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Meet the National Teaching Fellowship nominees – Professor Alan Champneys

Alan is a Professor of Applied Non-linear Mathematics within the Department of Engineering Mathematics and was recently nominated by the University to apply for the Advance HE, National Teaching Fellowship scheme in 2021.

During more than 25 years as a Bristol academic, I have provided many forms of education at the interface between engineering and mathematics. For past 15 years I have been the Director for the pivotal 1st year engineering unit Engineering Maths 1, taught across the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Bristol to up to 900 students. Despite being a service course in a subject which to engineers is ‘like marmite’, the unit has consistently received outstanding feedback.

In more recent years, I have also taken on various tasks related to teaching hands-on mathematical modelling of real-world problems, for example launching the successful MSc in Engineering Mathematics. I have also promulgated this ethos at national level in various initiatives both at the level of transition to University and at the postgraduate level in working with industry, government and the third sector.  

It has not always been like this. Early in my career I was seen as a high flyer in research and leadership, being promoted to Professor aged 34, Head of Department aged 37 and Head of School aged 43. Reflecting now, I see that my early career was shaped by acute imposter syndrome, especially in teaching.

I have more recently come to realise that I am lifelong learner, especially in educational practice; also that the greatest source of job satisfaction as an academic is the privilege of enthusing and inspiring fertile minds.  I have established an educational style that is no longer shaped by fear of appearing stupid, but is centred on empathy, honesty and engagement. I realise that I personally learn best by osmosis rather than simply receiving information. For me, the job of the teacher is to provide the environment where students gain their own “ah-ha” moments on what in modern parlance are called threshold concepts.

To me humour, humanity, self-deprecation, enthusiasm and even the element of surprise are a huge part of creating this relaxed atmosphere for learning. I have become known for the “guy who smashes up a mobile phone” in his lectures, and who unexpectedly sits at the piano and sings a self-deprecating song about why the hell the University pays him to teach.

I was delighted to hear that recently there is psychological research that suggests that encountering surprise is one of the strongest ways to form a memory.

Lockdown and the move to online learning have created a huge challenge for Engineering Maths 1. But it has also provided an opportunity to reflect on what and how we expect the students to learn, rather than just to try to replicate what we have always done and necessarily come up with something inferior.  

First, having just got sign off for the traditional Summer exam paper, this had to be replaced by a totally new online multiple choice exam for 750+ students. But how to make this fair, rigorous and transparent? With the help of many colleagues, not least Oscar Benjamin and Liam Wheen who wrote a clever Python Script for converting Latex (the typesetting language that all mathematicians use) into Blackboard, we devised a way. It involves massive parallelism of questions delivered in random order with randomised order of answers. After stress testing using several mocks, the exam passed off without incident and produced well discriminated marks.

Then, as the effects of the pandemic moved into the new term, it became apparent we would need to find a new way to teach the large cohort online. Unfortunately, the move to teacher-assessed A-levels exacerbated the situation in two ways. First, the higher pass rates led to more admissions in the Engineering faculty, there were now 900 students needing to take Engineering Maths 1, rather than 750.  Second, most of the cohort had not studied any maths at all since March, nor sat an exam in the subject since GCSEs. Mathematics is replete with threshold concepts, and yet there are still many students who only properly learn when they have to revise for the big exam.

We introduced various techniques: a dedicated two-week A-level catch-up period; a fresh formative multiple choice tests every two weeks, which due to parallelism and randomisation can be taken many times; regular polls in the livestream which ask questions like ‘compared to last week how confident are you feeling about the maths on your course’ with answers ranging from ‘petrified’ to ‘complacent’; short, empathetic, humorous (and fairly low-tech) pre-recorded videos that present not only the core material,  but also go through problems, stress the many ways of learning and point to further materials (including YouTube videos, there are many excellent ones out there); polling software to create word clouds to indicate topics that students would like to be reinforced at the next livestream; and moderated chats in the livestream that genuinely change what is being taught then and there. All of this is supported by a large team of trained TAs who provide one-to-one support in drop-in-classes using the software Remo where the students and TAs move around between tables at which different problems are discussed.

This has been a lot of work. But the feedback has been remarkably positive. It is also humbling; if I look back through one of my recorded videos where I made a mistake going through a worked answer, or get tongue tied. It has been a revelation to me that students can cope with that, they are not looking for video perfection from their teacher. It is empathy they crave.

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