e-learning for applied mathematics


Course Linear Algebra for Artificial Intelligence and Informatics
Lecturer Leo Dorst
Context Basic linear algebra, from vectors to matrix decomposition (SVD) and least squares techniques for a large group of 400 students
Challenge Not enough time/opportunity to provide students with enough feedback on the basics
Design e-learning exercises about the basics with automated feedback
Evaluation Students kept up their basic skills and the TA’s could focus on the difficult parts
Related Topics Digital formative assignments and feedbackLarge groupsHeterogeneityInteractive & adaptive course material

Interview with Leo Dorst

Can you tell something about your course before the innovation?
The students needed to keep up with the fundamentals, in time for the next lecture, but we could only give them feedback on homework once a week, whereas the lectures were twice a week. Also, correcting the basics is not the best use of a TA’s time. And the students tended to plagiarize because of this.

What intervention was chosen? 
Part of the homework, at the basic drill level, became SOWISO exercises to be completed before the next lecture. Some points could be earned by this.

Did it solve the issue?
Yes, students kept up their basic skills, TAs could focus on the next level in the werkcollege and the paper homework. And the randomization made it personal.

What was the students’ experience?
Students liked it, and the distribution of final grades became more of a bell-curve (around 7) whereas earlier it tended to be rather uniform.

Are you going to use it again? If yes, what would you change in the next iteration?
I already did. And I also tried one year to make part of the exam ‘SOWISO-corrected’, in order to correct it more quickly. This I will not repeat, but rather try using ANS – it was hard to ask reasonable exam questions in SOWISO.

How much (extra) work did it cost you? Does it outweigh the benefits?
I actually first did this in ONBETWIST, using mostly exercises that were already present there. Those were translated to SOWISO; the effort was not done by me. It was definitely worth it, and not only for me: now we have lots of LA drills in SOWISO.

Do you recommend this approach to other lecturers?
Yes, for subjects that are amenable to this. In fact, I already did, and Calculus and Statistics (by Homburg and van Es) followed the e-drill principle (directly to SOWISO rather than via ONBETWIST).

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
There was great supportive help from Henk Kuijpers (ONBETWIST), and from André Heck, Marthe Schut and Jolien Oomens (SOWISO) to enable both the e-drills and the trial with the exams. This was a big surprise, it is rare to have colleagues in such an innovation. It made this innovation much easier than I had ever thought it would; it should be better-known that you do not have to do these innovations by yourself.


Impression of the e-drills

Programming with Python – Creating context with video


Course Introduction to scientific programming (link to course, in Dutch)
Lecturers Ivo van Vulpen en Martijn Stegeman
Context Introduction to scientific programming for every science student
Challenge Planning a traditional course across fields and across years is impossible in our faculty
Design Online course so students can study on their own pace; a few exams are planned during the academic year
Evaluation The course attracted quite a few students during its initial run and with this solid core further expansion is possible
Related Topics HeterogeneityLarge groupsInteractive & adaptive course materialVideo

Interview with Martijn Stegeman / Ivo van Vulpen

Could you tell something about this new course?
The course introduction to scientific programming was based on an existing course for first year physics students. The learning goals are to show students that programming is an essential skill for every science student. By starting from a set of problems closely related to the field of study of the students and introducing programming as a means rather than the goal of the course, we take a different approach from traditional programming courses.

In four modules we try to show the students four distinct areas where programming is used for; basic mathematics, numerical techniques, simulations, and big-data. Students are not allowed to use existing tools, but are forced to build their program starting with a limited set of elementary building blocks. We do this to stimulate creativity rather than testing their skills using Google. To demystify programming itself and build confidence we decided to use Python as a programming tool which allowed students to perform all the exercises on their own laptop.

In what way was this course blended? Why did you choose this innovative approach?
Planning a course across fields and across years is impossible in our faculty. To allow students to take the course in their own time we decided to publish the course online and organize only a few exams during the academic year. Students make the exercises on their own laptop, can check their answers using a tool we developed, and hand in the exercises online.

To make sure we target each population of students we added a few elements:

  • Create clips (small movies). For each module we interviewed a scientist or ex-science student on how they use  programming in their daily lives. It was meant to show students that programming is everywhere and that the usefulness of the skill is enormous.
  • Target different student groups; although the programming goals are the same, it is important that students start from a problem they relate to and would like to solve. For each module we tried to create multiple paths, each targeted at a different field of study. Where colliding particles in a box would be great for a physics student, framing the same problem as a prey-predator model for biologists might work better. Same idea, same tool, but different frame.

Are you satisfied with the result?

The course is in Dutch and already attracted quite a few students. I’m happy that we went for a ‘solid’ approach. The core is now there and we could in principle expand to different disciplines, like the social sciences.

A challenge in these designs is to monitor student participation. How do you organize feedback, collect both questions from the students and figure out where they get stuck? This is something that could be improved by looking at these course in a broader sense. Maybe this could be something that we could organize in a faculty/university-wide recommendations.

