Teaching and Learning: Cormac McGuinness, School of Physics

As an academic in Physics I have taken a hand in reshaping and developing and delivering lecture courses, supervising teaching laboratories and introducing new experiments or assessment methods, introducing computer based assignment systems associated with the University Physics textbook known as Mastering Physics, implementing and codifying resources for tutorials, developing soft skills with the Careers Advisory Service in the now Careers and Communications Skills course, interviewing all final year Physics and Physics and Astrophysics students regarding their research projects with the SS year head and Astrophysics course director, participating in curriculum development, working with academics from the School of Philosophy on the recently implemented History, Ethics and Philosophy of Science SF module, taking a leading hand in the programme structure of two courses - firstly Nanoscience, Physics and Chemistry of Advanced Materials course (2011-2014) from before the launch as NPCAM in 2012, and secondly now the Physical Sciences course (from 2017-present), screencasting and recording lectures (since 2012!), tracking career paths of School of Physics alumni as well as completing a behind-the-scenes statistical analysis of fifteen years of final year problem solving examinations and recommending changes 18 months in advance of the final year problem solving paper becoming a stand-alone module in the 2018-19 academic year.

This was all before COVID19, where since March 2020 new adaptations were required across all of the School of Physics modules in Physical Sciences and Theoretical Physics courses, where with others I was a part of the implementation team with a particular eye on safety considerations for the safe operation of the undergraduate teaching laboratories in general, communications about safety to the JF, SF and JS cohorts as Physical Sciences Course Director, and in particular the specific model of socially-distanced implementation of the JS physics laboratories in Physics, Physics and Astrophysics, and Theoretical Physics in 2020/2021.

As the Trinity Education Project rolls forwards and the first intake into TR063 Physical Sciences prepares to enter the Senior Sophister year, the implementation of the new course structure will reach its final fruition and I as the current Course Director for Physical Sciences am looking forwards to the completion of 5 years in the role of shepherding this Course through from before first intake to the first set of graduations.

I am currently teaching on the following modules:

  • JS physics laboratory for Physics students (modules PYU33PP3 and PYU33PP4 in 2020/21 but called PYU33PP1 in the years before 2020/21)

  • SS Problem Solving Module (PYU44PP5) where I am a tutor and module coordinator for this 5-credit module. More information on my role in this module is given below.

  • SS "High Energy Physics" (half of PYU44P01 and all of PYU44P02) where I am the lecturer for a 5-credit course or equivalent of a normal module.

  • SS "Thin Films, Surfaces and Epitaxy" an Advanced Topics option in Physics/Nanoscience (a half module option within PYU44P07 for Physics students and PYU44N07 for NPCAM students). Thus a 2.5-credit course.

  • Postgraduate course on "Surface Science and Vacuum Technology" (PY5003). A 5-credit course.

My current responsibilities in relation to teaching are:

  • Course Director of the Physical Sciences (TR063) course. I have been in this role since before the course was first advertised, at its launch and now into the third year of its intake with students in the JS year.

  • Course Director of the Physics Moderatorship. A variety of responsibilities across the JS and SS years and in connection with ensuring a fair and consistent evaluation of final year projects.

Current and past teaching duties and a history of innovation and leading change - an incomplete synopsis:

In the School of Physics I have repeatedly led the way in advocating and introducing novel, improved or previously unused elements into my teaching both at laboratory, tutorial, lecture module, and for the School at course and programme level. Through my Course Director roles for Nanoscience, Physics and Chemistry of Advanced Materials (2011-2014) and Physical Sciences (2018-), I with others, have restructured the 4 years of the programme with much more choice and options in 3rd and especially 4th year (academic year 21/22) of the new course. I summarise my leadership here:

You may be familiar with some other impacts that I have had on teaching and learning within the School of Physics:

  • I introduced online electronic tutorial assignments through Mastering Physics - introduced in 2005 and I continued supervising this until 2009. MasteringPhysics - or its forerunner MyCyberTutor that I had first come across in 2002 in Boston. Ideally it functions as a Socratic dialogue system with hint-based approaches to solving problems. Perhaps it is best used to its full capabilities now that is spread over the first two years of our 4-year degree course. Nevertheless, I introduced it and refined it to be appropriate to our course structures with the aid of the 1st year lecturers involved, authoring questions within the system where none in the University Physics textbook suited the course.

