who have never been taught Imperial units), and especially scientists (who understand the obvious superiority of the SI system).

Anyway, all this reminded me that many years ago when at Cardiff there came into my possession a book of very old school and university physics examinations, which are of interest because I’ve been posting slightly less ancient examples in recent weeks. These examinations were set by the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, which was founded in 1883,  an institution which eventually became Cardiff University. I find them absolutely fascinating.

The papers are rather fragile, as is the book containing them, so I daren’t risk trying to scan them systematically in case flattening them out causes damage. Here instead are a few random examples that I photographed on my desk, in the manner of an old-fashioned secret agent. Sorry they’re not all that clear, but you can see them blown up if you click on them.

The collection is fairly complete, covering most of classical physics, at all examination levels from university entry to final Honours. Of course there are no questions on relativity or quantum physics appear (which had yet to be invented) but other than that – and the units! – they’re not too different from what you might find in the examinations for the early stages of contemporary physics programmes.

12 Responses to “Old-School Physics”

  1. telescoper Says:

    It’s not sure whether he meant before or after and, now that I think about it, I still don’t.

  2. telescoper Says:

    There are 700 instances in Hansard alone of JRM violating his own rules.

  3. Reblogged this on Symptoms Of The Universe and commented:
    As I’ve suggested previously (https://muircheartblog.wordpress.com/2018/12/16/when-i-were-a-lad/ ), I get rather irritated by that especially tiresome brand of yapping on the theme of how “back in my day…” everything was so very much tougher and that “snowflake students these days” don’t know they’re born. The usual irksome, evidence-free claim is that syllabi and exams have been dumbed down to the point where it takes no intellectual effort at all to do well.

    I’m reblogging Peter Coles’ post as a rather powerful rebuttal to that type of reactionary whining. “…they’re not too different from what you might find in the examinations for the early stages of contemporary physics programmes.”

    • John Peacock Says:

      Well, sorry to yap: I don’t agree with Peter about these old papers. The content is standard, but the questions are much more open-ended than the typical things we set nowadays. In the Good Old Days of the 1970s as I experienced them as a student – and in the 19th Century, it seems – the questions required the student to convince the examiner that they understood a given topic, but there was not so much guidance on the form of answer required. Today, we give much more of a road map, casting questions in lost of bite-sized stages so that students don’t stray from the path. So the material is the same, as is the level of difficulty – but less intellectual independence and self-confidence is required.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        And it is obvious which models a research project more closely.

      • Dave Carter Says:

        Surely the reason that the questions are given a road map is that our marking scheme has to be precise, and has to be defined before the papers are sat. It’s not a problem with the students, or even our perception of the abilities of the students. It’s that we have to demonstrate our objectivity, to external examiners, examination boards, and potentially appeals tribunals. And that’s more difficult to do with the old style of paper.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    There are 700 instances in Hansard alone of JRM violating his own rules.

    Jacob Rees-Mogg is not responsible for the punctuation which Hansard uses when transcribing his speeches.

    I support his ban on “ongoing”, a ghastly word which is nearly always better simply omitted and where necessary substituted by “continuing”; but the rest is somewhat pedantic.

    I thought he was the Member for the 19th Century, rather than the 18th? Our new Prime Minister seems to have a touch of the 18th century about him.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think it’s more his choice of banned words which, bizarrely, includes “very” and “equal”. I don’t like “ongoing” either but that’s not quite as bad as “upcoming” or “going forward”.

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’m in favour of letting people use “going forward”. It serves as an excellent guide to who should not be promoted.

  6. John,

    I’m afraid that I’ll have to restate my agreement with Peter on this. I can’t speak for every university, nor can I speak for every degree course, but in my experience at Nottingham (and of external examining for a number of UK and Irish universities), I would say that Peter’s assessment of those papers as ” they’re not too different from what you might find in the examinations for the early stages of contemporary physics programmes” is accurate.

