Rating Conferences

Following the SWOT analysis of our master’s degree program, the next step in our curriculum development plan has been a series of Rating Conferences. Introduced as a tool for evaluating and developing curricula almost ten years ago [1], a Rating Conference consists of groups of around 10 students who vote on statements about the degree program, followed by a moderated group discussion. We had three groups — current Master’s students who had been DMATL Bachelor’s students, current master’s students who joined the MSc program from elsewhere, and alumni of our program — with the participants randomly selected within each group. ETH graduate, Medea Fux did an excellent job of moderating in spite of the difficult zoom format. Faculty were not allowed to attend, but one of our groups agreed to have their conference recorded so we got to take a peek later.

Based on the SWOT analysis, and helped by the ETH Curriculum Development team, the project team converged on the following statements:

  1. The MSc in Materials is challenging.
  2. The MSc in Materials is motivating.
  3. The MSc in Materials gives students enough opportunity to pursue their individual interests and chooses courses according to that.
  4. I would like to have the opportunity to deepen my knowledge in pre-defined specialization directions.
  5. There are enough opportunities to learn about engineering in the current MSc curriculum.
  6. I miss opportunities to interact with industry in the current MSc curriculum.
  7. 10 months (two two-months-long projects and a six-months-long thesis) is the right amount of research experience for a MSc curriculum.
  8. The topics of the courses in the MSc program cover all aspects of modern Materials Science.
  9. The MSc in Materials prepares me well for the job market.

and the students could choose to Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree or Abstain with each one.

A first look at the votes alone was already interesting, often with a more-or-less equal division between those who agreed and disagreed with a particular statement. But even more interesting were the reasons behind the votes, as well as the opportunity to comment on aspects not covered by the statements, which Medea teased out during the moderated discussion. These fell broadly into four areas:

First, what is the optimal balance between breadth and depth, between flexibility and specialization, and between fundamental and modern topics? Are there subject-specific skills in Materials that all students must acquire on the master’s level and if so what are they? Or should students be allowed to completely follow their interests because our education on the Bachelor’s level is so broad and uniform? Should we offer specializations? And if so, should there be mandatory courses for each specialization? There was a clear preference for freedom to choose courses across ETH, combined with a desire for structure and guidance. Ideas that came up were soft specialization tracks, major / minor emphases, core courses (or not) and hands-on skills courses.  An interesting related point was raised during the discussion within the project team, regarding the perspective of the instructors: If the new curriculum gives students complete freedom of choice, how much freedom do we give to instructors to choose what to teach? Are there essential courses that must exist on the master’s level, or should instructors choose what they find most important or interesting?

Second, what is the appropriate balance between Science and Engineering? In fact, what do we even mean by Engineering? Should there be two separate tracks? Should we have more interaction with industry, for example mentoring or courses, beyond the internship? And should it be possible to replace the internship with a research project or more courses? It’s important to keep in mind that international students might have problems with finding an internship because of language requirements. That led into the next point:

How to balance the interests of our internal ETH students with those of incoming students who might have a different background and / or expectations. Here, of course flexibility is helpful but there also needs to be guidance, particularly for new students who might otherwise be quite lost.

Finally, a bunch of logistical things, like scheduling, tutoring and mobility. There was some grumbling about the  number of credit points relative to the workload compared with other departments, but there were surprisingly few complaints about 120 credits being too many.

A huge thank you to the students and alumni who participated in the three Rating Conferences, as well as to Medea for moderating and the colleagues who helped us with the implementation. Our next step is to assemble some possible draft curricula based on all of your inputs for discussion in the teaching commission…


[1] Die Ratingkonferenz, Keller, Hans; Heinemann, Elke; Kruse, Margret. Zeitschrift für Evaluation, Vol. 11, Iss. 2,  (Oct 2012): 287-298

About Nicola Spaldin

Nicola Spaldin is the professor of materials theory at ETH Zürich. She is a passionate science educator, former director of her department’s study program, and holder of the ETH Golden Owl Award for excellence in teaching. She developed the class of materials known as multiferroics, which combine simultaneous ferromagnetism and ferroelectricity, and when not trying to make a room-temperature superconductor, can be found playing her clarinet, or skiing or climbing in the Alps.
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