The ‘Smart Learning Space’ Programme -since 2014

EPFL as a Smart Learning Space

There is a growing consensus in higher education that we should be as evidence-informed in teaching science and engineering as we would be in practicing these disciplines. But while educational research can provide us with broad directions, to apply these findings in a specific context also requires research and development work.

Alongside having educators who need educational data, we also have students who need to learn to collect such data. The “How People Learn” course is taught to around 60 EPFL master’s students each year and uses educational research to allow students to better understand the social and psychological processes of learning. Students complete research projects in the spring semester which are designed to generate data which addresses issues or concerns of interest to teachers and learners.

This approach is designed to have a built-in virtuous cycle: student research generates data which can improve teaching and learning experiences in EPFL while at the same time students get to learn to conduct high quality social scientific research. This is called the Smart Learning Space programme and makes all of EPFL into a laboratory for R&D on teaching quality improvement.

Examples of Smart Learning Space Projects

Many of the studies showing the benefits of student discussions in lectures (called ‘peer instruction’) have been completed in the US where, arguably, student discussion is a greater part of the culture than in European universities. This study looked at student learning in Chemistry lectures in EPFL and compared student discussion-based methods with more traditional approaches. It shows a notable increase in student learning using peer instruction.

This meta-analysis of quantitative studies of moral reasoning in engineering education provides benchmarks against which engineering students moral reasoning can be assessed. Worryingly, it suggests that engineering education seems to have less of a positive impact on moral reasoning than comparable disciplines like computer science.

This study examined the examination scripts of 136 first-year students with a view to identifying the most common errors and misconceptions that students make while learning classical mechanics. It found that students only attempted, on average, two-thirds of questions, and that 79% of errors were focused on physics content rather than on mathematical reasoning. This suggest mathematical weakness is not the principal reason for students failing physics.

International studies have identified that whether a student tries to understand course material or simply tries to learn it by heart for the exam depends, in part, on the student’s perception of their workload. This study translated an existing psychometric test into French and tested the factor structure to validate the test in this new context. It found that first-year students who felt under stress due to workload were more likely to focus on learning by heart rather than on understanding.

Metacognition – thinking about your own thinking or learning – is a psychological trait that is linked to academic success. This study developed French language versions of two psychometric tests designed to assess student reflection on their own thinking. A majority of students appeared weak on monitoring and checking what they are doing when working. However, students were not particularly aware of this weakness.

This study compares student attainment in first semester General Physics with their attainment on an internationally recognized psychometric test (the Force Concept Inventory). This allowed a number of first-year teachers to assess if their own exams were effectively testing for conceptual understanding of physics and to benchmark their students’ attainment against international norms.

One proposed benefit of MOOCs is that they allow considerable flexibility in organizing learning. At the same time, there is evidence that learning is associated with conscientious behaviour, especially planning, self-discipline and organization. This study explored the impact of conscientious behaviour in a MOOC on student completion, drawing on data from 27,993 students on a MOOC course.