Category Archives: 2016

Cooperative and Collaborative learning – Inspiring the practice of group work – full article

Collaborative und cooperative learning have been integrated in higher education for years. Due to the stronger emphasis on independent and especially critical thinking (as evidenced in the Critical Thinking Initiative at ETH) these teaching methods are increasingly moving to the centre of attention.

What is the difference between collaborative and cooperative learning?

Dillenbourg (1999, p.8) distinguishes collaborative and cooperative learning as follows: “In cooperation, partners split the work, solve sub-tasks individually and then assemble the partial results into the final output. In collaboration, partners do the work together.” Later he clarifies that collaboration is “a process by which individuals negotiate and share meanings relevant to the problem-solving task at hand”. Stahl et al. (2016, p.481) add that “Of course, individuals are involved in this as members of the group, but the activities that they engage in are not individual-learning activities, but group interactions like negotiation and sharing.”

What are the benefits of collaborative learning?

Laal and Ghodsi (2001) list the main benefits of collaborative learning as developing learning communities, promoting critical thinking and enabling new forms of assessments. In addition, compared with competitive and individualistic efforts, collaborative learning typically results in higher achievement and greater productivity, more caring, supportive and committed student relationships and greater psychological health, social competence and self-esteem. Furthermore, collaborative work promotes trans-disciplinary competences.

What are some examples of collaborative learning?

Some well-known examples of collaborative learning in action include the following methods:

  • Problem-based learning is a student-centred approach in which students learn about a subject by working in groups to solve an open-ended problem (Weber 2007, ). At ETH several lectures use this method, e.g. in the biology curriculum (
  • In case studies students are provided real-world examples and apply skills and knowledge to arrive at conclusions thus bridging the theoretical and practical aspects within a field of study (examples in Hattie, Masters & Birch 2015).
  • In interdisciplinary projects students from different disciplines work together to solve a problem, complete a task or create a product that needs knowledge and skills (ETH example in D-BAUG:
  • Eric Mazur’s peer instruction approach is a well-known example of collaborative learning: peer instruction involves students explaining their understanding of underlying concepts to each other during lectures which focusses their attention and enhances understanding (Mazur Harvard Group).
  • Project work in small groups provides opportunities for critical thinking and problem-oriented, experience-based learning. Prof. Mirko Meboldt won the KITE award 2016 with just such a project (
  • Students write a lab report together online.
  • Students discuss and develop topics for term papers independelty of the lecturer.
  • Students research and connect topics with lecture materials together in a concept map.
  • Students do their exam preparation together in an online tool (texts, mindmaps, pictures).

How can collaborative learning be assessed?

There are several assessment methods suitable for assessing collaborative learning. These include oral group presentations, written group reports, peer assessment of each individual’s contribution to the group, observation, and interviews by lecturer or tutor. Each of these can be supplemented with individual assessments (

For more information about different ways of grading by instructors and peers, we recommend Winchester-Seeto (2002) (cited in Her list includes advantages and disadvantages of the different ways of grading.

How does information technology support collaborative learning?

Technology has opened new possibilities of how knowledge and skills can be acquired. Computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL) focusses on collaborative learning facilitated by information technology (e.g. computer, tablets, networks). CSCL can occur in several different ways, synchronously by using technology to connect people accross geographic locations simultaneously and asynchronously by connecting students who log on to a specific chat programme at different times to conduct conversations.  Modern technology has been supporting collaborative learning at ETH for many years in the form of forums in Moodle and ELBA (E-Leraning Baukasten). Currently, there are efforts underway to improve online collaboration workspaces at ETH.

What can I do if I want to implement collaborative learning in my course?

If you set up a collaborative learning setting, please keep the following essential concepts in mind:

  • Create positive Interdependence (meaning all students are required to contribute in order to reach the stated goals.)
  • Hold individuals and groups accountable
  • Give appropriate course credits
  • Be conscious of group size (in general 4-5 members (and gender equal) work best)
  • Give time for group processing
  • Use real world problems

But one of the most important components is to foster a sense of participative safety, to set up an environment, which promotes participation and an open discussion culture. There is much more information and many tips for setting up collaborative learning available (e.g. Undergraduate Teaching Fellows, University of Maryland or Miriam Clifford (2014)).


