Saturday 17 August 2019

University Level Physics Teaching

University Level Physics Teaching and Learning Methods: Comparison between the Developed and Developing Country Approach[1]
Dr Pradip Deb
Discipline of Medical Radiations, School of Health and Biomedical Sciences, RMIT University, Bundoora West Campus, Victoria 3083, Australia.

      Abstract. As a fundamental basis of all-natural science and technology, Physics is the key subject in many science teaching institutions around the world. Physics teaching and learning is the most important issue today – because of its complexity and fast-growing applications in many new fields. The laws of Physics are global – but teaching and learning methods of Physics are very different among countries and cultures. When I first came in Australia for higher education about 18 years ago with an undergraduate and a graduate degree in Physics from the university of Chittagong, Bangladesh, I found the Physics education system in Australia is very different to what I have experienced in Bangladesh. After having a masters degree in Medical Physics and a PhD in Nuclear Physics from two Australian universities and postdoctoral research experiences in USA, and also gaining experiences in Physics teaching in Australian universities, I compare the two different types of Physics education experiences in this paper and tried to find the answer of the question – does it all depend on the resources or internal culture of the society or both. Undergraduate and graduate level Physics syllabi, resources and teaching methods, examination and assessment systems, teacher-student relationships, and research cultures of developed and developing countries are compared and contrasted.
Keywords: Physics teaching and learning, developed and developing country, Australia, Bangladesh.


It is well-known fact that physics plays an important industrial and cultural role in all of the developed and developing countries not only by developing the old technologies, but also by creating of new technologies and industry1. There is no doubt about the importance of physics education in developing countries as Physics is the key element in the development of appropriate technology for socio-economic development1, 2.

Scientific theories are global. The theory and laws of Physics in developed countries like Australia and USA, are the same in developing countries like Bangladesh or elsewhere in the world. There should be no basic differences among “Bangladeshi Physics”, “American Physics” or “Australian Physics”. But in reality, although no differences are seen among physical laws, there are huge differences among the Physics education systems of developing and developed countries.

As a former student of one of the Bangladeshi and two Australian Universities, I have experienced the contrast between the two teaching and learning systems. I taught physics in Bangladesh for 4.5 years and have been teaching in Australian universities for last 11 years. In this paper I compare and contrast the two systems from the point of my experiences.  The main differences are in university admission systems, course contents, course delivery, assessments, research, resources and cultural issues, such as student-teacher relationship, political influences in the universities etc.

Developed and developing country physics

The way we define a country as “developed” or “developing” is mainly on the basis of economic conditions. But in the point of science and technology, all countries in the world are developing3. So, what makes the difference? The difference is in the use of physics as Professor Abdus Salam, Nobel Laureate in Physics in 1979, viewed, “in the final analysis it is basically mastery and utilization of modern science and technology that distinguishes the developing nations from the developed nations4.

Before addressing the main issues of physics teaching and learning in Bangladesh and Australia, let us look at the statistical data of the two countries.

Statistical Data

Statistical data for Australia and Bangladesh are given in Table 1. Compare to Australia (AU), Bangladesh (BD) is a large country by population (AU:BD = 1:7) , but a very tiny country in terms of area (AU:BD = 1:018733, BD:AU = 1:54)5. The number of Universities offering Physics degrees in Bangladesh is significantly lower than that in Australia (AU:BD = 3:1), but the number of Physics graduates in Bangladesh is significantly higher than the physics graduates in Australia (AU:BD = 1:2)5.

TABLE 1. Statistical data for Bangladesh and Australia related to Physics Education

Bangladesh (BD)
Australia (AU)
144,000 Sq km5
7,686,850 Sq km5
158 millions5, 6
23 millions5
GDP per capita
97, 8
257, 8
1st year PS
3rd year PS
4th year PS
*Offers Physics degrees
**Estimated - real data not available
PS - Physics Student

Beginning of Physics Education

In Bangladesh, formal physics courses start in school from class ix (Year 9). A large number of science students study physics for four years until class xii (year 12) as physics is the pre-requisite subject for admissions into medicine and engineering courses. Table 2 shows the number of students completed secondary school certificate (SSC) and higher secondary certificate (HSC) with compulsory physics course in 2017 in Bangladesh. Data were obtained from Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics (BANBEIS)7.

TABLE 2. Number of students passed SSC and HSC in 2016 with compulsory physics course in Bangladesh

Total students

After passing HSC, almost all of these students with high grades (GPA-5) sit for admission tests to get into either medicine or engineering programs. About 9,500 students get admitted into about 100 medical colleges and 10 dental colleges. About 3,000 students get admission to various engineering programs in about 20 engineering universities in Bangladesh. The rest of the science students go for the university level studies in different courses. Only a few students choose to be a physics student in the university level.

