Welcome to the homepage of
Asaf Pe'er

A few notes on my teaching philosophy


If you are reading this page, then most likely you consider attending one of the courses I teach, or already attending one. I wrote this page with a view of helping you with your studies, and making them an enjoyable and fruitful experience. I would like to 'set the table', and let you know what I expect from you, and what you can expect from me.

The first and most important thing I would like to emphasis is that I really want you to succeed. I am very serious here. I, like all other lecturers, spend many hours in preparing the classes and delivering them (if you ever had the experience of delivering a talk, you know how much work it takes..). I am very happy when I see that the students follow, understand, show enthusiasm, challenge me with questions and, as a consequence, get high grades. The big question, of course, is how to make it happen.

Responsibility. Unfortunately, as we all know, life is far from ideal: sometimes it happens that a student is not very successful. If a student fails, then there is often the question: whose responsibility is it? Is it because the student is bad, or maybe the teacher is lousy (or both)? While clearly the truth is somewhere in the middle, at a university level the answer is very simple: it is always the student's responsibility. (I am exaggerating, of course. If 90% of a class fails, questions will be asked. But you still want to be in the other 10%...).
At a university, we treat the students as adults, who come here because they want to study. The teachers are not even called "teachers", but "lecturers" - as they "just" deliver the lectures. Apart from exceptional cases (such as labs), a student has complete freedom to do what he/she wants to do with their time: nobody checks if a particular student attends a lecture or not, submit homework or not, etc. However, at the end, it is the ability to answer the questions in the exam that matters. Many students, especially at the beginning of their studies, don't realize the responsibility that comes with the freedom. Many don't realize that this freedom is "faked" in some basic sense: if you don't work hard continuously during the semester, it is highly unlikely that you would succeed in the exam. The university provides you with many tools to learn: lectures, tutorials, library, Internet access, ability to discuss the material in person with experts... It is entirely up to you to use these tools! Nobody can force you to do that. Pretty much everything else follows.

Lecture notes. Any (reasonable) lecturer is making preparations for the lectures. Many prepare notes to be used, other prefer slides, and some use books. All are legitimate, of course, and are part of the famous "academic freedom". I am not exceptional: I prepare personal lecture notes, which I am using when I prepare my lectures and deliver them. Of course, I don't invent the course material myself, but I use resources - which include textbooks, web resources as well as my personal notes from the time I was a student myself, when preparing my notes. (In fact, the courses studied at undergrad level are [nearly] universal - same material is studied in all physics department worldwide. My academic freedom is mainly in the choice of how to deliver the material - what is the way that, to my opinion, is best).
One thing that I do, similar to some of my colleagues and differ than others, is to put my personal lecture notes on-line. This makes them freely available to all the students interested in reading them. This is not aimed at replacing the lectures or the textbooks, but simply to provide the students access to an additional source of information, which they can use in their studies, if they want to.
I often receive very positive feedback from many students, who find my lecture notes helpful in their studies. I am very happy for that, and the ability to help even a single student is a good enough reason for me to continue keeping my personal lecture notes freely available to all.
However, I did receive in the past a small number of negative feedbacks from students. For example, one student commented that to his/hers opinion, my lecture notes "are not as good as the textbooks..." and another complained that "I stick to my lecture notes during the lectures, and not going beyond...".
I find such comments, how to say, odd. To my view, these students misinterpreted the meaning of my personal notes.
If you find the material to be better explained in a textbook than in my notes, great! Go to the textbook and read it from there! In fact, all the resources I use in preparing my notes are clearly stated and all (apart from my personal notebooks from my student' years) are available for you in the library or on the web. The only thing that matters is that you understand the material! You have full freedom to chose what resources to use - I simply provide you with an extra one.
As far as that "I stick to the lecture notes and not going beyond..." well, this is exactly the purpose of the notes.... As I deliver my lectures based on my notes, they contain exactly the material which I think needs to be taught in a given module. If you have any question which go beyond the material taught, you are always free to ask, and I will always make an attempt to provide you with the proper answer; Bare in mind, though, that if your question goes beyond the material which is covered in the course, I may want to answer it only outside of lecture hours (this fact, of course, should not discourage you from asking!).

