Demonstrating as a PhD student in unprecedented times

Brian Lo – brian.lo@pgr.reading.ac.uk 

Just over a month ago in September 2020, I started my journey as a PhD student. Since then, have I spent all of my working hours solely on research – plotting radar scans of heavy rainfall events and coding up algorithms to analyse the evolution of convective cells?  Surely not! Outside my research work, I have also taken on the role of demonstrating this academic year. 

What is demonstrating? In the department, PhD students can sign up to facilitate the running of tutorials and problems, synoptic, instrument, and computing laboratory classes. Equipped with a background in Physics and having taken modules as an MSc student at the department in the previous academic year, I signed up to run problem classes for this year’s Atmospheric Physics MSc module. 

I have observed quite a few lectures during my undergraduate education at Cambridge, MSc programme at Reading and also a few Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as a student. Each had their unique mode of teaching. At Cambridge, equations were often presented on a physical blackboard in lectures, with problem sheet questions handed in 24 hours before each weekly one-hour “supervision” session as formative assessment. At Reading, there have been less students in each lecture, accompanied by problem classes that are longer and more relaxed, allowing for more informal discussion on problem sheet questions between students. These different forms of teaching were engaging to me in their own ways. I have also given a mix of good and not-as-good tutorial sessions for Year 7s to 13s. Good tutorials included interactive demonstrations, such as exploring parametric equations on an online graphing calculator, whereas the not-as-good ones had content that were pitched at too high of a level. Based on these experiences and having demonstrated for 10 hours, I hopefully can share some tips on demonstrating through describing what one would call a “typical” 9am Atmospheric Physics virtual problems class. 

PhD Demonstrating 101 

You, a PhD student, have just been allocated the role as demonstrator on Campus Jobs and are excited about the £14.83 per hour pay. With the first problems class happening in just a week’s time, you start thinking about tools you will need to give these MSc students the best learning experience. A pencil, paper, calculator and that handy Thermal Physics of the Atmosphere textbook would certainly suffice for face-to-face classes. The only difference this year: You will be running virtual classes! This means that moist-adiabatic lapse rate equation you have quickly scribbled down on paper may not show well on a pixelated video call due to a “poor (connection) experience” from Blackboard. How are you going to prevent this familiar situation from happening? 

Figure 1: Laptop with an iPad with a virtual whiteboard for illustrating diagrams and equations to be shown on Blackboard Collaborate. 

In my toolbox, I have an iPad and an Apple pencil for me to draw diagrams and write equations. The laptop’s screen is linked to the iPad with Google Jamboard running and could be shared on Blackboard Collaborate. Here I offer my first tip: 

  1. Explore tools available to design workflows for content delivery and decide on one that works well 

Days before the problems class, you wonder whether you have done enough preparation. Have you read through and completed the problem sheet; ready to answer those burning questions from the students you will be demonstrating for? It is important you… 

Figure 2: Snippet of type-written worked solutions for the Atmospheric Physics MSc module. 

  1. Have your worked solutions to refer to during class 

A good way to ensure you are able to resolve queries about problem sheet questions is to have a version of your own working. This could be as simple as some written out points, or in my case, fully type-written solutions, just so I have details of each step on hand. In some of my fully worked solutions, I added comments for steps where I found the learning curve was quite steep and annotated places where students may run into potential problems. 

Students seem to take interest in these worked solutions, but here I must recommend… 

  1. Do not send out or show your entire worked solutions 

It is arguable whether worked solutions will help students who have attempted all problems seriously, but the bigger issue lies in those who have not even given the problems a try. As a demonstrator, I often explain the importance of struggling through the multiple steps needed to solve and understand a physics problem. My worked solutions usually present what I consider to be the quick and more refined way to the numerical solution, but usually are not the most intuitive route. On that note, how then are you supposed to help someone stuck on a problem? 

It may be tempting to show snippets of your solutions to help someone stuck on a certain part of a problem. Unfortunately, I found this did not work very well. Students can end up disregarding their own attempt and copy down what they regard as the “model answer”. (A cheeky student would have taken multiple screenshots while I scrolled through my worked solutions on the shared screen…) What I found worked better in breakout groups was for the student(s) to explain how they got stuck.  

For example, I once had a few students ask me how they should work out the boiling temperature from saturated vapour pressure using Tetens’ formula. However, my worked solutions solved this directly using the Clausius-Clapeyron equation. Instead of showing them my answer, I arrived at the point where they got stuck (red in Figure 3), essentially putting myself in their shoes. From that point, I was able to give small hints in the correct direction. Using their method, we worked together towards a solution for the problem (black in Figure 3). Here is another tip: 

  1. Work through the problem from your students’ perspective 

Figure 3: Google Jamboard slide showing how Tetens’ formula is rearranged. Red shows where some students got up to in the question, whereas black is further working to reach a solution. 

This again illustrates the point on there being no “model answer”. As in many scientific fields, there exist multiple path functions that get you from a problem to a plausible solution, and the preference for such a path is unique to us all. 

There will always be a group of diligent students who gave the problem sheet a serious attempt prior to the class. You will find they only take less than 30 minutes to check their understanding and numerical solutions with you, and they might do their own thing afterwards. This is the perfect opportunity to… 

  1. Present bonus material to stretch students further 

Some ideas include asking for a physical interpretation from their mathematical result, or looking for other (potentially more efficient) methods of deriving their result. For example, I asked students to deduce a cycle describing the Stirling engine on a TS diagram, instead of the pV diagram they had already drawn out as asked by the problem sheet.  

Figure 4: A spreadsheet showing the content coverage of each past exam question 

I also have a table of past exam questions, with traffic light colours indicating which parts of the syllabus they cover. If a student would like to familiarise themselves with the exam style, I could recommend one or two questions using this spreadsheet. 

On the other hand, there may be the occasional group who have no idea where equation (9.11) on page 168 of the notes came from, or a student who would like the extra-reassurance of more mathematical help on a certain problem. As a final tip, I try to cater to these extra requests by… 

  1. Staying a little longer to answer a final few questions 

The best demonstrators are approachable, and go the extra mile to cater to the needs of the whole range of students they teach, with an understanding of their perspectives. After all, being a demonstrator is not only about students’ learning from teaching, but also your learning by teaching! 

I would welcome your ideas about demonstrating as a PhD. Feel free to contact me at brian.lo@pgr.reading.ac.uk if you would like to discuss!