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Technische Universiteit Eindhoven (TU/e)
The Eindhoven University of Technology is an internationally renowned Dutch institution with strong ties with industry. TU/e offers academic education driven by fundamental and applied research. According to Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021, TU/e is one of the top 200 universities in the world and #82 in Europe.
Leon Rosseau is a PhD student and part of the Process Intensification research group. He teaches Physical Transport Phenomena at the Chemical Engineering and Chemistry Department at TU/e.
Physical Transport Phenomena is an introductory physics course for Chemical Engineering and has the reputation of being one of the hardest in the whole bachelor’s.
This subject has a relatively low passing grade on the first try. Among its obstacles for students, there are three main elements:
It contains a significant mathematical component.
Problems are long. Solving a question can take around 30-60 minutes and multiple pages of derivations.
To pass this subject, students need to use the taught methodology, and the final test consists of an open-book exam. This book has 200 pages, and often, students don’t know how to start solving a problem. Therefore, TU/e teachers need to ensure students learn this methodology.
On top of that, before implementing Bolster Academy, teaching Physical Transport Phenomena presented three main challenges:
This course lasts four consecutive hours. While the professor gave the lectures, Leon Rosseau managed the self-study sessions where students had to do the exercises. Moreover, the course was fully online during the corona period, and teachers found it difficult to keep students engaged for four hours straight. Students’ feedback confirmed it was very tough to hold their attention during all this time and requested more flexibility.
Tutors help students with the exercises, but they can’t be available 24/7. Additionally, many students are reluctant to ask for help. Considering that a digital system could guide them and lower the barrier to asking questions, they thought of an online platform as a solution.
Many people are doing resits, and the total number of students is very high, over 170. To maintain the tutor-per-student ratio, TU/e needs 6 or 7 tutors. Although they need to supply all these tutors in case all the students show up, in reality, the student motivation is not high, and only 50 students attend the class. This situation led to an excess of tutors who didn’t have enough work.
To solve these challenges, TU/e teachers were looking for a platform that could offer hints when students wanted them instead of just giving them automatically. Although they started looking for digital tools and tried other products, this idea was not easy to implement until they found Bolster Academy.
Firstly, they used our authoring environment to create over 100 exercises (including subquestions), helped by their student assistants. Although this creation process is always demanding at the start, our platform enabled them to design the materials that best suited their course and students’ needs. Besides, our LaTeX integration aided them to type equations easily and quickly.
Leon Rosseau and his team were the first ones to use Bolster Academy in TU/e. In the first year, they implemented the exam practice for a small group of students. Months later, they used it for exam practice for the whole group (around 150 students). This year, although some parts of the course are in-person, they have moved the exam practice to fully digital tutor sections.
As Leon mentioned, the hints were crucial to support their students. In this subject, taking all steps toward the solution is essential, but often teachers don’t have time to cover all the answers in-depth during classes. Bolster Academy enabled them to give consistent and structured explanations. As Leon explains:
“This consistency helps us teach the students a bit more of the fundamentals. We don’t just explain how to solve the exercise, but how to think about problem-solving. Before, the course didn’t offer so much room for this.
Now students get professional worked-out examples. Previously, they would have usually just compared their exercise with other classmates, but sometimes they are both wrong. Since now they have a solution of how we would solve it on Bolster Academy, that’s an advantage on its own.”
Although, in the beginning, one concern was that students would click all the hints and get the answer right away, Leon can see in the timing statistics that students practice a lot on the platform and use these clues quite well.
Apart from this hints feature they were looking for, they found a nice bonus. Although TU/e teachers were not actively searching for a student forum, once they implemented Bolster Academy, they discovered how valuable this feature is.
Currently, instead of hiring several tutors who wouldn’t have enough work, one or two student assistants moderate their forums and answer the most accessible questions. If these queries are too complex, Leon would answer them. And if they still need extra assistance, the professor can reply to them. Likewise, this feature encourages students to ask questions when they need support. As Leon said:
“Especially in the weeks of exam preparation, we have seen over 50 questions a week in the forum functionality, which, even if you give in-class tutor sessions, is a lot. So that’s something we were really pleasantly surprised by.”
Another unexpected and positive surprise was seeing that students also started to reply to the forum questions:
“They were answering the other students’ questions pretty well and having a discussion where you see they are thinking about what they are doing and not just mindlessly searching for the answer or clicking the hint.”
When students ask questions in Bolster Academy’s forum, they can do it straight from the problem they are working on. This allows teachers to have more context to understand their doubts.
Finally, resits are common in this subject. TU/e teachers generally teach this course in May and June, the exam is in July, and the resit is in August. This means there is no guidance during the summer anymore due to the holiday. With Bolster Academy, students can still solve problems independently and receive feedback. Besides, even though the forum is not moderated as intensely as it usually would, they keep having access to this feature. Therefore, students keep receiving personalized support and guidance during the summer.
For this challenging subject, TU/e teachers use Bolster Academy to offer students a lot of extra practice opportunities. As Leon said:
“For the most difficult problems, where you have to do dozens of steps until arriving at the solution, it’s super helpful. You can guide the students in a much more concrete way while giving them a tailored approach. If students want to go fast, they can go fast. If they want to go slow and get a bunch of exercises, it’s also possible.”
Besides, since they implemented our platform:
“In terms of results, there are people who practice much more. This flexible approach is working very well for students. The course has seven chapters. While some people find chapter two very hard, some struggle with four. Bolster Academy allows students to keep studying a certain topic for longer instead of teaching a weekly chapter following a strict order. That’s something that came back from students’ questionnaires at the end of the course as quite positive.”
Another positive aspect that Leon highlighted about the platform is its usability. Likewise, regarding grading, “there was a correlation between practising on Bolster Academy and getting a higher grade”. However, this result could be due to the fact that “people that normally get high grades are likelier to use the tool more.” It is still early to draw conclusions about grades because, after the pandemic, there is no benchmark of an average passing grade. Although the least motivated students remain a challenge, Bolster Academy can be an ally in providing them with the flexibility and practice resources they need.
Regarding Leon’s learnings using Bolster Academy, one unexpected benefit was that our platform helped him reflect on his teaching method:
“Since I am using the platform with other staff members, I found that when I design hints or when someone else does it, the hints are entirely different because our ways of explaining are not the same. By generalizing everybody’s experience into one digital solution, you think more on a didactic level, asking yourself more often how to explain something logically.”
Lastly, we would like to finish this use case with Leon’s recommendation to teachers who are thinking about implementing a digital platform in their courses:
“When teachers learn about a new digital learning environment, they usually think of examination platforms. But, as a practice tool, Bolster Academy is very, very useful because of its tailored approach. I think this is something a lot of teachers don’t realize yet. When we talk about digital education, we talk about video lectures and digital exams, but the way of practising is not really addressed yet. There’s still a lot to win, and this systematic approach is easy to implement and use.”
In the future, Leon and his team will continue exploring how to find a flexible approach that balances online tools and personal contact and looking for new ways to motivate students for this challenging course.