In 2016 Good Practice Committee ran an online survey of third-year students and an online survey of graduate students, particularly exploring issues of ‘good practice’. Some of the issues raised (such as progression of female students in academic mathematics) were then explored in more detail in focus groups.
Feedback received was considered by Teaching Committee, Graduate Studies Committee, and others as applicable. The following summarises some key actions which have been informed by the feedback.
Note: these 'good practice' consultations supplement a wide range of other student consultation which takes place via committees and other mechanisms such as lecture and class questionnaires and national surveys.
1) Prior to university, many students had had some additional impetus to study maths, and felt that this was helpful in overcoming societal preconceptions against maths. For example, their family or a particular teacher had inspired them with a love of maths; they had been at an all-female schools where they felt that Maths was seen as more the ‘norm’ for women.
We have further developed our extensive outreach programme aimed at encouraging women to study mathematics post-16. We are now developing online materials with partners in Cambridge, aimed at students in year 10/11 to encourage them to study Further Maths A-level. A pilot ‘module’ on complex numbers will be published online in summer 2017.
2) There was concern that women in the UK might be less likely to take Maths/Further Maths under government funding reforms which restrict funding in state schools to three A-levels per student. The female students anticipated that there might be a particular reluctance amongst women to study both Maths and Further Maths to A-level if they were restricted to three A-levels in total.
In response to this feedback, and our own concerns on this issue, the Head of Department and Director of Undergraduate Studies met with Nick Gibb, Minister for Schools, in November 2016. They argued that Further Mathematics should be a special case: schools should receive funding for students taking this as a fourth A-level. We hope that this recommendation will be reflected in the report on a Review of post-16 Mathematics which is due to be published by the government soon.
3) The students noted a perception amongst their peers at school that mathematics did not lead to good career opportunities.
More information on career opportunities has been incorporated into outreach materials.
4) There was feedback on a number of pedagogical issues.
This has been incorporated into guidance which has been sent to all maths tutors:
Extract from Guidance to Tutors - Oct 2016.pdf
5) It was felt that specific efforts to integrate the students within a class, and to foster an atmosphere where students feel able to ask questions, may be helpful.
This has informed our proposed new format for fourth-year classes. We plan that each class will be split into two ‘workgroups’ for the first session. These sessions will allow the students to better get to know the teaching assistant and each other, and they will be encouraged to work with other students in the workgroup for the rest of the term.
6) There was some lack of awareness that graduate research students could receive a stipend (like a salary), and did not necessarily have to incur further debt.
We have tried to make this as clear as possible in all our events and literature, and will incorporate this into a new ‘Careers’ webpage for both undergraduate and graduate students.
1) When applying, most participants had had Skype interviews, and a number agreed that they were therefore not aware of the ‘atmosphere’ here before arriving, but were ‘pleasantly surprised’ when they arrived. They suggested having a ‘virtual open day’ and/or arranging opportunities to meet with current students before arrival.
A virtual open day was run in December 2016, and we have continued efforts to ensure that those attending Oxford for interview meet with current students over lunch and other events. In 2015-16 6 interviewees were taken to lunch; in 2016-17 51 interviewees were taken to lunch.
2) Students felt that there was not much mixing of Research Groups within the AWB, and would welcome more social events.
The department continues to support the weekly ‘Happy Hour’ which is organised by the graduate students themselves (the department pays the annual license fee, provides facilities management support and some support with coordination if required). ‘Coffee club’ has been introduced: all staff and graduate students are invited to morning coffee on a regular basis. Graduate students have set up ‘welfare brunches’, inviting all students to attend.
3) A number of female students were either unaware of the welcome lunch for female graduate students and postdocs held at the start of Michaelmas term, or had been unable to attend it. They suggested it should be run later in the year, as there was a lot to absorb in the first few weeks in Oxford.
The welcome lunch in 2016 was moved to Thursday of week 6 of Michaelmas Term.
4) Students noted that supervisors could make a real difference, and encouraged more training for supervisors, including in how to deal with sensitive issues.
In March 2017 the University Counselling Service ran a session in the department on ‘Supporting students in distress’. Academic and support staff were invited to attend, and a number did so. In May the Service ran a session on ‘Managing Expectations’ for both students and academic staff as part of the ‘Fridays@4’ seminar series. The department will continue to explore ways of supporting supervisor training.
5) Students were critical of the level of pay of Teaching Assistants (TAs) in classes, and also the limitations of the role of TA. It was felt that TAs only marked work and didn’t teach, which was frustrating. It would be more fulfilling if TAs could teach more, and their teaching could be informed by what they had learned in the marking. A number noted that they would really enjoy teaching, but did not enjoy the TA role.
Pay for TAs has since been increased by 10%, and a new format of classes is being proposed for fourth-year/MSc teaching. This should give experienced TAs somewhat more autonomy, more opportunities for teaching/interaction with students, and a lower marking load.
6) Many had felt reluctant to approach faculty/postdocs to ask them to be their ‘mentor’ under the recently introduced mentoring scheme.
We have developed clearer guidance for mentors and mentees, and aim to make oversight of mentoring a formal responsibility of Research Groups: a faculty member and DPhil student within each Research Group will have responsibility for liaising to find suitable mentors for graduate students in the Group. The mentoring scheme will then be re-launched.
Women in both groups noted that the need to be on a succession of fixed-term contracts and to move around geographically in the early years of an academic career could be particularly off-putting, as this mitigated against becoming ‘settled’ and having a family. There were concerns about the challenges which this poses to personal life, and about opportunities for progression from ‘postdoc’ to a more stable ‘academic’ career.
This is a significant issue in international academia. The department continues to offer ‘Hooke’ and ‘Titchmarsh’ fellowships from department funds (aiming for 6-8 per year in steady state), designed to offer greater opportunities for career progression: the researcher is not tied to a particular research project and is free to conduct their own research programme. The department continues to pursue further opportunities to offer such fellowships (via philanthropy, in partnership with colleges, and via fee income from a new taught programme). All such posts are advertised as being available on a part-time or job share basis.
Staff consultations - further information to follow