     University Admission System

After passing Higher Secondary Certificate (VCE or HSC equivalent in Australia) students apply for admission into the university. Admissions are highly competitive. Students have to pass admission tests. Different university organise different admission tests. Generally, there is one combined admission test for all science subjects. Students are selected into different subjects according to their scores in admission test and their option.

Most students get admission to a subject without knowing much about the prospects of the subject. There is almost no information available about the subject from the university departments prior to admission. There is no ‘university open day’ or ‘information desk’ for the prospective students in any university. Proper websites are yet to be available.  Most of the physics students in Bangladeshi universities are studying physics not by choice, but by chance.

University Physics Courses

All undergraduate students in the Bangladeshi universities are admitted as honours students from the beginning and known as 1st year honours, 2nd year honours, 3rd year honours and 4th year honours of the subject they have admitted to. On the other hand, in Australia students are admitted to a general 3 years BSc course, taking physics in first year and gradually majoring physics towards the third year. Then if they like and their scores permit - go for the fourth year as an honours year.
The course structures and subject packages may differ among universities, but the course contents are very similar at the undergraduate level. Table 3 shows the structure of a four-year B. Sc Honours physics course in the University of Chittagong, Bangladesh. To compare this with an equivalent Australian course, the course structure of BSc Honours in Physics of the University of Melbourne is given in Table 4. Information obtained from the School of Physics in the University of Melbourne11. It is clear that a Bangladeshi Physics honours student spending much more time in the class room compared to his/her Australian colleagues in the 4-year duration.  

TABLE 3. B. Sc Honours in Physics - structure (Department of Physics, University of Chittagong, Bangladesh)

Mathematical Physics-I, Classical Mechanics, Properties of Matter, Sound,
Heat & Thermodynamics, Mathematics-1, Chemistry-1, Statistics,
English (non credit)
35 weeks,
20 x 45 minutes lecture per week for 35 weeks,
1 x 2 hr lab for 20 weeks
Total = 565* hours
Mathematical Physics-II, Electricity & Magnetism, Electronics,
Physical Chemistry, Mathematics-II,
Computer Fundamentals and Programming
35 weeks,
20 x 45 minutes lecture per week for 35 weeks,
1 x 2 hr lab for 20 weeks
Total = 565* hrs
Nuclear Physics-I,
Optics, Quantum Mechanics-I,
Atomic & Molecular
Material Physics
35 weeks,
20 x 45 minutes lecture per week for 35 weeks,
1 x 2 hr lab for 20 weeks
Total = 565* hours
Quantum Mechanics-II,
Nuclear Physics-II,
Molecular Physics &
Reactor, Radiation &
Health Physics,
Atmospheric Physics,
Solid state physics,
Computational Physics
35 weeks,
20 x 45 minutes lecture per week for 35 weeks,
1 x 2 hr lab for 20 weeks

Total = 565* hours

2260* Hours
*Estimated time. No real data available as there are many uncertainties in the academic activities due to non-academic reasons.

More Lectures, More Learning?

Does it mean that Bangladeshi students learning more physics than Australian students by spending more time in the class room?  From my experience, the answer is NO. Why not?
 Feynman addressed this issue many years back during his visit to Brazil. He said, “One of the first things to strike me when I came to Brazil, was to see elementary school kids in bookstores, buying physics books. There are so many kids learning physics in Brazil, beginning much earlier than kids do in the United States, that it’s amazing you don’t find many physicists in Brazil - why is that? So many kids are working so hard, and nothing comes of it”12.

This statement is also true for Bangladesh. In many developing countries including Bangladesh, most of the students memorize the texts and pass the exam by just reproducing them. Definitely this is not the right way to learn physics or teach physics.

TABLE 4. B.Sc Honours in Physics - structure (School of Physics, The University of Melbourne, Australia)
1st, Sem-1
+ 3 minor  
35 hrs lecture + 27 hrs labs + 11 hr tutorial = 73 hours
+ 150 Hrs
1st, Sem-2
+ 3 minors
73 hours + 150 hrs
2nd, Sem-1
Physics-213 & 214
+ 2 minors
54 x 2 = 108 hrs
+ 100 hrs
2nd, Sem-2
+ 3 minors
54 hours
+ 150 hrs
3rd, Sem-1
2 Physics subjects
+  1 minor
42 x 2 = 84 hrs
40 hrs
3rd, Sem-2
2 physics subjects
+ 1 minor
42 x 2 = 84 hrs
40 hrs
4th, Sem-1
3 advanced physics
3 X 40 hrs = 120hrs
4th, Sem-2
Project & thesis
42 hours

1268 Hours


Teaching Methods

Is there a right way to teach physics? There is an understandable belief that if students understand the fundamental concepts clearly, it will be easier for them to understand the rest of the subject. So, how to make the fundamental concepts clear?  Johnston13 addressed this issue by showing that traditional teaching is relatively ineffective in reducing misconceptions. Surveys of over 7000 students in USA14 and 450 students in Sydney13, Australia, have shown that interactive methods of teaching is very effective to significantly improve student’s understanding.

