Raising the first-year pass rate without compromising on standards

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© Alain Herzog/2022 EPFL

© Alain Herzog/2022 EPFL

As the new academic year kicks into gear, we spoke to Simone Deparis, the executive director of EPFL’s Propedeutic Center (CePro), which is aiming to raise the first-year pass rate (currently 51.5%) without lowering standards.

For as long as he can remember, Simone Deparis has enjoyed sharing his knowledge and observing those lightbulb moments when students finally connect the dots. Back in high school, he organized study sessions with his friends. Now, he supervises PhD research and teaches analysis to students at EPFL. "Mathematics is an elegant discipline, but not everyone sees it that way," he explains. "My goal is to try to kindle interest in this much-maligned but eminently accessible subject." Deparis, who picked up the 2018 Credit Suisse Award for Best Teaching for introducing a flipped classroom approach in an algebra class , is now the executive director of EPFL’s Propedeutic Center (CePro), which provides support to first-year students and the staff who teach them (read the box below).

EPFL already has 30 different centers. What does the Propedeutic Center (CePro) add to the mix?

Initially, CePro was set up to coordinate the work of teaching assistants and organize exercise sessions for the big first-year classes. Now our mandate is much broader. We’re exploring what we can do to help students pass the first year, but without lowering the standards. The aim isn’t to keep the number of second-year students constant, but rather to ensure that everyone who’s capable and motivated enough makes it through.

What are the main challenges facing first-year students?

They have to learn to work independently and organize their schedule, striking the right balance between theory, exercises and free time. There are no exams in the first three months, so some students struggle to find a pace that works for them and keeps them on track. That’s why, this year, we’ll be asking them to submit at least three exercises. The feedback will show them how they’re progressing.

What kind of support are you offering?

To help students get organized, we’ve developed Warm-up for EPFL , a massive open online course (MOOC) they follow at the start of the semester to brush up on key mathematical concepts. We’ve also created a Moodle site with comprehensive information about the core first-year classes, and we’re encouraging teachers to direct students to the Learning to learn MOOC and the Learning Companion platform.

We’ve also found that teaching and assessment methods affect first-year pass rates. For instance, research into the flipped classroom format found that this approach was more inclusive. This conclusion came as a welcome surprise and got me thinking about what else we could do to support our students.



For example, we’ve found that adding 30 minutes to the exam, without changing the wording or number of questions, reduces stress. This measure makes little difference to the performance of students with a strong physics and math background. But, given more time, other students score almost an entire grade point higher.



Do you have any ideas in mind?

I’m also part of a working group focusing on the first year. One of the things we’re examining is the factors that affect the pass rate. For example, we’ve found that adding 30 minutes to the exam, without changing the wording or number of questions, reduces stress. This measure makes little difference to the performance of students with a strong physics and math background. But, given more time, other students score almost an entire grade point higher. We still need to confirm whether these findings hold true for the June exam session, but we’ve already decided to repeat the measure for the new academic year.

We’ve also worked with the Teaching Support Center (CAPE) to develop a revised and expanded six-hour course for student assistants, who play a key role in supporting first-year students. The program, which is delivered in part by doctoral assistants, includes role-plays and a section explaining how to identify harassment and what to do about it as a witness or victim. First-year student assistants are paid for the time they spend taking the course.

What projects does CePro have in the pipeline for the new academic year?

We’ve introduced a lot of new measures and initiatives, so assessing and consolidating them are our priority for this year. Teaching staff are feeling the strain as the first-year cohort grows ever larger. At CePro, one of our main jobs is to support teachers and take as much of the pressure off their shoulders as we can.

How does CePro benefit you as a teacher?

The first year is essential, as it determines the success of the Bachelor’s degree and the "step" is particularly high. It’s hard for them, but it’s also hard for teachers because the pedagogy side is so important. CePro benefits us in two ways: in addition to providing logistical support, the center gives the teachers of first-year classes a chance to connect, swap ideas and share advice. That’s especially important for young teachers.

"In addition to providing logistical support, the CePro gives the teachers of first-year classes a chance to connect"


Nicolas Grandjean , a first-year physics professor, shares his vision of CePro below and details its role for teachers of first-year classes.

How does CePro benefit you as a teacher?

The first year is essential, as it determines the success of the Bachelor’s degree and the "step" is particularly high. It’s hard for them, but it’s also hard for teachers because the pedagogy side is so important. CePro benefits us in two ways: in addition to providing logistical support, the center gives the teachers of first-year classes a chance to connect, swap ideas and share advice. That’s especially important for young teachers.

In practical terms, what support did you get from CePro teaching first-year physics?

Help with the exams, including logistical support with the ANS platform to put the exams online, grade them online and so on. Also, input on designing and harmonising the exams themselves. Thanks to the CePro team’s support, we’ve become better at coordinating the exam-creation process and maintaining a uniform standard. In the past, each section handled these matters internally. But CePro, with the help of Sylvain Bréchet, educational referent, has highlighted the importance of smoother communication and really improved the process.

We’ve received help from the center in other areas, too. For instance, we’ve introduced new support sessions in analysis, algebra, physics and computer science, which run Monday through Thursday between 5:30 pm and 7 pm. The CePro team also helps to recruit doctoral assistants, which was always a challenge.

Looking back on this first year, what difference do you think CePro has made?

Before the launch, there were some concerns that CePro would take the final say on course content, but that hasn’t been the case at all. The center is there to support EPFL sections and help us use the resources at our disposal more effectively and efficiently. By bringing the teachers of first-year students together, it has also fostered a shared approach among them.

What’s more, I’d say that CePro has gotten us thinking about what we expect from our core classes and how we select future engineers. Every student who joins EPFL has a chance to succeed and we must give it to them. has a chance to succeed and we must give it to them. I’m thinking, for example, of young people who are highly creative thinkers but might lack the technical background of some of their peers. It’s our duty, as teachers of first-year students, to work with this diversity.

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