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A BAC scheme to facilitate the transition from school to university

With the support of the Undergraduate School of Sorbonne University, the UTC and UPMC have devised a new scheme to better fight against failure in the first year at university. This scheme is the BAC, or the Bilan accompagné de connaissances (an assessment combined with learning). The concept of this scheme is to detect, at the earliest opportunity, gaps in the knowledge of undergraduate students joining these universities in order to offer them study modules, even before the classes begin, and to help lecturers adapt their teaching methods.

On the one hand, UTC’s engineering course, leading on to different specialties, stems from a common foundation of two very selective years: the majority of students admitted into the first year of university have a baccalaureate S qualification (focusing on scientific fields) with a mark of ‘highest honors’ and there are little more than 300 of these students.

On the other, the undergraduate degree in science and technology at UPMC, beginning with an induction year and for which entry is not selective (more than a thousand students per intake), offers a multidisciplinary choice of classes before moving into a single disciplinary stream (mathematics, physics, chemistry, etc.) or a bi-disciplinary stream (major/minor or double major) in the second and third year of undergraduate studies.

Two very different courses but with a common aim: to improve the transition between school and university in order to promote success among the students. Manuel Majada, the head of the Educational Support Unit at UTC, remarks that ‘UTC obviously enrolls very good students, however, the first year can often be rough on them as the level of scientific requirement is greatly increased. Furthermore, following reforms to the baccalaureate S qualification, we are now seeing a certain disparity between the requirements expected of undergraduate students and reality. For the best students, this means a little more work to adapt. But for the others, this effort may be much greater. What’s more, this problem is not unique to the students but is also a problem facing UPMC.’

 

The first trial at the beginning of the 2015 academic year

In 2014, based on this premise, Manuel Majada suggested that the mathematics professor responsible for the first induction year at UPMC, Sami Mustapha, work with the Educational Support Unit at UTC in drawing up a plan enabling new students to become aware of their areas of weakness at the earliest opportunity and to encourage them to be proactive in their studies. This is the BAC scheme (Bilan accompagné de connaissances, an assessment combined with learning). This project received support from the Undergraduate School of Sorbonne University. The two partners have, therefore, defined an assessment methodology for undergraduate students focused on the three core disciplines at both UTC and UPMC: mathematics, physics and chemistry. However, each of the institutions specified the procedures for testing and assessing the students’ level based upon their own programs and community. In both institutions, the BAC was trialed at the beginning of the 2015 academic year.

 

Compulsory assessment at UTC

UTC opted to assess the requirements of their students by competency; some calling upon only one of the three disciplines, others using multidisciplinary knowledge. The assessment tests (multiple choice tests) were accessible online and it was compulsory for all undergraduates to complete them during the summer.  Their answers were marked in real time and they knew at the end of each test whether or not they were demonstrating the required skills and, in cases where these were not demonstrated, study modules were offered online. Then, at the beginning of the academic year, they were assessed again on the same requirements but this time in person in order to check whether they had made any progress. To further encourage them to work during the holidays, they were promised an ECTS credit if they achieved at least 75% of correct answers in this second assessment.  

Assessment findings: Julie Tardy, educational engineer at UTC’s Educational Support Unit, claimed that ‘the 333 students involved completed the tests and consulted at least some of the study modules during the summer. Also, the majority of these students appreciated this scheme which enabled them to have a better understanding of what was expected of them.’ Following the second assessment, at the beginning of the academic year, a little over 10% of these students achieved an ECTS credit and, once again, those students with gaps in their knowledge were directed towards e-learning modules. Manuel Majada highlights that ‘it is the very good students who have no need for study classes in person. Moreover, we provided lecturers with the overall assessment results so they can go over the main areas of weakness at the beginning of the year.’