Clifford, Miriam (2014): 20 Collaborative Learning Tips And Strategies For Teachers.

Dillenbourg, P. (Ed.) (1999a). Collaborative learning: Cognitive and computational approaches. Amsterdam: Pergamon, Elsevier Science.

Hattie, J. A., Masters, D. & Birch, K. (2015). Visible Learning into Action: International Case Studies of Impact London, UK: Routledge.

Laal, M. & Ghodsi, S.M. (2001). Benefits of collaborative learning.

Office of Undergraduate Studies (2012): Group Work and Collaborative Learning: Best Practices. The University of Maryland,

Stahl, Gerry, Timothy Koschmann, and Daniel Suthers. “Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning”, The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. Ed. R. Keith Sawyer. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.  479-500. Cambridge Books Online. Web. 22 August 2016. .

Stahl, G. (2006). Group cognition: Computer support for building collaborative knowledge. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Weber, A. (2007). Problem-Based Learning. Ein Handbuch für die Ausbildung auf Sekundarstufe II und auf der Tertiärstufe. Bern: hep-Verlag.

Rethinking spaces – Learning beyond the classroom – Full article

Thanks to the forward march of digitisation, laptops, smartphones and tablet computers are more or less standard student kit today. 91% of the undergraduates surveyed in one study possess a laptop and 92% a smartphone, and many own multiple devices (Dahlstrom et al., 2015, pp. 13-15). While this ECAR¹ study focuses on students in the USA, the situation in Switzerland is probably similar (see the Media Use Index, 2015²). In tandem with this development, “a student-centered approach to education has taken root, prompting many higher education professionals to rethink how learning spaces should be configured” (Johnson et al., 2016, p. 12).

The omnipresence of internet-capable devices and the orientation towards student-centred learning are having an influence on teaching and learning. Didactic concepts such as the flipped classroom are attracting more and more interest (Johnson et al., 2016, p. 12; Lambert, 2012). Universities are also increasingly deploying a “bring your own device” strategy, with the aim of getting students to use their own devices in the classroom (Johnson et al., 2016, p. 36).

To ensure the sustainability of this transformation it is becoming necessary to re-think the design of physical and digital learning environments. Traditional lectures are morphing into collaborative sessions, teaching is increasingly taking place outside of the classroom, and new learning environments are being thought up which actively foster collaborative learning, particularly that in the flipped classroom context.

In the following the authors outline two ways to rethink spaces : the development of physical environments to promote more collaborative and flexible learning, and the use of mobile devices for situated and location-based learning.

Physical environments for more collaborative and flexible learning
In the flipped classroom setting students prepare for class outside of the physical classroom using digital materials and activities such as online syllabi, teaching videos, discussion forums and self-testing (LET, 2015). Classroom sessions can then be used more effectively, e.g. for group work, case studies, direct feedback and the answering of questions. The flipped classroom has various implications for the design of the physical learning environment.

  • Teaching rooms: To facilitate flexibility in classroom constellations, room equipment should be as mobile as possible. An example is the “flexible auditorium” opened by ETH Zurich in 2014, whose furniture is on wheels (Hardmeier, 2014). The transformation of traditional lecture halls also has further dimensions. According to Johnson et al. (2016, p. 12) “university classrooms are starting to resemble real-world work and social environments that facilitate organic interactions and cross-disciplinary problem-solving.” In these redesigned spaces students can apply their skills to try out and realise their ideas. This increases their motivation and their academic success (LET, 2016). At ETH Zurich this development is currently becoming reality with the creation of the Student Project House (ETH Zurich, 2016).
  • Library spaces: Bookshelves are giving way to spaces where students can both work individually and discuss study materials (Johnson et al. 2016, p. 12; Carriuolo & Reis, 2015). Here mobile and flexible furnishings also play an important role. The ETH Library is addressing this need with the Team Working Spaces project, started in 2015 (Grenacher & Lienhard, 2016).

