A quarter of our first-semester students think they are not good enough at physics. Around 18 per cent believe that they are not good at mathematics. So many feel overwhelmed before they even start. We focus very much on picking up these students. (Paul Baumgartner on how the teaching team wants to take away freshmen students' fear of university)
News+Stories: You were recently awarded the "Ars Docendi 2021 – State Prize for Excellence in Teaching" in the category Quality Improvement of Teaching and Studyability as course organizers along with your team. What does that mean to you?
Paul Baumgartner: Off course it is nice to get appreciation for the work of the last few years; a lot of time goes into the project so that the quality remains high. But the first recognition was the feedback from the students, which indicated that the work was OK and that is actually more important. But now the professionals have confirmed it.
Daniela Hell: For me as a teaching assistant, it is motivating to see that our dedication together with our modern, unconventional teaching style, which has steadily improved the course over the last four years in constant exchange with the students, has now also been officially recognized.
Who attends the "Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering" exercise course?
Baumgartner: At the beginning, four years ago, we supervised first-semester students from the four Bachelor's degree programmes in Biomedical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Audio Engineering, and Information and Computer Engineering in the "Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering" exercise course. With Digital Engineering, there are now five fields of study this year and a total of around 450 students. The team has grown from originally three to currently 19 teaching assistants and three university assistants, so we have been able to significantly improve the supervision ratio.
Does this mean that for students of Biomedical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Audio Engineering, and Information and Computer Engineering, the exercise course is one of the first impressions of their studies?
Hell: Absolutely. Students register in small groups of around 25 participants and then form teams of three. Because in the first semester many students get to know each other and network anew in the groups and teams, we positively support the formation of learning groups. To ensure that this succeeds, we also make sure during the pandemic that the first few units take place in person.
How is the exercise course generally set up?
Baumgartner: As already mentioned, the teaching team consists mainly of teaching assistants. A teaching assistant supervises each small group, lectures, corrects homework, discusses it with the students and is, so to speak, the teacher for this group. Thus, there is weekly feedback and the students are continually supported in their learning. And then there are the teams of three, in which the students do their homework, where they also hold discussions with each other and thus also collect feedback from each other.
What are the challenges of this foundation course for you and the students?
Baumgartner: Managing the sheer numbers is a challenge, of course, but so is managing the heterogeneity. We have a first-semester subject, but with very different preparatory backgrounds. The students come from different schools, from different types of schools and from different countries. That is certainly the hardest thing – next to the social aspect. People come to Graz who don't know anyone here. We’ve also taken that into account. That's why the homework is done in the aforementioned teams of three, which should be composed of students who come from different types of schools and did not know each other beforehand. Nobody does their studies alone. We want to enable a sound transition into university studies.
The students come from different schools, from different types of schools and from different countries. That is certainly the hardest thing – next to the social aspect. People come to Graz who don't know anyone here. (Paul Baumgartner)
Do many first-semester students from general secondary schools (AHS) come to TU Graz?
Hell: We do small surveys every year to get a feel for the educational background. They reveal that around 40 per cent of the students went to a general secondary school (AHS). This means that the teaching content for many students is completely new and abstract. So we start with the basics. The secondary school (AHS) students have the advantage that they are better prepared in mathematics in some cases and are taught subjects from scratch at university. They therefore often find it easier to settle in. The aim is to bring everyone up to speed and explain everything in a comprehensible way. That's why we work in small groups with the teaching assistants as contact persons.
Baumgartner: A quarter of our first-semester students think they are not good enough at physics. Around 18 per cent believe that they are not good at mathematics. So many feel overwhelmed before they even start. We focus very much on picking up these students. We offer voluntary practice sheets and two YouTube playlists. And we purposefully try to meet all types of students, to bring them down to a common denominator. The aim is to take away their fear and inspire them.
How has the Corona pandemic changed the setting and the supervision situation?
