Teaching Matters

Professor Alan Murray - School of Engineering

Professor Alan Murray talks about his approach to learning and teaching.

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Professor Alan Murray – Chair of Neural Electronics and Assistant Principal Academic Support, School of Engineering

“First of all I want to get across understanding obviously, but I also want to get across my sort of passionate interest for the subject itself.

At the moment I'm teaching primarily in first year, which is introductory electronics, and in third year something called electromagnetism, which is the stuff of life. It's what makes life and x-rays and explains them - the work of James Clerk Maxwell. That is difficult to get your head around - once you get your head around it, it's beautiful stuff. So I want to get across my passion for that.

I try to do that just by being excited because I am excited by the engineering and science there, but I also try to use analogy because some of the topics and some of the concepts are actually quite difficult to get your head around. And if you're a perfect mathematician you can understand the mathematics just by looking at it. If you're not, I find analogy helps a great deal.

So between amplifiers I use analogies of cars, so for example if an amplifier is able to change its output quickly, that's a Ferrari. If an amplifier can't change its output quickly, it will get to the same output eventually, but not quickly, then it's a Ford Fiesta. So I use simple analogies to try to get across the concept, and then of course turn to the mathematics.”

Harry Hurst – Mechanical & Electrical Engineering

“I like the way he asks us questions and put it to us and doesn't necessarily just tell us exactly what we need to know but he gets us to work out - he gets us to learn by asking questions.”

Professor Alan Murray 

“The other tools I use are - I use Top Hat a lot.”

Jake Greensheilds – 3rd Year, Informatics & Electrical Engineering

“Top Hat is actually something that I was just introduced to taking this course. I had no idea what it was. Basically what it is, it allows you to pull out your phone and the professor will ask a question and it'll pop the question up on the slide, and it allows the students to answer the question anonymously, to other students at least, and it allows the professor to see, to gain an understanding of where the students are in the course.

So if all the students are getting the answer wrong, then the professor knows that they're not doing a good enough job of explaining the material properly, or they missed something when explaining.

And so it's a very good way to get students to engage and to allow lectures to see what point their students are at.”

Professor Alan Murray

“It also gives something which I hadn't anticipated, that if I ask a question and fifty percent of the students get it right, fifty percent get it wrong, then the fifty percent who got it wrong know that they're not alone, and I know that they're not alone.

So it's not only useful to me in terms of what to do next, it's also useful in terms of the students being comfortable with not knowing stuff and learning that stuff in the lecture, so it takes away a lot of the fear. It takes away possibly feeling of stigma that you don't understand something.”

Melanie Jozefowski – 3rd Year, Electrical Engineering

“I like the way he teaches - it's very like practical and he talks in a way that's very simple but comprehensive.

No one's ever played guitar in any of my classes so that was pretty cool.”

Professor Alan Murray

“Yes, there is a gimmick factor, and I wouldn't make any apologies for a gimmick factor. I think putting something in which causes students to remember that lecture and the material in that lecture is no bad thing.

In fact, I can think of an example when I was a lot younger and there was an even more tricky bit of mathematics in the course which involved something called Stokes theorem for anyone who is listening. It involved dividing a curved surface, for example my hand is a curved surface, dividing that into a series of squares and rectangles in order to perform an integration. So I used to give for that part of that lecture with a fishnet stocking over my head. Whether it enhanced their learning I don't know, but they certainly remembered the lecture where the funny wee man put a fishnet stocking on his head.

What I do now is less gimmicky, so bringing the guitar in, yes, it is for fun, it's a good laugh, I can make a noise, it pleased my ego, but it also does get across some important points about amplification, distortion, positive feedback - all of which have particular meanings to the public, but have even more particular meanings to engineers.

So it's important from that point of view, and the most gimmicky I think I do now is in third year - again, it's to explain a piece of mathematics called a surface integral. The really good mathematical students, those whose maths is better than mine, and there's lots of them, they understand it without gimmicks, without analogy. Other students need something to hang on to, so the analogy of rain hitting an umbrella, and if the umbrella's vertical, lots of rain hits it, and if the umbrella's over to one side, less rain hits and you get wet.

That's actually quite a rich analogy for a piece of quite tricky mathematics, so it does help some of the students to understand it, as it helps me to understand it. But it also has a gimmick that they remember again when the funny wee man brought in the umbrella and waved it about in front of us, or sometimes forgot it and had to borrow an umbrella from one of the class.

So these things I think stick in your memory, and I know I remember funny things lecturers did when I was a student, and they locked that bit of material into my head. So I make no apology for slight gimmickry, but it's always with a purpose.”


“You're an exchange student. Did the quality of teaching at Edinburgh - was that something you knew in advance? Was that part of the reason you choose to come to here?”

Melanie Jozefowski – 3rd Year, Electrical Engineering

“No, I chose here for location, but I think it's definitely like, it's pretty good. The classes are heaps smaller here, so I feel like you get a lot more attention, and the lectures make an effort to have surgeries after classes, which is really good.”

Professor Alan Murray

“Even now I still view myself as primarily someone who teaches students. That's why I took this job, it's not why I got the job I don't think, but it's why I took it.

Now my position is that fifty percent of my salary is actually paid by research contract, which is looking at putting silicon chips inside cancer tumours to measure the status of the tumour to administer better radiotherapy in a nutshell. So that's fifty percent of my time.

That's not instead of or make me less passionate about my teaching. In fact, in research what I'm doing is I'm learning, so it connects me to the learning process again. And although my research doesn't feed directly into my teaching, I would hope that some of the research attitudes that I bring from my research and from working with other research, I can also bring into the classroom and cause students to think in a research-led way.

At the end of lecture like the one you saw, I hope I'm sending students out feeling they've had fun. It was worth being with me for 50 minutes, and it actually wasn't boring. I'd also like them to feel that they've learned some stuff, and more importantly, they've not learned some stuff and they want to learn more. So I'd like to send them out with knowledge that they'll hopefully build on by performing tutorials, by using the tools I've given them for simulation.

And I hope I've sent them out looking forward to what's coming next and wanting to know more than just what they need to pass the exam.”

Jake Greensheilds – 3rd Year, Informatics & Electrical Engineering

“This is my first time in Scotland. It's been an absolutely amazing experience. The classes have been phenomenal, the students, the faculty - everything has just been so great.

And the city itself is absolutely amazing. I mean this building right here is probably older than America which is something just crazy if you think about it.

Yeah, I absolutely love Edinburgh and anyone that's thinking about studying here should definitely do it.”