More than a thousand students are starting classes at EPFL for the first time today. Together with the excitement of the new academic year, they are feeling apprehension about starting university life and pressure to learn complex subjects at a fast pace. So to help students acquire effective learning habits, EPFL has created the Learning Companion app. The app is part of EPFL’s efforts to encourage independent learning and familiarize students with scientifically proven working methods that will enable them to acquire new knowledge quickly. “The world is changing rapidly and our students need to know how to adapt,” said Roland Tormey, the coordinator of EPFL’s Teaching Support Center. The app is based on a book and a MOOC on study skills entitled “Apprendre à étudier,” both of which Tormey co-authored with Cécile Hardebolle.
Helping students change their habits
The app’s website, optimized for smartphones and tablets, is divided into two main sections. “The aim is to make people aware of their own behavior, in order to increase their metacognitive skills – in other words, so they can learn how to learn,” says Patrick Jermann, the originator of the Learning Companion concept and the executive director of EPFL’s Center for Digital Education. It should be noted that no information is collected from users without their permission.
The first section, accessible to all users, allows them to identify their learning habits. It consists of eight questionnaires to find out how they approach things like note-taking, problem-solving, planning and stress management. In the questionnaires, the users must say to what extent each statement applies to them on a scale of 1 to 7. After completing each questionnaire, Learning Companion gives the users personalized advice on how to improve their learning process and refers them to a video forming part of the “Apprendre à étudier” MOOC. “It’s a genuine teaching tool, because by completing each questionnaire, students become aware of their own learning behavior and of the fact that other techniques exist,” says Hardebolle, a teaching advisor at the Teaching Support Center.
Useful for teachers as well
The second section, which at the moment is only accessible to students taking EPFL courses, monitors their exercises. Teachers wanting to use the app ask for their exercise sessions to be included and select whether or not to allow access to the solutions. For each exercise, students are asked whether or not they successfully completed it, whether they got help, and what difficulties they encountered, such as understanding the class, analyzing the problem and calculation mistakes. “We have listed common difficulties, and users can add their own in another section,” says Tormey. At the end of the questionnaire, students receive personalized advice. And after completing a few exercise sessions, they can see individual charts showing their most frequent difficulties as well as the percentage of exercises passed, failed or not completed. Students can also see their position relative to the class, based on the average of other students’ responses.
Learning Companion is also useful for teachers. Although they cannot access students’ individual profiles, they can see charts showing the class profile. Cécile Hébert, who teaches general physics, tested the app last semester alongside three other instructors. She found it very helpful and will continue using it this year. “It allows us to identify the difficulties that students encounter with the exercises, and helps us address them. But we need a representative sample, so we must encourage students to use Learning Companion.”