Friday, November 21, 2008

Report on the Innovative Teaching Day at Reykjavik University held on 14 August 2008

These notes have been lying in my folders since last August. I am posting them here just in case they may be of interest to some of my two readers, with apologies for the low-tech embedding of URLs in the running text.

On 14 August 2008, Reykjavik University held one of its Innovative Teaching Days for 2008. The programme featured two invited presentations by two academics from MIT: Janet Rankin (, associate director for teaching initiatives at the Teaching and Learning Lab at MIT (, and Donald Sadoway (, who is John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry at MIT and is known as a star teacher within that institution. Overall, the establishment and the level of activity of the Teaching and Learning Lab at MIT indicate how important quality teaching is considered by that top-notch university.

The first presentation was delivered by Janet Rankin, who started by asking the question:

"What do we know about student learning and how can it inform our teaching?"

Janet Ranking stressed that every course/lecture must have a road map (a clear outline) and well defined objectives (clear results). She also said that the increasing impact of cognitive learning theories on teaching is producing a shift towards student-centred, active learning.

Message 1: When teaching try to raise the students' awareness of themselves as learners.

Message 2: When planning a course and each of its components, consider the learning objectives for your students.

Ask yourself: "What promotes learning by the students?" Typical answers are:
It is also important "to teach for transfer", i.e., teach students in such a way that they can apply what they have learned in one class in another. This can be achieved by teaching in a variety of contexts and by providing students as many examples of applications as possible. One should try to use a varied collection of examples to clarify concepts, and it is advantageous to provide examples from different disciplines. Keep always in mind that learning is context dependent.

Involve the students in peer instruction. This involves making them solve problems, listen critically to solutions by their peers, evaluate the solutions, and argue about their appropriateness.

A useful tip: After each lecture/session make the student write down on a card the most confusing aspect of the meeting. Use the answers to reflect on what you can do to improve.

See this booklet for more information: Janet Rankin also recommended this book.

The second talk of the day was delivered by Donald Sadoway, who has been professor at MIT since 1992. (Personal comment: For what it's worth I have to say that this was one of the most entertaining presentations about any topic I have heard in my career. I have no doubt that he is indeed the star teacher the announcement claimed he was and that students flock to his classes in large numbers.)

Donald Sadoway's mission in teaching is to invigorate engineering education because it is typically boring! He stated right at the beginning that we need to make universities a better environment for teachers. We need to give our students the foundations that they will need to be successful in our future world that will be dominated by bio, nano and info sciences. (Ask yourself: How much of these foundational sciences do our students see in our degree courses right now?)

As a running example, Donald Sadoway mentioned his experience with the course 3.091 at MIT. This course
  • lays the foundation for more chemistry,
  • prepares students for their majors, and
  • provides scientific and technical literacy.
For many students, this is the only chemistry course they will take. Before he took over, this was a troublesome course. Now, there are 600 students taking it on average. His approach in planning the course can be summarized as follows.
  • When planning a course, begin with a clean slate. If you start by looking at what was there before or at a typical book, you will soon realize that there is too much material to be covered.
  • Less is actually better!
  • When selecting the material to be covered in the course, divide it into three categories (of decreasing order of importance):
    • What should the students recall from the course on their death bed?
    • What knowledge would be useful, but is not vital?
    • And what would be knowledge from the course they might recite at a cocktail party to show they have some advanced knowledge?

To evaluate student performance in the course and keep track of student progress, Donald Sadoway uses weekly 10-minute quizzes, monthly tests (with one A4 aid sheet) and a final exam, which he calls a celebration for final festival. The final celebration gives the student time to reflect on what they have learned and is an extra opportunity for improving their learning skills and mastery of the material. The final celebration should be a suitably challenging learning experience since, as Sadoway put it, "no pressure, no diamonds".

Each concept in the course is illustrated by suitable examples providing context. (See above.) Sadoway always offers references to history of science, music, arts and whatever else provides context and makes the material entertaining and catchy. He also uses parts of the lectures to touch upon the theme "chemistry and the world around us".

Note that the course has no laboratory component since there is no lab that can hold 600 students. To address this "shortcoming", Sadoway asked himself: "So, what is important?" The answer he came up with is:
  • Ethics,
  • Data analysis,
  • Communication, and
  • Teamwork.
The result was the development of a virtual lab. There is not need of physical contact during the "lab classes".

He encourages students to read the classics, and use that the university or departmental library to go back to the articles that shaped our understanding of a field. He also runs themes within a course. Examples of such themes are:
  • Women in science (studies of abuse),
  • History, society and solid state chemistry (he proposed a course on this topic, but his proposal died because the faculty of history did not want to give students credits for the course since it was taught by an engineer and was considered an engineering class).
His firm belief in making students go to the primary sources led him to develop the course "3.093 Information Exploration: Becoming a Savvy Scholar". See

He said that he has reached the following conclusion:

"I'll do anything I want in that lecture room provided it is in good taste."

After all, if I may quote him again,

"Tenure means never say 'I am sorry'."

Sadoway said that a good university education should give our students a methodology for developing solutions to problems. On the other had, a great university education should provide them with a methodology for developing methodologies!