Questions. I am making a very serious attempt to encourage students to actively participate in the classes, and ask as many questions as they want. I do believe that asking questions is an essential part of studying. As we know, while some students are indeed very active (and - often these are the students who get the highest grades!), many students simply don't ask.
As a rule, I [try to] begin every lecture with a short recap, and then ask the students if they have any question; however, often no one asks anything. As I tell the students, in such a case I am forced to conclude that everything is clear to everyone, and so I can proceed with the new material. Unfortunately, we all know that this conclusion is nearly always incorrect. I did encounter in the past exam papers that were empty - the student simply couldn't answer a question about material that was covered in class.

I can think of various reasons why students don't ask. The bottom line: I think that this is the number 1 mistake of students. If you don't understand something: ASK !!!! You asked, but didn't get a proper answer / or you didn't understand the answer? ASK AGAIN !!! Don't be shy, and don't be "polite" !!!
I think that students don't ask because something makes them feel uncomfortable. While I try to make students feel comfortable asking any question, this doesn't always work. I can think of three reasons why a student may not feel comfortable asking.
The first is that a student, mistakenly thinks that he/she is the only one that doesn't understand something, which is clear to anyone else. Thus, a student doesn't want his/hers colleagues to think he/she is "stupid", or "delaying the class". This is of course nonsense. I can assure you that if there is something you don't understand, there is nearly 100% chance that at least one more person in the classroom does not understand it either (hopefully, it is not me...). If you still feel shy - then come and ask at the end of the lecture, or after the lecture hours.
The second reason is that a student feels so confused, that he/she doesn't even know what to ask. This is a trickier situation, which can be avoided if the student keeps constant concentration and focus. Unfortunately, as we know, this is not always the case, and a student can get into a situation where the lecturer talks about something, basing the arguments on things that were supposed to be clear, but they aren't. The problem of course, is that if you missed the moment to ask, more and more material is taught, and you reach a point when you get so confused you don't even know where to start... Of course, the real solution is to keep constant focus, and work hard during the semester, to avoid opening gaps. When in class, what you really want is to delay the lecturer, so as not to proceed with the new material until the old one is clear. Thus, in such situations, you really must ask - anything, to stop the lecturer from going forward too fast. The correct way is to try and phrase your question in a positive way, which will show what part you understand [from which it will be clear what you don't understand]. Try something along: "last time, you told us that... can you please explain how does what you state now match with..." or something alike.
The third reason, which is arguably the trickiest one, is if a student fears that I will not provide a proper answer. This can be because of various reasons: (1) Maybe I don't know the answer; (2) Maybe I don't want to answer; or (3) I already gave an answer, but the student did not understand, and thus there is no point in asking again.
Avoiding asking questions in such situations is of course a capital mistake. First, if I don't know the answer, it is my problem, not yours; you should not avoid asking a question because you think I don't have the proper answer. I can tell you that in such situations, I will simply tell you that I don't know the answer to your question, and will return to you with an answer as soon as I find it.
Situations where I don't want to answer a specific question can be either if (1) the answer to the question will be given in the nearby future as part of the lecture; (2) if I prefer, from pedagogical reasons, that you think of the question yourself for a while; or (3) the question is outside the scope of the course, and I don't want to spend time on it during the lecture time. There is indeed a constant tension: it is my task to ensure that we cover the material in the course syllabus, and thus there is indeed only a limited time during class hours which we can spend on questions, as we do need to study the material. However - again - ensuring that we complete the syllabus is my duty, not yours. You should not try to "help" me by not asking questions!. In the last two cases mentioned, I always invite the student to ask me the question again at the end of the lecture, in the nearest convenient time, or after they gave the question some more thought.
There is only one true type of question that I will not answer. If you ask me to solve the problem set for you (as opposed to asking hints and guidance, which I will gladly provide!), or ask me to validate your answer to a question given in the problem set before you submit it ("is the answer to question 3 XXX? I don't think it is right... what did I do wrong?"). I think it is unfair to answer such questions. However, if you are clever, you can phrase your questions in such a way that will enable me to help you (tip: phrase your questions in a positive way!).
Finally, if I answered a question but you did not understand or did not like my answer - ask again! There is always the possibility that I didn't understand your original question, but even if I did and I see that you didn't understand my answer, I will try to explain it in a different way. Don't hesitate to open a discussion with me - which will likely take place after the lecture hour. Don't hesitate! My office is open, and I would be happy to try and answer any relevant question also outside the lecture hours (as I stated, sometimes I have to, due to the need to cover the material) To conclude: I want to encourage students to ask! Physics is not for shy people!

