A couple of weeks I received the Student On-Line Evaluation (SOLE) results for my Quantum Mechanics course.

There were only two specific questions, rating each of the following from “Very Good” through “Poor” (there’s a “no response” off to the right, as well):

- The structure and delivery of the teaching sessions
- The content of this module

The numerical results (at right) were pretty good. Note that 114 students — about half — responded.

The rest of the results are free-form comments. With such a big class it’s very difficult to find a style of teaching that suits everyone. Hence, the comments showed a split between the students who enjoyed the very mathematical approach of the course and those who wanted more physical examples from the beginning (not that easy in the context of an axiomatic approach to quantum mechanics — but there are a few simple system like quantum dots that exhibit some of the properties of the simplest systems we study in class; it’s clear that these should be highlighted more than I have). Similarly, some students wanted a more step-by-step approach to the mathematics, whereas others would prefer just a sketch of the proofs on the board (“put the algebra in the notes and let students work through it”).

But one set of comments especially hit home. Here’s a good example:

Frankly, I think that Prof. Jaffe has the potential to be an outstanding lecturer, one which he wastes by not being properly prepared. Just showing up to lectures and writing down on the board what was in (the previous lecturer’s) notes without thinking much about it in advance results in time spent staring at notes and board which could otherwise have been used to face the audience and explain what it is we’re doing. Maybe that sounded harsh, but he really is very good and could be outstanding if he put a little more into preparing for lectures and didn’t stick to his notes quite so much… If you actually perform the calculations, and think about the various steps yourself, then it all happens in a way, and at a pace, which suits us as students and allows us to follow.

(OK, I picked one that made an effort to heap on some praise along with the criticism.) I have to admit that this point, repeated by several students, seemed right on, for at least some of the lectures. I did always make an effort to go over the notes in detail beforehand. But these were notes indeed written by the previous lecturer, and this gives a few problems. Yes, I probably wasn’t always careful enough to go over the details of the mathematics beforehand. So sometimes I did spend too much effort trying to puzzle out exactly what I wanted to say (some students also complained about the occasional mistakes I made on the board, perhaps related to this). But sometimes the problem is more subtle: I might not always want to explain the concepts in the same way as the previous lecturer — and sometimes I might only realise this when actually doing the explaining! Either of these can happen in any lecture, but the combination of teaching this course for the first time, and doing so from someone else’s notes, certainly made it worse.

Next year, things will at least be different: I’ll be teaching for the second time, and so have some idea of the pitfalls from this past year. Moreover, our department is making some significant changes to the overall structure of the curriculum, phasing out our system of tutorials and so-called classworks for a series of three medium-sized (20 student) group sessions each week. This is happening alongside some specific changes to the quantum mechanics curriculum, with more material in the first year (happening already). My course will be shortened by a full five lectures, but I suspect that this combination of changes will give me a bit more breathing room, as well as a few different ways to make sure the material gets said in different ways, appropriate for different students.

Further criticism, comments, ideas, etc., are always welcome.