  • Careers and Communications Skills course in 3rd year: introduced almost from scratch in 2005 to develop a number of soft skills of our graduates and the increasing numbers of students in our degree programme, including preparing for Careers progression, via simulated responses to real adverts, and lessons on CV writing as well as on scientific communication, written and oral. I learned quickly that students' presentations can be very funny and extremely good! Organised it from 2005-2010.

  • Curriculum development at module level for 2nd year Physics for Earth Sciences students. Earth Sciences was a direct entry course from 2009-2018 and I taught this SF course from 2010-2019. In this I dealt with Newton's laws and circular motion to simple Coriolis explanations, gravity measurements, all motivated by new technology such as GRACE twin satellite experiments for studying global warming, glacier melting and lithostatic rebound of Greenland.

  • Curriculum and programme design for the Nanoscience Physics and Chemistry of Advanced Materials (NPCAM) direct entry course by having a research-led topical nanoscience tutorials for 1st & 2nd years informed by the "big ideas" of nanoscience. [S. Wansom et al. Int. J. Engng. Ed. Vol. 25, No. 3, pp. 615-627, 2009.] This involved myself as Course Director as well as the PIs in Chemistry and Physics concerned with nanoscience. As the initial NPCAM Course Director involved in the launch of the course in 2010 and first direct intake in 2011, I had developed this model which only ended with the cessation of the course as a direct entry in 2018.

  • Hybrid teaching of 4th year courses involving screencasting, worked exercises, use of YouTube MinutePhysics videos to remind students of what they knew, and remind them what they had been taught. This began with the 20/24 lecture High Energy Physics course that I teach. This allowed for (pre-COVID) an entire replay of lectures, sometimes 2x speed, at the students leisure, together with allied revision materials, hinted worksheets, and an emphasis on problem solving approaches in the whiteboard tutorials. I developed this in responding to marks and feedback and since then have had excellent feedback by students. I have been recording screen casted lectures since 2012 (having tried audio only podcasts in 2011) for all my higher courses. The comments in feedback forms finally persuaded our director of teaching to take the plunge into screencasting for his 4th year Quantum Mechanics in 2019/20.

  • Consequently, in March 2020, I could rapidly introduce all my Physics colleagues to the Panopto software in use for screencasting recording lectures, and actively helped them remotely with technical and presentation problems, highlighting to them what students would encounter in watching. Our teaching in the School of Physics across the 4 years hardly skipped a weekend! All our students and staff appreciated this.

  • Postgraduate course in Surface Science and Vacuum Technology. I expanded the scope of this 5 credit course to include surface-optics, synchrotron science, and a workshop on XPS fitting. In particular, for the postgraduate chemists attending the course I explain what is physically appropriate and inappropriate for a core-level XPS fit, illustrating by bad fits/assignments in the literature. The hands-on training in fitting brings a useful understanding to their skills in being able to read the literature or to ask for an appropriate measurement.

  • Problem solving course: As of 2018 our 4th year problem solving examination (20 unseen qs, do 10) was to become a separate module with a passing requirement, where it had been bundled with the capstone project, but had a failure rate of nearly 40% of students and average mark of 47%. A statistical analysis of 12 years of the marks of 240 short unseen unstructured questions illustrated the problems with the questions. Educational literature, suggested that more structured or scaffolded questions had a particularly helpful effect in increasing marks for female students. A new precept or guidelines taking (Dawkins et al. "Impact of scaffolding and question structure on the gender gap" PHYS. REV. PHYS. EDUC. RES. 13, 020117 (2017)) with the additional simple provisos (among others) that marking cannot be bimodal i.e. either "0" or "10", avoid tricks, or inadvertent traps, allow even weak students to have a route to passing the question with a "4" out of 10; these in addition to further scaffolding. Three years later the overall cumulative mark histogram for all question attempts has shifted to the right with increased average marks for the module, and much less fails. Averages now (then): 58% (47%) for 218 (595) students with a 15%i (42%) fail rate. Now, most fails are close to 35% and the gender gap has effectively closed.