You can hear Sadoway present this course on YouTube at

and you can watch him deliver his first lecture in the course at

You can also read about Sadoway's involvement in the "Picturing to Learn" programme at MIT at

More on the programme is available at


I encourage you to look at the short movie "Teaching Teaching & Understanding Understanding" conceived and directed by my Danish colleague Claus Brabrand. Info on the movie, which describes John Biggs' constructive alignment, is available at When I had a brief stint as head of the Computer Science Department at RU, I ordered 20 copies of the DVD and encouraged my colleagues to watch it and pay heed to its message. I encourage your to buy a copy of the DVD, which can also be viewed on YouTube in low quality format.

Aalborg University is a world leader in problem-based learning. You can read about problem-based learning at Aalborg University, with special emphasis on its implementation in engineering education, at Information on the European Consortium of Innovative Universities, of which Aalborg is a member, is at

Monday, November 17, 2008

Call for Nominations: Gödel Prize 2009

The Call for Nominations for the 2009 Gödel Prize has been posted (see this pdf file). Nominations for the award should be submitted to the Award Committee Chair, Shafi Goldwasser. The deadline for nominations is January 31st, 2009.

Do nominate your favourite papers, and recall that any research paper, or series of papers, by a single author or by a team of authors is deemed eligible if the paper was published in a recognized refereed journal before the nomination, but the main results were not published (in either preliminary or final form) in a journal or conference proceedings before January 1st, 1995.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Italian Academics On Strike Today

As I write, many Italian academics and university students are gathered in Rome to protest against the cuts to the Italian university system proposed by the Italian government. (The estimate is that 100,000 people will take part in the protest, despite the rainy weather.) See, e.g., here and here for accounts of the developments leading to the strike in English. A live report (in Italian) can be found here. (The protesters have been quite creative, as the banner on this photo indicates. The text on the banner can roughly be translated thus: "Berlusconi, research is the only reason why you still have hair." :-))

I wish my colleagues in Italy the best of luck in their protests. It is high time that Italian governments of all denominations understand that cutting on education and research is the surest recipe for offering a bleak future to my country.

However, I often feel that Italian academia has done itself no favours by contributing to the creation of a system that is highly self-referential and insular. (Italy imports very few students, researchers and lecturers from abroad, and the word "abroad" can often truthfully be interpreted as meaning "coming from a different institution.") The average Italian seems to believe that Italian academia is tainted by scandals, nepotism, the so-called "baronie", and that Italian academics are lazy people who only collect their salaries while producing bad teaching and little or no research. They are not aware of the existence of a large community of highly dedicated, motivated and capable academics who sweat blood to reach peaks of excellence within a system that works against them, rather than for them, and with low salaries. Excellence is often not nurtured in my home country, alas.

It is time for decisive action, I feel. Italian academia needs to regain the trust of the Italian people and give hope to the many young Italian researchers who see no future for them in science. Get independent panels of top-class, expert international evaluators to evaluate all the departments and universities in Italy both in teaching and research. The result of such an evaluation should be used to allocate a sizable share, say 30-40%, of the funding to the departments and universities. Only then, I believe, we will see scientific merit taking centre stage in the evaluation of applicants for positions and a leaner hiring system that will offer Italy's young scientists regular job opportunities.

Of course, the evaluation should be repeated at regular intervals.

Addendum: People interested in assessments might find it worthwhile to read the document
Education at a Glance 2008 OECD Briefing Note For Italy.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Complexity Of Deciding Bisimilarity Over Finite Labelled Transition Systems

A fairly classic result from the concurrency-theory literature with a complexity-theoretic flavour is a theorem by José L. Balcázar, Joaquim Gabarró and Miklos Santha to the effect that checking various forms of bisimilarity (viz., strong, weak (aka observational equivalence) and rooted weak bisimilarity (aka observational congruence)) over finite labelled transition systems is P-complete. This theorem holds true even over acyclic labelled transition systems over a one-letter alphabet.

The original journal paper appeared in Formal Aspects of Computing in 1992. (See here for the BiBTeX reference. I am not aware of a version of it that is available on line.) It is one of those papers that I have been citing for a while, but whose result I had never studied in great detail despite meaning to do so.

At long last, I pulled myself together, read the fine print of the paper, and, jointly with Anna Ingolfsdottir, decided to pen down a write-up of the ideas in the proof of the main result in that work. We made the piece available from the web page for our book as supplementary reading material; see Deciding Bisimilarity over Finite Labelled Transition Systems is P-complete.

The note is written in the same pedagogical style as the textbook it accompanies, and we plan to reuse it as part of an ongoing project we expect to complete by the end of the year. We trust that it is suitable for classroom use as well as for self study, and we hope that it will make another classic result from concurrency theory accessible to mature BSc and MSc students.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

EATCS Award 2009: Call for Nominations

The official call for nominations for the EATCS award for 2009 is now available. (See here.) The call will also appear in the October edition of the Bulletin of the EATCS, and on the web site of the EATCS.

The EATCS Award is awarded in recognition of a distinguished career in theoretical computer science.

Please publicize the call for nominations amongst your colleagues and within your institution, and consider sending a nomination yourself. There are many worthy candidates for the prize within our community, but they need to be nominated by someone :-)