Situated and location-based learning using mobile devices
Because nearly all students have mobile devices, these need not only be used to access digital learning environments; they can also be actively integrated into teaching. This makes it possible to conduct teaching sessions situatively outside the classroom. At ETH Zurich this happens in two ways (among others)³:

  • GISsmox: If students can collect real data on location during field work this increases their motivation. For this reason department D-USYS offers excursions which “among other things intend to involve students with interdisciplinary themes on-site so that they learn how the content of various courses is related. […] The former didactic scenario had students prepare by studying the literature and then collect deeper information in the field. Here their involvement with (situated) data frequently remained superficial.” […] The mobile App GISsmox (GIS supported mobile outdoor experiments) “is [thus] based on the idea that active involvement with spatial structures by recording and visualising solidifies and deepens knowledge.” (Niederhuber, Trüssel & Brändle, 2014). Using the GISsmox app students collect and process data on their smartphones or tablets via the mobile network. After collection all of the student data is pooled and analysed directly on-site.
  • OMLETH: “Courses in many study programs at ETH Zurich feature learning content which is related to places in the real world. This applies especially to Architecture, Civil Engineering, and System-Oriented Natural Sciences. Teaching this content in the classroom often remains decoupled and distant from the typical working environment of the respective discipline. From research on Location- and context based mobile Teaching and Learning it is well-known that teaching such content at the respective location with mobile technologies can improve the learning effect by complementing conventional didactical methods.” (Raubal, 2013). The OMLETH app enables students to take part in various location- and context-dependent learning activities via their smartphones or tablets. Motivation is also primary here: “Learning outdoors can motivate, engage and improve learning” (gis@ethz, 2015).

Didactic concepts and our digital world are changing constantly. We are intrigued by how they will affect the development of learning environments in the future. ETH Zurich is determined to keep up with these trends and design its learning spaces accordingly.



¹ 50,274 undergraduates from 161 institutions in 11 countries and 43 states in the USA took part in the survey. The statistics cited are based on a representative cross-section of 10,000 participants from US institutions (Dahlstrom et al., 2015, p. 7).

² “The Y&R Group Switzerland has investigated the Swiss population’s information behaviour and use of media annually since 2009. In the process it conducts a representative online survey of 2000 persons in German-speaking Switzerland and the Suisse Romande.” (Y&R Group Switzerland, 2016)

³ A further example is the iÖ-App, which is currently under development by the ETH Zurich Chair of Architecture and Building Process (Menz, 2014).

Further reading
Brown, M. (O. J.). Learning Spaces. In Oblinger, D. G. & Oblinger, J. L. (edd.), Educating the Net Generation. Available online at [08.07.2016].

Niederhuber, M., Trüssel, D. & Brändle, U. (2014). Auf Exkursionen neue Wege gehen: Der Einsatz von Smartphones und Tablets zur Erfassung, Visualisierung und Analyse räumlicher Objekte, Strukturen und Phänomene. In Rummler, K., Medien in der Wissenschaft, Band 67: Lernräume gestalten – Bildungskontexte vielfältig denken.


Carriuolo, N. & Reis, T. (2015). The new role of librarians and libraries. Removing the silence signs. Available online at [08.07.2016].

Dahlstrom, E. et al. (2015, ). ECAR study of undergraduate students and information technology. Available online at [08.07.2016].

ETH Zürich (2016). Student Project House. Available online at [08.07.2016].

gis@ethz (2015). OMLETH – The platform for location-based mobile learning. Available online at [08.07.2016].

Grenacher, R. & Lienhard, C. (2016). Using prototyping for creating learning environments – Design, evaluation, lessons learned. Available online at [08.07.2016].

Menz, Sacha (2014). IÖ-App, Smartphone-Applikation für Immobilienökonomie. Available online at [08.07.2016].

Niederhuber, Trüssel & Brändle (2014). Über GISsmox. Available online at [08.07.2016].

Hardmeier, M. (2014). Flexibles Unterrichten an der ETH Zürich. Available online at [08.07.2016].

Johnson. L. et al. (2016). NMC Horizon Report: 2016. Higher Education Edition. Available online at [08.07.2016].

Lambert, C. (2012). Twilight of the Lecture. Available online at [08.07.2016].

LET (2015). Flipped Classroom. Full article. Available online at [08.07.2016].

LET (2016). Fostering student motivation – full article. Available online at [08.07.2016].

