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MOOC for teaching assistants draws on EPFL student data

© Alain Herzog

© Alain Herzog

Doctoral teaching assistants play a critical role in many EPFL courses, but they often lack the time and resources to build their teaching skills. A new MOOC aims to meet this need using education data gathered by – and from – EPFL students.

The Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) “Foundations of Teaching Science and Engineering” is the first of its kind available to EPFL doctoral assistants, and the first EPFL MOOC on teaching. It’s also unique because it uses real data gathered from undergraduate classes across EPFL’s eight faculties and colleges by students in the master’s level course, How People Learn.

“All the generations are there: The data are collected from the bachelor’s students by the master's students, and now we are using the data to train doctoral assistants in teaching,” summarizes Roland Tormey, coordinator of EPFL’s Teaching Support Centre. Tormey is a co-instructor of the new MOOC, along with Cécile Hardebolle and Ingrid Le Duc. He also teaches How People Learn in the College of Humanities Social and Human Sciences (SHS) program.

Targeting the moment of learning

According to Tormey, people often assume that professors do all the teaching, without considering the crucial role that doctoral teaching assistants play in many undergraduate classrooms. After a lecture, students may be assigned exercises or group work under the supervision of a doctoral assistant – and this is often the time when active information processing occurs.

“Doctoral assistants play a hugely important role in education, because they are there when the rubber hits the road, at the moment of learning. They are there when students are confronted with applying concepts, but very often they don't have pedagogical training and don't have a lot of time to be attending workshops,” he says.

“We wanted to use a MOOC to give doctoral assistants adequate support, because teaching is often a big part of their lives, and they want to do what they do well.”

Evidence-informed teaching

“Foundations of Teaching Science and Engineering” aims to help participants develop “evidence-informed teaching methods” for quantitative and open-ended problem-solving, as well as scientific experimentation. The course is based on international literature, and informed by local case studies drawn from student projects carried out as part of the SHS course.

“One of the most important skills that EPFL wants its students to learn is the ability to solve previously unseen quantitative problems. We've collected a lot of data on how students try to solve those problems and the difficulties they have, so we use the [SHS case studies] to illustrate why particular approaches to teaching are more effective than others,” Tormey explains.

The 10-week, self-paced MOOC also covers recent research in science and engineering education, how to manage learning practice in a classroom, best practices for facilitating group projects, as well as fair and reliable learning assessment.

Author: Celia Luterbacher