Hell: The feedbackr web service had already been offered to students in the teaching units before the pandemic in order to allow a brief review of the material, provide the opportunity for anonymous questions and enable constant feedback on the course itself. Last year, a real online culture was established from this, which is why we have now also introduced the online platform Discord – actually a gamer platform – in the course. This has certainly been a great benefit to the students. Because there is no obligation to use their real names, the students also dare to communicate with us more. There are online learning sessions, we can always be approached via Discord, and we give quick answers. We've even spoiled the students a bit too much up to a point (laughs).
Last year, a real online culture was established from this, which is why we have now also introduced the online platform Discord – actually a gamer platform – in the course. This has certainly been a great benefit to the students. (Daniela Hell)
What makes "Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering" so special from your point of view? It was already awarded the TU Graz internal Prize for Excellence in Teaching in 2020.
Baumgartner: We collect feedback at all levels – that's what the project thrives on. This means feedback from and to students, and also from and to teachers. During the semester, when students make enquiries or as soon as I come into contact with students, everything is noted down immediately. This is important for the organization. Student orientation is the keyword. Our students always get feedback on their performances, especially before exams. They have discussions in the small groups with the teaching assistants, and also anonymously online.
After the semester, I sit with each teaching assistant, and write down their impressions.
Hell: As a teaching assistant, you feel heard. You are encouraged to make suggestions and know that they will be taken on board.
Baumgartner: We pick out the best students as teaching assistants from the first semester onwards. I see it as promoting talent. I talk to them and soon realize that I can trust them to do the job. The most important thing is to give the young persons responsibility, but not to leave them alone with it, and to trust them.
How independently do the teaching assistants work?
Hell: We hold classes, for one thing. I have to think about how I'm going to structure the lecture, what examples I'm going to give. I correct homework, supervise Discord and answer students' questions. Then the exercise courses have to be prepared in general. We have a total of twelve exercise courses, which we divide up. The content and outline of the exercise course are already fixed. We revise the exercise course together every year to create consistency within the different groups. But how the content is conveyed is an individual decision.
Baumgartner: I think it’s very important that everyone does their thing in their own way. In the end, however, a second teaching assistant always looks at the plan again and gives feedback. In this way, the big picture meshes together, but everyone adds their own individual touch.
Where do you see your individual contribution as course organizer?
Baumgartner: All the basic subjects are located at the Institute of Fundamentals and Theory in Electrical Engineering. Teaching has always been important at the Institute and has a high value. Besides supporting talented teaching assistants, I have taken up the institute culture and introduced a bit of innovation into it.
What motivates you personally to work so hard to impart knowledge?
Hell: It's a real treat to be in the lecture hall if you like to deliver content. It’s a pleasure and has added value when I notice that it helps the students to get their homework done or write good exams.
Baumgartner: I think working with people motivates me. It's fun to work so well and productively together with a team of 19 colleagues. And then also to see that it's very successful. And it's fun: there's a lot of shared humour in the team.
It's a real treat to be in the lecture hall if you like to deliver content. It’s a pleasure and has added value when I notice that it helps the students to get their homework done or write good exams. (Daniela Hell)
About Paul Baumgartner
Born in Upper Austria, Paul Baumgartner studied electrical engineering and telematics at TU Graz, graduating in 2016. His introduction to teaching came in the summer semester of 2017 with the "Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering" (GET) practical at the Institute of Fundamentals and Theory in Electrical Engineering, in the following semester he additionally took over the "Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering" (GET) exercise course and subsequently the electrodynamics exercise course. The Ars Docendi is not the first teaching award picked up by Paul Baumgartner. He was awarded the Special Prize for Young Teachers for his course "Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering" in the context of the TU Graz internal "Prize for Excellence in Teaching" in 2020. Baumgartner enjoys cycling, loves travelling and recharges his batteries by interacting with people.
About Daniela Hell
Born in Bad Gleichenberg, she attended the higher technical school (HTL) in Bad Radkersburg and then came to the TU Graz to study electrical engineering. She has been involved in teaching as a teaching assistant since her fifth semester. She likes to spend her leisure time in the fresh air, cycling or hiking.