Raubal, M. (2013). OMLETH. Eine Plattform für ortsbezogenes mobiles Lernen an der ETH. Available online at [08.07.2016].

Y&R Group Switzerland. Media Use Index 2015. Available online at [08.07.2016].

Promoting critical thinking – full article

Promoting critical thinking – Interdisciplinary approaches: a matrix for critical thinking

Critical Thinking has a long tradition in Anglo-Saxon academia (see e.g. Claser, 1941; Moore & Stanley, 2010; Paul, Elder & Bartell,1997; Wisdom & Leavitt, 2015). At ETH Zurich it has assumed great significance since former Rector Lino Guzzella launched the Critical Thinking Initiative in 2013. This initiative addresses not only the further theoretical development of the concept in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, but primarily the shaping of an education which facilitates student acquisition of practice-related skills relevant to authentic scenarios.

ETH has also identified key critical thinking skills which should be fostered in students:

  • Analysis and reflection
  • Opinion-building and development of courses of action
  • Communication, argument and responsible behaviour

The goal of the Critical Thinking Initiative is to train students during their ETH studies to become critical and independent thinkers. During their time here they should not only acquire knowledge and methodological skills but also learn to address their own disciplines and scientific methods critically. Here the ability to think critically is not only desirable in the academic context, but is also increasingly important within society. The primary reasons for this are global developments such as digitisation and automation which shift human input to the value chain. The assumption is that persons with repetitive tasks will become increasingly replaceable (Deloitte, 2016). Abilities such as creativity, interdisciplinarity and critical thinking, however, are becoming more and more important because they cannot be replaced by automation.

The annual programme of the Critical Thinking Initiative lists events which deepen and practice the skills described above. These events and the associated methods are meant to inspire and assist faculty in their ETH teaching efforts.

Two Refresh Teaching events present two different approaches in more detail:

Prof. Anthony Patt (D-USYS) will report on how he helps students to reduce complex systems to their most significant elements. This simplification always means critical reflection on what has been left out, and the associated implications.

Dr Erik Jentges (D-MTEC) will report on Prof. Volker Hoffmann’s “Corporate Sustainability” course, where students use argumentation methods and peer review the arguments of their fellows according to a list of criteria.



Claser, E. M. (1941). Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking. Columbia University Teachers College Contributions to Education No 843: AMS Press, NY.

Deloitte (2016). Mensch und Maschine: Roboter auf dem Vormarsch? Folgen der Automatisierung für den Schweizer Arbeitsmarkt. Online verfügbar:

Moore, B & Stanley, T. (2010). Critical Thinking and Formative Assessments: Increasing the Rigor in Your Classroom. Abingdon, UK: Taylor & Francis.

Paul, R.; Elder, L. & Bartell, T. (1997). A Brief History of the Idea of Critical Thinking. Online verfügbar:

Wisdom, S. & Leavitt, L. (2015). Handbook of Research on Advancing Critical Thinking in Higher Education. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.


Cognitive science has shown that successful learning is inextricably connected to what students do with new information, rather than simply what they read or hear (Biggs and Tang, 2011). This necessitates a shift in teaching to include genuine active and interactive learning.  But what do we mean by active and interactive learning and how does one begin such a shift?

Let’s begin with an analogy

If you want to teach a group of people a complex skill, such as learning to play basketball, no amount of talking about basketball or watching others play will result in truly skilled players. It is only once the learners take the ball into their own hands, pass it around and try shooting hoops that they will develop mastery of basketball skills. In other words, they need to become active, interact with others, test what they know and practice in order to increase their ability to play. It also suggests that instructors need to be facilitators of learning in addition to subject matter experts.

Active learning -> conceptual activity

Active learning means that students either engage actively with the content or with other people in order to process information, instead of passively absorbing information through listening and reading. This engagement helps to deepen learning by converting information (facts) to knowledge or understanding. Students gain some control over the material and it helps them to construct meaning and relevance.

Whereas being active can also refer to physical activity, such as manipulating equipment or simple movement, we are concentrating on conceptual activity, which is interacting with and processing ideas and concepts. While in the case of basketball, interactivity refers to physical activity, in higher learning this is the part where the coach metaphorically hands over the ball and students really tackle the concepts.