Homework. From my perspective, homework is an important tool that aids students in their studies. Put in another words: if you sit in class, memorize every word I am saying, and copying everything from the board - you are likely going to fail the exam. It is your ability to use the material in solving problems that show that you really understand it. As many researches showed (and as I know from being a student myself), students really work hard (mainly) when they have to: namely, before the exam, or when they have to submit homework. Since I believe that reviewing the material at home is essential in understanding physics at a university level, I tend to give relatively large amount of homework; typically, expect to get a questionnaire nearly every week. If no tutorials are available (as is unfortunately the case for the 4th years modulus), I will provide all those who submitted their homework with detailed solutions.
I know that homework puts load on the students, and I try not to overload. Respecting that, I don't believe in miracles - the more time you spend on a subject, the better you know it. From a statistical perspective, I would say that about 85% of those who failed an exam, also failed in answering the problems given as homework. Thus, Your ability to solve the problems during the semester is your best indication of how well you are going to do in an exam.
Sometimes students take the short approach, and copy the answers to the homework. Of course, this is a bad idea; not so much because it is morally wrong (which it is, of course), but because you are making a big damage to yourself; if I ask you something in a problem set, it means that you need to know this material, and there is a high chance it will appear in the exam. If you copy, you don't really know the answer. You may save some time, and you may get a very minor increase in the homework grade (typically, homework account for 20% of the final grade. 10 sets a semester = 2 points each set), but you are likely to pay a very heavy price when it comes to the exam. I did see students that gave the correct answers in the problem set, but when asked the same question in the exam (yes, I do that occasionally!) couldn't solve it. I don't think I need to add anything.

4th year tutorials. This is a sad point. Unfortunately, as of today (2015), it is the department's decision that 4th years courses will not have tutorials. I try to fight this decision (originating of course, from lack of manpower), but so far without success. The 4th year's modules I teach - both GR and QFT, are very heavy, and students need to work very hard - harder (sometimes, much harder) than the average course, and many feel that tutorials will be helpful. I totally support you here, and I raise this point wherever appropriate; as you understand, these decisions are not made at my level.
Unfortunately, I don't think it is appropriate that I serve as a my own tutor on a regular basis, even if only due to the fact that I have many other obligations apart from lecturing. For this reason, in all the courses in which no tutorials are provided, I provide all the students who submit their homework with full, detailed answers to the questions asked. Furthermore, as I thoroughly stated above, I am always open for questions, both during and outside of lecture hours. In addition to the above, if, as has happened in the past, there is a specific subject that several students find more tricky, I am willing to coordinate a specific extra lecture/tutorial on that specific subject. I will typically ask the students to phrase their questions, send it to me in E-mail in advanced, so that I will know what to prepare. From this point, it is the student's responsibility to formulate their questions to me, and if they do so, we will schedule a specific class. To my opinion, together these points should compensate for the lack of tutorials - but, as stated, I will continue struggling to add tutorials to all the courses I teach.

Overload. I did encounter students that did not estimate properly their ability, and tried to take too many, too difficult courses. It always ends up pretty bad. I would like to emphasis perhaps the most important point to remember as a student: after you graduate, nobody will really care if you took course XXX or YYY. EVERYBODY is going to look at your grades. In other words: taking one course and getting 90% is NOT the same as taking two courses and getting 45% in each. The former case will bring you anywhere; the later one not.
Thus, it is important to get feedback, and make wise choices in your studies. Part of the feedback you already know: these are your grades from previous years. There is a correlation - and a strong one - between the grades student's get in different years. Other feedback you can get by talking to people who taught you. Do that; they can provide you with very useful information and recommendations for the future.

I would like to wish you a very successful and exciting studies! I hope to see you in one of my lectures, and I hope you enjoy it!.

Good Luck !!