Fabien Maussion bio photo

Fabien Maussion

Climate, glaciers, and scientific programming.

With the new semester approaching (way too fast), I have to think seriously about what to keep and what to change in the upcoming master level lecture “Physics of the Climate System”.

To help me in this process I have the results of two “polls”: an official evaluation organised by the university (with very standard questions), and a less formal evaluation I prepared myself, containing questions more specific to my lecture and with more room for critic and comments.

General evaluation

The results of the official evaluation are available here (in German). The answers are quite positive, which is encouraging. The vast majority of the students found the lecture interesting, and most agree that the lecture was well structured. Among the more mixed reviews, it seems clear that I could meliorate in my pedagogical skills, in particular when the topics increase in complexity. A few of the students also found that I did not spent enough time on the complex topics in comparison to the easier ones.

This is consistent with one of the major difficulty I had to deal with when designing the lecture: from the 20+ students, a non-negligible number has a different background than atmospheric sciences (mostly physics). How to deal with these new students while keeping the other ones motivated? How much time has to be spent on the introductory material?

This is what motivated one of the questions of my less formal poll, which confirms that the backgrounds are quite heterogeneous:

Topic by topic

Obviously, time is limited so every new slide has to replace an old one. Therefore I asked the students to tell me if we should spend much less time (1) or much more time (5) on each of the major topics of the lecture (3 being “just right”)1. Here is an example with the planetary energy balance:

Here, the atmospheric sciences students (who probably heard about the planetary energy balance at least three times in their studies) send a clear message. However, I know (from the spread in the answers and from the exam) that a few students managed to get out of my lecture without being able to compute the one-layer greenhouse model…

I definitely decided to spend less time on the energy balance next semester (there is plenty of good learning material about this), but for most of the other topics, the results where less clear:

While it seems that feedbacks and climate change are rather appreciated topics, paleoclimate really divides the students! At least two of them really don’t want to spend a single minute on this, while four where interested enough to ask much more.

The poll results For the other topics are available here. Interestingly enough, the average student would like to spend more time on most topics. How this is supposed to happen is not answered in the poll.

So what?

In the end, this poll gave me at least two insights:

  • it is impossible to please everybody (this I should have known, but I was really full of hope;)
  • it is sometimes necessary to teach less popular topics (leaving out paleoclimate, for example, is out of question).

For the rest, I am left on my own. While there is enough room for my lectures to improve (fortunately!), this might well take a few more polls…

  1. Now I wish I had also asked why they want to spend more time on a topic, i.e. is it because it is interesting, or too difficult? But this will be for the next poll.