In Bangladesh there are no interactive methods of teaching. Traditional methods of teaching are used. Lectures are delivered face to face. Chalk and blackboard are used. Average class size is 90 to 100. Lecture duration 45 minutes. Lecture notes are not available. Students have to make their own handouts by copying the blackboard (sometimes even with the mistakes).

Assessment System
The courses are mainly assessed by the combination of written, oral and practical exams at the end of the year. Students’ year-wide lab works are assessed at the end of the year by “practical exam”. For practical and oral exams, at least one examiner comes from other universities. There is no definite timeline for result publications. If a student fails in any component of the course, written, oral, or practical exam, he or she has to repeat all components of the course.

In the exams, no formula sheets are provided. Students are expected to know all the relevant formulae and some times even the numerical values of different physical constants. Students spent a lot of time memorising Physics formulae. When I first saw physics exam questions in Australia with a formula sheet attached the first thing I thought was that how much time I had to waste just memorizing these formulae.

In Australian universities, every student and staff have access to the computer network. Many courses are delivered online. Students get the lecture notes well before the lecture. They can concentrate on the topic during the lecture. The sources of information are readily available.

On the other hand, in Bangladesh, students do not have many options but following their lecturer’s will. They do not have a course-guide for choosing the right courses. Computers are still not being used for delivering lectures or communicating with students. Universities can not afford to give access to computers for all students and academics. The public universities in Bangladesh are solely dependent on public fund as their income is negligible. It will be clear if we look at the course fees in Bangladeshi universities.

Tuition Fees

The average annual tuition fee in Bangladeshi public universities for science students is about 600 Taka (US$7.50). Including all other academic fees and charges the total fees are not more than US$20.00 per year.  For a 4 year physics honours course a student has to pay total US$80.00. In Australia, the average physics honours course fee is about US$20,000.00 per year. Major universities charge even more. Recently in Bangladesh there are some private universities are opening which are expensive. But none of the private universities are offering any complete physics course.


Physics departments in Bangladeshi universities are operating with very limited resources. There are almost no modern Physics labs. Most of equipment in the labs are very old. Computer usage is very limited. Students have to use older editions of the physics texts because new editions are not available in the university libraries. There is almost no access to recent research journals. Even free online journals are out of reach – because universities yet to have their own online network systems.


The scope and opportunities of Physics research are very limited in Bangladeshi universities. Although the universities offering postgraduate physics degrees, such as MSc and MPhil, most of them are based on course works. In masters, thesis is optional. Students work on a project and write a thesis. After passing the exam, most of the students do not do any further research at all. There is very limited or no research grants available from the government. Academic promotions are not based on research publications. Academics spend most of their time by just teaching.

Student-Teacher Relationship

Unlike Australia, there is a large communication gap between teachers and students in Bangladesh. In Australia, the students’ satisfaction is highly valued. But in Bangladesh that is not the case. Students’ opinions about a course are never counted. There is no student evaluation survey about lecture materials or lecturers.


Comparing with the university level Physics education in Australia, it is clear that Bangladeshi Physics education needs to be improved in many ways. With the very limited resources the situation is improving slowly. Cooperation from International Physics Forums is needed.


1                      A. M. Awobode, Physica Scripta T97, 17 (2002).
2                      M. Alport and E. C. Zingu, Physica Scripta T97, 11 (2002).
3                      E. Lillethun, Physica Scripta T23, 326 (1988).
4                      H. Hassan and C. H. Lai eds., Ideals and Realities (World Scientific, Singapore, 1984).
5            , 2017
6            , 2017.
7            , 2017.
8            , 2017.
9                      P. Jennings, J. d. Laeter, M. Zadnik, and B. Lloyd, Australian Physics 45, 166 (2008).
10                    S. Chakraborty (private communication).
11          , 2017.
12                    R. P. Feynman, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Norton & Company, New York, 1985).
13                    I. Johnston, CAL-laborate October, 10 (2000).
14                    R. R. Hake, American Journal of Physics 66, 64 (1998).

[1] A similar paper was first presented by the author in the International Conference on Physics Education ICPE-2009 in Bangkok, ,Thailand, and published in the American Institute of Physics Conference Proceedings CP1263 in 2010.


  1. Read the article and started feeling your contribution to improve the situation of Physics study in Bangladesh.

    1. Thank you for reading the article. I hope the situation will be better soon.


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