The Durham Experience, Part I

In the academic year 2014–2015 I had the privilege to teach a lecture course in Durham University in the United Kingdom. Durham is a rather prestigious university that is very selective in its student intake. In these entries I record some of my thoughts concerning the experience. Although I could only witness the system in Durham, many details can most likely be generalised to other UK universities.

View of Durham

Durham undergraduate system

Compared with Finland, the English universities hold a much tighter grip of both students and the teaching staff. For someone used to making all the decisions themselves, from planning your own schedule as a student to choosing the most suitable date for your exam as a lecturer, the inflexibility of the UK system may come as a shock. On the other hand, there is also a feeling of security and comfort when things are planned for you in advance.

Studying an undergraduate degree in mathematics in England takes typically 3–4 years and costs up to 9000 pounds in tuition fees per year (Scotland has no tuition fees). As a maths student, you will not be studying any other subject, although courses in some subjects such as theoretical physics can in manyuniversities be incorporated in a maths curriculum. You will be able to choose between a few optional courses, but mostly the schedule will be decided for you. You will simply receive a timetable in the beginning of each year telling you what lectures you will be taking and when.

In Durham, a typical maths course (they are called “modules”) takes a full academic year, consisting of lectures, tutorials and homework assignments. There are three terms: autumn, spring and summer (these are dubbed “Michaelmas”, “Epiphany” and “Easter”, respectively). To give a sense of how the three terms are organised, this year the autumn term lasted from 6 October until 12 December, spring term from 12 January until 13 March and summer term from 20 April until 19 June. Spring term ends at Easter, after which there is a five-week holiday before the start of the summer term. The summer term is aimed at revision: there are 2–3 weeks of revision classes, and then the exams begin.

All exams are held in the summer term, in either May or June, regardless of when the course itself took place. On a typical course, the final grade depends entirely on the exam. Homework or mid-term exams, if any, will not contribute. If a student fails in the exam, they can retake it in August, but in the resit it’s not possible to score more points than the minimum for a pass. No further resits are allowed.

After the exams, the students wait in anguish until all the scripts have been graded before they receive their final grades. They are not allowed to view their own scripts, at least not in the maths department, nor even know which questions scored them points and which did not. This is in sharp contrast to the practice for example in the maths department in Helsinki, where the exam, its solutions and some notes on the grading are published, together with question-by-question statistics, and where a student can at any time request to see their script in presence of the lecturer.

Let us switch to the teacher’s point of view. As for the students, the timetable is completely decided in advance, and the teacher cannot affect the amount or length of lectures (typically two 50-minute lectures a week in Durham) or tutorials (50 minutes per a 15 person group fortnightly). The content of the course is also prescribed, but in practice you are allowed to take some liberties.

The final exam, as well as the resit exam, need to be written in January, which can be quite difficult as half of the course is yet to be lectured. (Even more so for those teachers who are teaching a half-year course starting in January!) After the exam is ready, together with solutions and a grading scheme, it will be checked by a colleague, and subsequently by an external checker from another university. This is to ensure the exam is of a suitable level of difficulty and free of errors. After the exam, there is a fervent period of grading, which has to be done in a week or so for a typical exam. The grading is also checked by a colleague for omissions or mistakes in adding the points.

For a Finn, all this railroading seems a bit excessive. Not being able to retake the exam more than once, to retake it for a better grade or to manage one’s timetable oneself seems to make the students’ life rather stressful. There is a tendency to work less in the autumn and then attempt to absorb most of the content in the revision period. The stress and worry of the students is also reflected in the course feedback: if the students feel the teacher is not preparing them well enough for the exam, their criticism often worded in strikingly harsh language.

However, the students are not left to struggle on their own, but actually rather conscientiously taken care of. Each student is assigned an “academic advisor”, a permanent staff member with whom the student has regular meetings throughout the year. Each student’s homework activity and tutorial participation is monitored, and if there is cause for concern, the student is contacted for an explanation. This manages to ensure that the students keep doing their homework even though the homework does not count towards their final grade.

The staff enjoys similar fostering. Every new lecturer gets a “mentor” who can be approached if case of unforeseen problems, practical or otherwise. The mentor will also observe the teaching of their mentee to see that everything is going well. Furthermore, every teacher is asked to observe at least one lecture or tutorial of another randomly selected teacher. I find this system quite appealing, as following someone else’s class very often gives me new ideas and revelations. I also found the checking of other people’s exams very useful. One can quickly become blind to one’s own mistakes, and it is easy to misjudge the skills of the students, especially in a new environment. My own exam was much improved after hearing the comments of my checker.

Another detail in the Durham system I was happy about was the three-week revision period and the holiday preceding it. During that time I felt that the pieces were finally coming together in the students’ minds. I have had a similar experience during my own time as a student, when for some reason I have not taken the exam at the first possible instance, but rather deferred it a couple of weeks. It made me much more confident in the actual situation, and I’m sure the same is true with many of my Durham students. If only a similar revision period could be arranged without having to delay all exams until the end of the year!

In conclusion, the system of undergraduate studies in the UK seems quite strange from a Finnish point of view, and I cannot say I appreciate the feeling of lack of freedom. I’m afraid the majority of students will have difficulties growing to be independent thinkers when they have so little to say regarding their own studies. Also the teachers have to strive really hard if they want to experiment and develop their own teaching into a new direction. However, there is definitely something to learn about in the way students and lecturers are tended and their progress constantly followed. To the students such instruction is certainly very helpful, as they are often not yet as independent as we might think them to be.