    As regards intellectual independence, and the parallels with research projects that Anton raises, in Nottingham’s 1st year, for example, we have a module called “Frontiers In Physics”. I’ve taught the nanoscience component of that module for the last decade (this year was the last year) and each year the exam questions I set were based on an important paper in the field published in the previous year. The students were most definitely not “led by the nose” through those questions; they were asked to interpret a piece of experimental data they had never seen before, and to apply the knowledge they’d built up in the module to a completely unseen problem.

    Peter is also familiar with the final year of Nottingham’s MSci course where, until recently, none of the assessment was based on exams. (A class test for one module was introduced a few years ago. Nonetheless, this is a very small percentage of the final year assessment. Moreover, a significant minority of students don’t take that particular module.) Our students work exceptionally hard in that year, often producing work in their final year project of publishable quality. The majority are focussed and self-directed, often pre-empting suggestions from their project supervisors.

    Similarly, in my 22 years of lecturing and supervising PhDs, have I seen a significant decrease in the ability, intellectual independence, drive, motivation, and intuition of PhD researchers? (I’m trying to avoid the term “PhD student” for the reasons discussed here: https://muircheartblog.wordpress.com/2018/11/30/should-we-stop-using-the-term-phd-students/). Absolutely not.

    One of the lecturers in the Physics Education group at my alma mater used to kick off his seminars with “It’s been well known for the past 250 years that the quality of first year students has been falling dramatically”…

    • John Peacock Says:

      Philip: this is an interesting divergence of opinion, which I guess will require specific examples of exam papers old and new to take things beyond proof by assertion. Maybe things really are different between Nottingham and Edinburgh, although I also base my views of change on Cambridge, comparing the papers I sat as un undergraduate with those I saw as an external examiner over 30 years later.

      As for the joke that things are always going to the dogs, I actually think this is true in a certain sense. I certainly remember as an undergraduate looking at past exam questions from the 1950s and thinking they were impossibly difficult. I consoled myself with the thought that the syllabus was narrower then, so it was understandable that greater depth would be demanded in the topics that were covered. I think we agree that this broadening has continued.

      Maybe we could examine students at an unvarying intellectual level over more material if the students were better prepared on entry, but this is not the case. I would bet money that Nottingham has the same “maths problem” as everywhere else: students are not emerging from schools with the same level of mathematical competence and confidence as could be assumed a generation ago, and we have to teach them the missing material. If evidence for this is required, contrast e.g. the maths for physics books by Riley, Hobson & Bence with Jeffreys & Jeffreys. The older one is just too demanding to be used today.

      If you add the maths problem to the fact that many more people are now studying physics, academics should congratulate themselves that we can still turn out graduates with a good understanding of the subject. But we can’t deny that even good departments have a tail of students who (through no fault of their own) find a physics degree more challenging than the typical student of generations past. The need to keep such students progressing is the reason why, in my experience, exam questions have to be set out with a different style these days. I’ll try to assemble some examples in due course.

      • Thanks, John.

        Yes, you’re absolutely correct re. mathematics ability and we have certainly put in a lot of effort in Year 1 to address differences in the standard of the Maths A-level (and equivalent qualifications) over the years.

        “But we can’t deny that even good departments have a tail of students who (through no fault of their own)…”

        That “through no fault of their own” proviso is absolutely key — thank you for adding it. This is my core gripe. Too often — and I am certainly not accusing you of this — students are lazily blamed for deficiencies in the education system.

        As I discuss in that blog post to which I link in previous comments, my tutees, year on year, cope well with exam questions set in 2001. I know that’s not stretching back to the 50s, but those particular questions could easily have appeared in a paper from the 90s.

        Moreover, we both know that traditional exams aren’t everything. I would argue that students now have to cope with a much broader range of types of assessment, and a much wider range of skills is necessary. For example, would I prefer to offer a PhD place to a graduate who had scored extremely high marks in all of their “pen-and-paper” maths exams, yet performed very poorly in their computing assignments/projects? Or to a student that excelled in exams but who had to be led by the nose through their entire project?

        You will definitely find physicists here at Nottingham who would rather more strongly support your position than mine! I just think we need to be careful of downplaying the achievements of our students. Yes, I’ll agree, there is a longer tail in the distribution but we do a disservice to those students who work extremely hard and secure high marks to tell them “Well, you had it easy. In my day…”

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