Engaging with others conceptually is good for learning

We are using the term interactivity to refer to the act of students engaging conceptually with other students in order to promote learning. Conceptual activity can be completed individually through personal reflection, writing, individually answering questions, solving equations privately or evaluating the work of others. However, when students engage in conceptual activity as a group, for example through discussion or group work, there are added benefits. There is always a physical component to group interaction. When interacting with others conceptually, one must be physically active as well, either by talking, moving or doing.

Added benefits of interactivity

Group-based interaction has additional social components that benefit learning. By engaging with others and voicing their opinions students need to become aware of what they know and don’t yet know. They are forced to prioritise their responses and will receive feedback from their peers.  They can get answers to their questions and provide answers to the questions of others which helps them gain confidence. In addition, there are a host of trans-disciplinary competencies, such as advanced communication skills and critical thinking, that are developed when students work together on conceptual activities. Think of the team of basketball players debating strategy, communicating about where to pass next and giving one another feedback and praise.

Interactivity works best when aligned to learning objectives

The effectiveness of interactivity is highest when the given task is directly aligned to the desired learning objectives. Activities should be set at the right challenge level (not too hard or too easy), encourage students to practice the cognitive (or physical) skill they are expected to master and provide opportunities for peer tutoring. An effective coach will set tasks for the players that directly assist the development of the stated goals. The exercises are aligned to the skills needed to play a winning game.

Instructors orchestrate interactivity

The role of the instructor becomes to orchestrate opportunities for students to interact with each other using the resources available. Here are a number of steps to consider.

  1. Clarify the purpose of the activity. Which learning objective is this activity going to help students master? You may need to break the objective down in to sub-objectives for this. The Anderson and Krathwohl verbs will assist you here.
  2. Identify the immediate goal or product. Do you want them access or process information? Do you want them to develop new information or elaborate on what already exists? Perhaps you want to monitor their progress towards the learning objectives.
  3. Identify the resources needed. Where does the information needed for the activity come from? Are they getting it from each other or a written source you have provided? Will you need flipcharts?
  4. Provide clear written instructions and answer any questions they may have before you start.
  5. Plan in advance if and how you will collect results and what you will do with them.
  6. Monitor and support the students during the activity as needed.

Interactivity can happen online too

Everything you read here applies to online interactivity as well. Using learning platforms like Moodle makes it possible for students to engage with each other online as well. Forums, chats, social media and other collaborative tools (such as shared documents, wikis and online meeting software like Skype and Google Hangout) enable students to work together virtually synchronously (simultaneously) as well as asynchronously.

Final observations

Admittedly interactivity takes time, both in terms of planning and implementation. However, the learning that results is both deep and long-lasting.



2016 – Events

Programme 2016

 February 23 Implementing flipped classroom  past
 March 8  Lecturing more effectively  past
 April 12
 Increasing interactivity  past
 May 12  Promoting critical thinking  past
 June 13  Fostering student motivation  past
 September 29  Rethinking spaces  past
 October 3  Cooperative learning  past
 November 10  Increasing student-direct learning  past
 December 6  Competence-based examinations  past

If you want to stay informed about dates and topics please use the RSS-Feed or the email newsletter.

Fostering student motivation

Date and time: June 13th, 12:15 – 13:15

Location: ETH Zentrum, HG E41

Fostering student motivation – Designing teaching to enhance student motivation

As our understanding of the complex psychological nature of motivation has evolved, we now understand that motivation cannot simply be induced, but rather is rooted in an individual’s experience of competence, autonomy and social acceptance. Therefore in order to motivate students, instructors need to create learning environments that are conducive to such experiences. In this event, Dr. Vivianne Otto (D-CHAB) and Dr. Meike Akveld (D-MATH) will share how they successfully foster student motivation.


Presentations, Documents and Links:

Read full article

Rethinking spaces

Date and time: September 22, 12:15 – 13:15

Location: ETH Hönggerberg, HIT E51

Rethinking spaces – New ways of extending learning beyond the classroom

Educational approaches such as “Flipped Classroom” increasingly involve learning beyond the classroom. In order to facilitate these didactic scenarios new learning spaces are required that are independent of traditional classroom structures. In this session we will present two alternative perspectives concerning the rethinking of spaces; developing physical environments for more collaborative and flexible learning as well as using mobile devices for situated and location-based learning. We will illustrate them with experiences from the following ETH projects:

  • Team Working Spaces: new spaces at ETH-Library for collaborative learning and for study breaks are created through prototyping and design thinking.
  • GIS supported mobile outdoor experiments: students collect data with their smartphones while being on excursion.
  • Location- and context based mobile Teaching and Learning: students solve location-based problems and get information about specific objects or locations they are visiting.

