Teaching hydrology

I’m reading Richard Dawkins’ book An appetite for wonder.  In it, he writes about the tutorial system at Oxford.  As a senior undergraduate, his weekly tutorial assignments included:

  • Reading a PhD thesis and writing something similar to an examiner’s report, reviewing the history of the field in which the thesis was written, proposing follow up research and discussing the theoretical and philosophical issues raised by the thesis.
  • Becoming, close-to, a world expert in some topic by reading theses, papers, and books and writing an essay on a topic selected by his tutor.

Then there was a one hour one-on-one session with a tutor, discussing and defending his essay.

Image doing something like that with undergraduates in hydrology.  In one week, a student could become close to the world expert in something like the rational method, its history, applications, limitations and requirements for further research.  Or, they could cover hydrologic routing, or some aspect of flood frequency analysis.

At a university, where I taught, our students were taking four units in disparate fields, working part-time, and taking tutorials with 20 or more colleagues.  Hydrology was covered in, perhaps 2 units in a few lectures and a few tutorials.  The teaching was commendably broad but so shallow in comparison with that described by Dawkins.

The common feedback from students was that they did not get sufficient feedback.  How would it be if they had an hour, one-on-one with a tutor to defend and discuss their written work, every week?

Teaching engineering hydrology is a particular challenge.  At a minimum you would like graduates to be able to apply the current methods, work through the steps and come up with a defensible design.  But it would be nice if they could do more.  Ideally, graduates should be able to criticise the current methods, understand the limitations, know when they should be used and when other approaches are better and be able to identify where research is required.  I remember setting an exam question once where I asked students to follow a particular procedure and come up with an answer.  They generally did well.  Next I asked the circumstances when the procedure should be used and when it was not appropriate.  The answers were poor.  Clearly my teaching was lacking.  They had learned to follow standard procedures but not much about when they should be used or when they wouldn’t work.

There are a lot of new tools available with the new version of Australian Rainfall and Runoff.  We need to help the next crop of hydrologists to learn and use these new methods, but we also need to be clear about their limitations.  There is some good material on approaches and limitations in ARR Book 1, Section 3, and in the ‘limitations’ tab of regional flood frequency tool.   The limitations of the recommended approaches to flood frequency analysis are also important.


Dawkins, R. (2001) Evolution in biology tutoring? In: Palfreyman, D. (Ed) The Oxford Tutorial: ‘Thanks you taught me how to think’.  Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies.  Second edition (link).  Dawkins’ essays starts on page 36.

Dawkins, R. (2013) An appetite for wonder: the making of a scientist.  Bantam Press.  www.richarddawkins.net/afw (link).

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