Is there anything you learned that you would like to share with other teachers?
One crucial advantage we discovered was the enormous added value you get when combining expertise from different fields. This course was created by a combination of an information scientist and a physicist. Each of us would have come up with a completely different course. It was the combination that created this special mix that works much better than parallel development by each of us.

One more tip, something on the additional layer that we think is still missing – where we have the different paths to target different fields of study it would be good to also have some more practice exercises (or more advanced problems) for students who have difficulty programming (students that are already quite advanced).

A last tip is maybe not to aim too high. Make sure you get a solid course that is sustainable and then expand.

Would you recommend this approach/design to other teachers?
Just try it!

Watch the videos

Electrodynamics Refresher Course

Course Electrodynamics and Special Relativity (2nd year bachelor Physics and Astronomy)
Lecturer Eric Laenen
Context Continues on Electricity and Magnetism (1st year), also uses math from first year (Vector Analysis)
Challenge Nearly two weeks are spend on refreshing first year knowledge, instead of delving into the new knowledge and skills
Intervention An online module for refreshing skills and knowledge for those who need it; lecturer can spend more time on new content
Evaluation The refreshment part was limited to the first week, so the lecturer was able to spend more time on new knowledge and skills. Students were very positive.
Related Topics Heterogeneity, Interactive/adaptive course material, Formative Assessments, SOWISORemedial teaching

Interview with Eric Laenen

What was the issue you were facing in your course?
My 2nd year bachelor course Electrodynamics/Special Relativity (ED/SRT) takes place a full year after the preparatory 1st year course Electromagnetism (EM). In my first year of teaching ED/SRT (2015-2016), I had to spend 6 weeks just rehearsing much of EM, including the very basics like vector analysis and electrostatics.  Huub Rutjes constructed a refresher course on these topics, using the SOWISO platform, so that the students could do this, interactively, themselves, the next year (2016-2017). Indeed, I could then spend more time and attention to new things.

Why did you choose this particular approach? Did it solve your (didactical) problem?
This approach was particularly suited to my problem; it is a matter of reviewing the material, and practicing (again) with it. The refresher online course did exactly that, and indeed solved my problem. In fact, the hope is that more of the overlap between EM and ED/SRT can be handled in this way.

What would you change in the next iteration?
Not much, just extend the course to include perhaps magnetostatics, and EM static fields in matter as well. Also, the online course was voluntary; it might be interesting to now issue some formal requirements to the students.

Does the amount of work you had to put into solving the issue (i.e. costs), outweigh the benefits?
For me, yes! All the work was done by Huub Rutjes for this.

Do you recommend this approach to others lecturers?
I would certainly recommend this approach to other lecturers who are faced with a similar issue.

Student evaluation

A small survey amongst students led to the following feedback:

  • An online refresher module is considered to be a very favourable addition (students agree 4.4 on a scale of 5);
  • Students spend about three to four hours on this module;
  • They like the combination of text and video;
  • Students are positive about SOWISO (it is esthetically pleasing) but find that entering equations is still a bit cumbersome;
  • A request for improvement is to have more explanation and feedback for exercises.

Impression of the online refresher module

Watch the videos

Astronomy Knowledge Clips

Course Astronomy Observation Lab (2nd year bachelor Physics and Astronomy)
Lecturer Rudy Wijnands
Context Optional course wherein students learn to operate the APO telescope, observe an astronomical object and analyse the data
Challenge Astronomy heavily relies on a broad theoretical background, but students differ in learning paths and so some parts need refreshing
Intervention Produce a series of knowledge clips that cover the necessary concepts. All videos can be watched here
Evaluation Students could watch the videos and the teacher saved considerably time in the lectures
Related Topics Heterogeneity, Video

Interview with Rudy Wijnands

What was the issue you were facing in your course?
I found that some students lacked the background knowledge needed to understand some part of my course while other students were quite familiar with these background subjects.

What intervention was chosen?
Videos were made explaining the background information, allowing me to refer students to these video’s whilst having more time to teach new matters. I only referred the students to those video’s to get up to speed with the subjects.

Did it solve the issue?
Yes it did. The students watched these videos.

Are you going to use it again? What would you change in the next iteration?
Yes. I will use the same videos again next year and potentially also for other purposes (e.g., other courses, lab work). I might ask for more videos to be produced.

How much (extra) work did it cost you? Does it outweigh the benefits?
It cost a bit of work to discuss the context of the videos with the designer/maker (Huub Rutjes) and to watch and comment on earlier versions of the videos. However, it was definitely worth it because it saved considerable time in my lectures – I could focus on really new stuff in my lectures instead of repeating background knowledge that the students needed to follow my course.

Do you recommend this approach to other lecturers?
Yes. If others are in similar situations, this is a good solution to get the students up to speed.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
It was a nice and pleasant experience.

Watch the videos