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WATE 2018 commendee: Mark Newton (Physics)

Why did you start teaching? What (or who) inspired you?

I started teaching to supplement my income as a PhD student and found that I enjoyed teaching – when it goes well it is hugely rewarding. I was inspired by people who taught me. This includes my A-level physics teacher and undergraduate lecturers here at Warwick many years ago.

What pearls of wisdom have you been given over the years that have helped you with your teaching?

My PhD supervisor in Oxford told me that “teaching physics is a process of diminishing deception”. We all learned first about 'laws of classical physics' and then a few years later when encountering relativity, quantum physics, etc. we discover that some 'laws' are only true within specific limits. Being honest about this helps when teaching or learning since you must realise that being able to correctly simplify a problem is important (in physics and all walks of life!), and you build up understanding bit by bit!

Is there anything you wish someone had told you when you started out?

Don’t feel you have to invent everything from scratch – if somebody else has taught something really well don’t feel you have to change it!

If you were mentoring a first-time teacher, what three bits of advice would you give?

  1. See how others do it and don’t feel you have to change what works.
  2. Make use of resources already developed and look to see how others teach the topic.
  3. Keep it simple! Think very carefully about setting exam questions!

What advice/top tips would you give to more experienced teachers?

The two most important elements of great teaching are the quality of instruction and how well the teacher knows the subject – don’t hesitate to talk about teaching with you colleagues. More often than not you learn something!

Don’t teach something for too long - you get stale. It is hard work preparing a new course but it is much more fun in the delivery!

What new technologies are you currently using to enhance your teaching? What are your top tips for using them?

Microsoft Surface is great for annotating diagrams and derivations. You are looking at the class, so you interact with the students better but you are still able to chalk and talk.

Don’t jump between different tools too often as it is distracting and if you need something make sure it is being projected/displayed!

What new or future teaching innovations are you looking forward to?

Slack is a great collaboration tool used by our PhD students to share new knowledge, data, problems and their solutions. I can see that it will be a great tool for undergraduate group projects and fostering easy communication between students and staff.

Slack is a cloud-based set of proprietary team collaboration tools and services. The name is an acronym for 'Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge'.

What does winning a WATE award mean to you?

I would be absolutely delighted!

What do you enjoy the most about teaching? What’s the best part of your job?

When it goes well, you engage with the students and they learn! Put simply this is great fun and very rewarding.

What are the biggest challenges faced by teaching staff? How do you overcome these?

Teaching well is hard work and time consuming! It is often difficult to find a good work life balance when trying to run a research group, keep on top of administration, sort out finances, etc. all at the same time as teaching. How to succeed? Advanced planning and excellent colleagues.

What lessons have you learned from your students?

Don’t make assumptions about what knowledge and skills students already have. Ask questions and investigate what they know and were able to do – this gives you a starting point from which you can build and keep the students with you.

Students are exceedingly concerned with their final grades and miss the value of learning the content! This is the most frustrating lesson I have learned! Today’s students often feel pressured to achieve. I am more interested in students learning than teaching towards assessment. If you understand something then the assessments will go well!

If you could write a recipe for the perfect inspiring teacher, what ingredients would you need?

I don’t know what the recipe is, but I do like an article I read in the Guardian, even though this is not aimed at university teaching.

In short outstanding teachers demonstrate a “deep knowledge and understanding of their subject” but in addition they must care about the outcome of the lecture, workshop, tutorial, etc. and the students must know that they care.

If you are just teaching because you have to and don’t care it is not going to go well for you or the students!

Work with the students! A good relationship between teacher and student is important!


Enjoyed hearing from Mark? See the full list of 2018 winners and commendees and read other interviews.