Thursday, April 9, 2015

An Insider's Perspective: How can ETH improve its education quality?



I received my Bachelor's degree (Mechanical Engineering) from ETH Zürich. Currently I am working on my Master's thesis at Harvard University. Until now, ETH gave me plenty of constructive feedbacks and made me a better person; now it's my turn to return the favor.

Let me say very directly and upfront that in general I am truly satisfied with the education quality of ETH. It is one of the most challenging things I have ever faced and will remain an unforgettable memory in my life. The following is just my humble opinion on how it can be further improved:

  • Like every public university in Switzerland, ETH is obliged to grant admission to every Swiss citizen who took the Matura. On the other hand, applicants from foreign countries are required to take an entrance exam or are subject to Numerus Clasus. I am not a fan of discrimination but I support wise-selection, elimination and filtering. Most Swiss freshmen quit ETH after their first year anyway; so there's no need to overfill the lecture halls with them. Pick the best, forget the rest!
  • There are two groups of people going to the lectures. People who are willing to learn in the lecture and people who are seeking a social environment. Those who are throwing paper planes from the back row and chitchat all the time annoyingly disturb the ones who are trying to concentrate and learn something. This selfish, rude behaviour should be monitored, quantified and accordingly punished.
  • Most facilities (including libraries) are closed during the holidays. I understand that the ETH employees are not keen on working during Christmas; however students might be willing to earn some extra money. This is how it works in the US.
  • To cook a great meal you need the best ingredients. ETH needs the best students and should never restrict itself only to German speaking undergrads. Master's courses are in English. All BSc courses should be too. This is a necessary requirement to attract great non-German speaking young people from all over the world.
  • Most courses are solely graded by a final exam. As a consequence, a fair amount of students do nothing during the semester and just start their preparation x weeks before the exam date. Students should be periodically monitored via midterm exams etc. Grading homeworks is no alternative to such periodic tests, because people tend to find solutions on the internet or copy from their classmates. I was later on convinced that ETH's grading based 100% on final exam is a good thing.
  • Student associations like tango groups or pilates classes are okay; but students should be encouraged (eg. by giving some extra credits) to take entrepreneurial actions. At MIT and Harvard almost every night there's a pitching event or mingling session for entrepreneurial minded. They come together and work on their projects in their spare time (usually at night).
  • ETH teaches some of the most important engineering softwares which one would need in the industry or research. That's awesome; however these tools should also be integrated to the courses. For example: Graded ANSYS simulation homeworks for "Dimensioning" or COMSOL simulations for "Fluiddynamics" would be so simple to realize. Such a strategy would have two major benefits: 1) Students don't forget what they learn, because they find the chance to use it on a regular basis. 2) Students get an idea about problem solving skills in practice.
  • All lecturers should spend the first 15 minutes of each lecture talking about how the upcoming lecture topic can be used in practice. Lino Guzzella did this for his courses. He gives the big picture first and motivates the audience, then explains the theory. A great weapon for a lecturer!
  • Submitting the course evalution form at the end of semester has no benefit to the current attendees of a lecture. Lecturers need periodic feed-back during the semester, so that they can do something good for their audience. BTW it's better to do this online. Of course, lecturers shouldn't take every single suggestion (e.g. lecture involves too much calculus, homeworks are hard etc.) too serious.
  • I am a huge disbeliever of learning with technology. Online learning platform Moodle, or other similar online homework platforms and apps should be dropped. I tried all, they simply don't work. Podcasts are nice and necessary though.
  • Some well-connected students manage to find previous exams from various 3rd party sources. To prevent this unfair advantage among students, all past exams should be available to any attendee.