  • History, Ethics and Philosophy of Science: A new requirement in 2nd year Physical Sciences (& all Science courses, I was proactive among the Science Course Directors in engaging with academics from the School of Philosophy in shaping the shared course outline, & setting expectations for students (though essay writing was involved!) The overall structure of the course is shared between all Sciences, but in the second semester it is delivered to Physical Sciences and Chemical Sciences as the one cohort.

  • Post-COVID19 : As Course Director for Physical Sciences, I am being very proactive in helping design with my colleagues the best possible hybrid teaching to engage socially distanced students in the coming academic year with a particular emphasis on 1st year students. They will have face-2-face labs (though reduced), tutorials, and while only online lectures, they will have "home experiments" (resonance tubes using bottles, smartphones and sound analysers apps) as well as data analysis using video-tracking software e.g. pendulum and collision track experiments. A great help has been the Physics Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Community meetings online via U. Liverpool and the Institute of Physics in sharing best practice https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/central-teaching-hub/physicslthe/

  • As JS physics lab coordinator for the Physics cohort and the Physics and Astrophysics cohorts in 2020/21, a socially distance laboratory using pairings of students working together but physically separate and alternating between the experimental bench and being at a remove in the computational laboratory has been implemented of necessity. Webcams at the experiment, shared electronic workspaces and remote assessment interviews are now how this laboratory is proceeding this year. The electronic implementation of this was guided in part by recent literature and uses Microsoft OneNote Class Notebooks and MS Teams. http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/205017/

What next? a Lightboard!

  • I am now trying to introduce my colleagues to using a Lightboard. Introduced by Peshkin, Northwestern, since 2003 - https://lightboard.info/ "In brief: The Lightboard is a glass chalkboard pumped full of light.  It's for recording video lecture topics.  You face toward your viewers, and your writing glows in front of you." - Peshkin. <

  • Assembled using ultraclear glass, illuminated around edges by LEDs, you use fluorescent markers and record yourself through the glass with a camera.

  • So I have set up a lightboard which I am currently using for live online problem solving tutorials (see tweet with a speeded up excerpt from one of these tutorials). I will be using it for recording lecture materials and I am trying to get other staff to use this technique and facility.

  • Pedagogically, it might be best to instruct students to make their own handwritten notes from your video, and then to set the students a problem, task or reading associated with each video - both being generative tasks. This aids learning and this approach is described in "Five ways to increase the effectiveness of instructional video", Mayer et al Education Tech Research Dev (2020) 68:837-852 https://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-020-09749-6. In paraphrasing their summary: videos when using a lightboard, writing the equations, talking about them, and making eye contact with viewer or gazing at equation (gaze guidance) are more effective with regard to knowledge retention and enhances learning outcomes as compared to every other video presentation.

  • Here is an instructional training video intended for my colleagues with some stills: Lightboard introduction - brief basics and tips for recording - from camera through computer to Panopto - duration: 7:57

cormac Mcguiness teaching image


cormac Mcguiness teaching image 2

Writing with fluorescent markers

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Doing some physics teaching

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Discussing tips and tricks

  • The best advice would be to plan to break down a topic into a number of short 5-10 minute videos or video segments, rather than attempt to record a 50minute lecture in one go.

  • The lightboard video output can also be provided into Zoom or equivalent for live-online tutorials. The only drawback is when your writing fills one pane of glass, cleaning the glass takes some time. So clearly time to build a large scale one instead of just a desktop one!


I have exhibited a particular commitment to teaching in the School of Physics, constantly striving for excellence, engaging with new structures, new courses and new lecture modules and experimenting with differing materials and modes of delivery. I have reported on successes and acknowledged my failures and have been encouraging others to follow where innovations are successful. I believe I have made several and lasting contributions to the teaching profile in the School of Physics and look forward to continuing to do so.