Online Tutoring

November has been a frantically busy month, so this latest snippet for my Physics Tuition Blog is somewhat overdue!

Among the many things that have happened over the past few weeks was a meeting of Oxford's top private tutors – individuals whose knowledge, experience and expertise undoubtedly classify them (in my book at least) as among the top tutors in the country! The Oxford Tutors' Staff Room, as the group is known, was formed in 2012 at the instigation of chemistry tutor Dr Ezi Williams, and provides an informal opportunity for tutors to meet and share experiences and ideas.

At the last meeting I was very happy to talk about my experiences as a practitioner of online tutoring and the incredible opportunities for teaching and learning that are at last opening up. As someone who has been a vanguard supporter of the concept and practice since its inception, I have invested a lot of time and effort researching the most effective methods and technologies for delivering online tutorials to students.

The whole notion of providing one-to-one tuition over the web (although we're all aware that people in some parts of the world have been doing it for a while) elicited many questions from my fellow tutors (who are, after all, people simply not prepared to compromise on quality). In all cases, I believe I was able to address any reservations, and the reception from the group was both supportive and positive.

My contention is that if it is done properly, all important aspects of one-to-one personal tuition can be maintained in the online environment: non-verbal cues can be picked-up by a tutor via a camera just as efficiently as if sitting next to the student, and both the student and tutor have the convenience and familiarity of their own environments in which to work. Thinking aloud and interactive discussions – so vital to teaching and learning – are equally effective online.

Indeed it's not just the case that online tutoring is ‘not inferior’ to being there in person – in many ways it can be even better. For example, students can access the online tutorial work-space at any time, day or night – 7 days a week, 365 days a year – and can read, download or print any of the teaching notes used, any of the exam questions completed or indeed any of the myriad of notes and diagrams that both student and tutor scribble or create during the tutorials (and that's from ALL of the tutorials, from the first to the last!).

The simple ability to review and reflect at leisure, to print out what's important whilst keeping everything in one instantly accessible place, where it is maintained in a logical sequence, should not be underestimated. And I could go on…

There are of course preconceived misconceptions that must be overcome and it is always surprising that while many parents are enthusiastic about the prospect of online tuition, sometimes their offspring show a curiously old-fashioned reticence.

I have heard horror stories about terrible tutors and of awfully bad tutorials being poorly conducted in the most rudimentary fashion over the web, and when you hear such things it's not surprising that people might be sceptical. But that's NOT the way it should be and online tuition can and SHOULD be an enjoyable and effective learning experience.

It has been my own experience that every single one of my tutees – a few of whom expressed initial reservations about going online – have ended up enthusing about it; when I quizzed one of my initially reluctant tutees about his expectations he said, “well I thought it'd involve holding up bits of card on Skype” – ! Hmmm.

Suffice to say, whilst I am an established practitioner of online tuition, I am sure that more and more students and tutors will also catch on to the possibilities as an appreciation of the advantages becomes more widespread.

Happy Birthday Light Emitting Diode!

Here is a nice little story that turned up on the BBC News website a couple of weeks ago: LED at 50: An illuminating history.

Light Emitting DiodeSuch a thing as ubiquitous as the light-emitting diode (LED) is often overlooked. Indeed it’s hard to imagine that when I was a kid (and that's not so long ago!) they only came in red! – but these days they are used for practical illumination and employed in so many applications.

If you listen to the audio slideshow on the BBC site, you get to hear the inventor’s own thoughts and get a real insight into how such inventions are developed. And for a man whose discovery is now so important and useful, 83 year-old Nick Holonyak is a remarkably modest sort of chap…

Well-defined physics

Whichever A level physics syllabus you are studying (with the possible exception of OCR specification B – ‘Advancing Physics’), you will find that you need to spend some time getting to grips with definitions. This is an all too easily neglected area of A level physics study, by students at all stages in their courses – regardless of ability.

Learning definitions is either looked upon as something that's either too boring or too trivial; ‘it's not real physics!’ – is what some of my tutorial students complain when I nag them about it. But in all cases I think you are missing a trick if you don't pay attention to this element of your work. (Actually I would broaden the term ‘definitions’ slightly to include all of those simple key facts, principles and physical laws that may be expressed in just two or three sentences, or via a word equation).

So why should you learn them? Well, first of all, I think that learning definitions is a no-brainer – if you do it then you are bound to pick up all those 1 and 2 mark questions in the exam, and for very little real effort!

Secondly, learning definitions generally means just committing them to memory. Now that's not very inspiring I know, but there are plenty of genuinely hard bits of A level physics – things you might well struggle to understand properly, even after a full two years of study – but here is something that you can just do. And the beauty of learning a definition is that when you know it, you know you know it – there's no doubt about it and you can safely tick it off your revision task list!

Thirdly, and I think most importantly, knowing definitions provides a solid structure around which deeper knowledge and understanding can be built. They act as sort of immovable, unvarying anchor points that will help you as you get to grips with more complex aspects of your A level physics course. (For example in electricity, knowing the definitions of potential difference and e.m.f. will remind you that what's going on in an electrical circuit involves energy transfers – and not just charge transfers – which in turn will help you to make sense of more complex topics such as internal resistance or potential dividers).

Yes, learning A level physics definitions can be a dull thing to do, but it is important and it will pay off in the exam. But don't neglect it until the exams are looming, get started now and it won't seem half as bad … and it might even help you along the way!