 

The next aim is a more refined skills assessment

The BAC has also been trialed on a different group consisting of thirty Angolan students who, with the support of Campus France (the French agency for the promotion of higher education, welcome and international mobility), joined UTC in September 2015 for a preparatory year within the common foundation part of the engineering course.  Julie Tardy explains that ‘the aim was to help them understand the requirements needed to integrate into this common foundation part of the course and to better prepare them for this. They were all applicants.’

The scheme is now going to be run again for the students starting at UTC in February when it will welcome around forty students into the first year foundation part of the course from preparatory classes or other higher education pathways. However, the institution’s Educational Support Unit is already looking beyond this and is working on a more refined assessment of students’ skills thanks to an algorithm which would sort the multiple choice questions according to their objective level of complexity: is it just about checking whether the undergraduate has memorized a piece of knowledge, or whether they have understood this or, better yet, whether they are able to apply this knowledge, etc.? Manuel Majada explains that ‘traditional tests do not identify why a student has failed. By categorizing the questions by their level of complexity we are able to see at what stage failure occurs. For example, seeing that they know a formula by heart but do not know how to apply this to two different situations. This will therefore be able to bridge the gaps in knowledge more effectively.’

 

 

Optional assessment at UPMC

For its part, UPMC has devised a specific test for each discipline (mathematics, physics or chemistry). Once again, the multiple choice questions were put online. However, in contrast to UTC, the institution has not made them compulsory. Sami Mustapha explains that ‘in July, when welcoming first year undergraduates, we asked them to assess themselves over the summer so that they can, if needs be, be brought up to the necessary level before classes begin by following intensive tutoring of three two-hour classes a week per discipline’.  But, at the end of August, very few of them had done this. At the beginning of September, during induction week, UPMC started these classes again. In the end, 30% of undergraduates answered the multiple choice test. That equates to about 400 students, 150 of whom registered for intensive tutoring: 90 in mathematics, 40 in physics and 20 in chemistry.

Sami Mustapha noted that ‘paradoxically, the students who followed the intensive tutoring in mathematics were at a good level, their knowledge was even more advanced than the expected requirements. Indeed, the difficulties they came up against in the tests came largely from a lack of practice because of the holidays. But the tutoring helped to reassure them.’ However, the students registered for intensive tutoring in physics and chemistry had real difficulty.  In these disciplines, the intended goal has therefore been reached and, when necessary, the students were then directed towards tutoring for a semester (two hours every two weeks for twelve weeks) which was previously offered in the first year of undergraduate study.

Finally, just as they do at UTC, the assessment tests provided lecturers with an overall picture of the students’ level, along with the main areas of weakness which needed to be taken on board at the beginning of the year.

 

Extending the BAC and developing teaching methods

Sam Mustapha emphasized how ‘for me, just like all lecturers who were involved with the intensive tutoring, this experience has proved very interesting. Not only was there a good number of students who followed the study classes who had fewer gaps in their knowledge than the tests implied and than we would have thought, but, often, the majority were much more able to get back to the required level than they would normally have been by taking these classes. They were still in the transition phase between school and university, and very motivated. This proves the benefit of acting at the earliest opportunity to fight against failure in their first year. Now, the challenge is twofold: extending the BAC to a greater number of students to better detect the weakest students, but also to use this scheme to develop our teaching methods in lecture units and to better push students to the top.’

For the beginning of the 2016 academic year, UPMC is thus envisaging having compulsory tests during the summer in order to assess all new students enrolled in their first year of undergraduate study and to encourage all who need it to follow intensive tutoring before classes begin. Moreover, the BAC could be extended to cover biology, a discipline which is also important in the induction period of an undergraduate degree in science and technology and which, like mathematics, physics and chemistry, figures among the specialties offered from second year. The aim is also to involve more lecturers in intensive tutoring which would then help them to adapt their teaching methods in academic subjects. Furthermore, in the future, the selective stream at UPMC, the School of Engineering Polytech at Paris-UPMC, could test the BAC scheme in the same way that UTC has done.

 

Contacts

UTC : Manuel Majada

UPMC : Sami Mustapha

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