How do you get from Mars to Earth? Kimmo Tuominen replaced lectures with problem-solving in small groups

Kimmo Tuominen’s courses in theoretical physics consist of case exercises and small group work. According to the prize-winning teacher, the ability to solve problems is the most important result of teaching.

The decision to give up lectures was made a few years ago. Assembling in the lecture room, the students merely adopted an attitude of listening, making it almost impossible to conduct peer-to-peer discussion.

“Relinquishing lectures was the boldest step. It was liberating for both myself and the students,” says Kimmo Tuominen, a prize-winning university lecturer.

In place of lectures, a more efficient and fit-for-purpose way of implementing courses was introduced. Case exercises are discussed in smaller groups, and over the duration of the courses each student assesses their performance in terms of weekly learning outcomes. No final examinations are held, as the grade is based on overall performance.

Problem-solving as the key lesson

Tuominen is docent of theoretical physics and director of the English-language Master’s Programme in Theoretical and Computational Methods. Among other things, he teaches classical mechanics and quantum field theory as well as investigates the mystery of dark matter.

“I study dark matter particle candidates included in particle physics models and the potential of observing them. There are a range of experiments aimed at identifying dark matter interacting directly with ordinary matter. We are supporting them by making calculations of what, potentially, to expect.”

This autumn, Tuominen has been inspired by his course to focus on the three-body problem. While the two-body problem can be solved analytically, the three-body problem cannot. You have to make simplifications or attempt to solve it numerically.

“After a long break, I turned my attention to the problem and ended up carrying out a lot of calculations by myself before presenting them to my students.”

A considerable amount of analysis is carried out in calculations associated with theoretical physics, as the vast majority of interesting problems have no exact solution.

“It's part of your expertise to be able to simplify the key variables of a given problem and the principles linking them, as well as to get something out of the behaviour of that system.”

Tuominen thinks different student generations are largely alike. Long experience shows which concepts are particularly difficult or familiar from before.

“Problem-solving is key. Students should be able to break up the topic into its defining elements and model it using a theoretical model that includes factors central to the phenomenon. This makes it possible to quantify what happens and why.”

Collaborative consideration of assignments in small groups

Tuominen designs topical assignments for his courses, finding inspiration for his case exercises from, for example, research or everyday occurrences, such as coffee table discussions.

“A certain topic may come up when conversing with colleagues, to be knocked about during the morning coffee break. That easily plants the seed of a thought, which then turns into an exercise.”

At times, problems are picked out from sci-fi television series or films.

“Among the topics we’ve discussed with students is how Mark Watney, the protagonist in the film The Martian [a sci-fi film where an astronaut lost in space is trying to get back to Earth], can be brought back home from Mars as well as how well the time scales presented in the film match with reality.”

Support provided by the Teachers’ Academy, a network of top-level teachers at the University of Helsinki, also plays a key role when Tuominen is considering how to update his teaching.

The contact instruction provided by Tuominen mainly involves work in small groups. With meetings transferred online due to the coronavirus pandemic, the concept was easily adaptable to remote teaching.

“We've been using the Zoom video conferencing service, in addition to which we aim to use channels familiar to students, such as the messaging application Telegram. Students are free to join Zoom rooms that are continuously open to working on assignments together.”

Based on the feedback given to Tuominen, students like working in small groups. Contact teaching time is spent on looking into the problems collaboratively in groups of a few students as well as under the direction of the teacher.

“We go over concepts and consider the best method,” Tuominen sums up.

Teachers’ work mostly involves content production

Tuominen believes university teaching must be up to date. For instance, you have to be able to offer learning environments suitable for general upper secondary school pupils used to electronic learning environments, but always first making sure they are fit for purpose. Moreover, university teaching should be sufficiently demanding.

“You shouldn’t provide a learning environment purely because it exists. Content production has to play a key role. Teaching mostly involves content production, which requires skills and precision for creating high-quality materials that are challenging enough.”

Who was the last person from whom Tuominen himself learned something?

“Researchers are pioneers of continuous learning, and I do indeed learn something new every week from my colleagues, among others. My junior colleagues are often focused on the relevant parameters especially in terms of numerical calculations, while the intuition of my senior colleagues is more advanced. They know what the results should be and how they can be achieved.”

According to Tuominen, the entire field of learning is constantly evolving, and students should be at its centre.

“After graduation, they become part of the changing world, and naturally the goal is to make sure they leave equipped with the skills needed in professional life.”

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