Read full article


Presentations, Documents and Links:

Promoting critical thinking

Date and time: May 12th, 12:15 – 13:15

Location: ETH Hönggerberg, HIT E51

Promoting critical thinking – Interdisciplinary approaches: a matrix for critical thinking

The ability to think critically and independently is one of most desired skills an university wants to cultivate with its students. But critical thinking does not happen by chance. Besides methodological competences and disciplinary knowledge, students must be given the opportunity to address interdisciplinary and system-oriented issues. In this Refresh Teaching event Prof. Volker Hoffmann/Dr. Erik Jentges and Prof. Anthony Patt will discuss how they promote the key critical thinking skills in their courses. Students should be able to; analyse and reflect, build capacity for judgment and develop a stance, communicate, argue and behave responsibly. There are many more courses at ETH with similar approaches to promoting critical thinking as seen in the annual programme of the critical thinking initiative at ETH.

Read the full article


Presentations, Documents and Links:



Lecturing more effectively

Date and time: March 8th, 12:15 – 13:15

Location: Hönggerberg,  HPT C103

Lecturing more effectively – Simple techniques for improving lectures

Traditional lectures still have their place, even in the age of the flipped classroom and case-based learning. There are also a series of ways to augment lectures which – with minimal effort and using innovative elements – boost the efficiency of the associated teaching and learning process. These techniques provide variety and encourage students to become more active. This event presents a colorful palette of tried-and-tested ideas, and helps participants to try them out.
At the event you will have the opportunity to try out certain techniques right away.

Dr. Lukas Meier (D-MATH) will present an entertaining way to use the ETH EduApp, which involves groups of students competing in class to answer formative assessment questions. Students report that this is very motivating, and the method enhances the lecture.

Dr. Adrian Gilli (D-ERDW) and Pascal Schmidt (LET) will present evidence-based ways to make lectures more effective which include participatory learning activities, peer instruction, structuring of time and content, the role of feedback and the management of cognitive load.

We also cordially invite you to join us after the event for lunch in the course room, where you can exchange ideas with others.

Presentations, Documents & Tools

Full presentation
Presentation – TOOLS ONLY
Classroom Assessment Teachniques as a tool
Lecturing more effectively_SELF_ASSESSMENT

Implementing flipped classrooms

Date and time: February 23rd, 12:15 – 13:15

Location: ETH Zentrum, HG E41

Implementing flipped classrooms – Options for practical implementation

In the flipped classroom, actual knowledge transfer takes place during independent study phases and class time is used for discussion, critical reflection, applied exercises and competence development via teamwork and presentations.

This is the second event on this topic (see the link below for documentation on the first event). This time we will focus on concrete ways to deploy the flipped classroom in your teaching. Experienced ETH colleagues Dr. Katja Köhler, Prof. Ulrike Lohmann, Dr. Amewu Mensah and Dr. Lukas Fässler will be present to provide input.
The event itself will be held in flipped classroom format. We therefore ask you to read the enclosed brief project descriptions by the presenters (5-10 min.) before the event: 
– Dr. Katja Köhler, Prof. Ernst Hafen: Flipped lecture “Biology IA”
– Prof. Ulrike Lohmann, Dr. Amewu Mensah: Example of hybrid mode (classroom and flipped) lecture “Atmosphärenphysik”
Flipped Classroom_PREP_KK_UL_AAM (4)
– Dr. Lukas Fässler: “E.Tutorial”

Summary of the event: Group discussions & take home messages.

Optionally, you may also wish to read a brief summary of the flipped classroom concept in our blog article.

We also cordially invite you to join us after the event for lunch in the course room, where you can exchange ideas with others.

Documentation on the first flipped classroom event, 14 April 2015:

Useful ETH documents & tools for flipped classrooms: