Open Educational Resources help master’s students to start off on the right foot

Starting a master’s can be challenging, especially if students lack sufficient prior knowledge and skills required for the programme. At TU Delft’s Faculty of Civil Engineering & Geosciences (CEG), master’s applicants come from universities across the globe, which means that experience and education levels can vary widely. Through Open Educational Resources, the PRE-for-CEM (PRErequisite knowledge for Civil Engineering Master) project aims to help prepare Civil Engineering master’s students for successful studies at TU Delft. 

The admissions challenge

In September 2022, the CEG faculty launched a redesigned master's programme for Civil Engineering and Applied Earth Sciences. At the same time, a new master’s in Environmental Engineering was added. According to Dr. Roel Schipper, a lecturer & researcher in Structural Design & Building Engineering, the process of developing these new studies revealed how challenging it is to decide which students to admit.  

Of course, students should be well prepared in terms of prior knowledge and skills, but in practice that’s not always easy to establish. “On average our international master’s students come from around 200 different universities,” said Schipper, who is also a coordinator of the MSc Structural Engineering track. “That means we have an extremely diverse population and you can’t assume that two students from the same country have the same background because they very likely come from different universities.” More specifically, diplomas and degree transcripts of international students offer limited information on detailed prior knowledge. For example, there is a wide range when it comes to experience with subjects like mathematics and programming. “We realised that you can’t assume there is an average student because it really doesn’t exist,” Schipper said.

On average our international master’s students come from around 200 different universities. That means we have an extremely diverse population and you can’t assume that two students from the same country have the same background because they very likely come from different universities.

Dr. Roel Schipper, lecturer & researcher in Structural Design & Building Engineering

Fill the gaps

The CEG faculty has an established set of prerequisite criteria, including knowledge and academic skills, that students should meet in order to begin the master’s programme. But given the large number and the diversity of applicants each year, it already takes considerable time and effort for the admissions committee to assess each one individually. Digging deeper into individual transcripts and diplomas is just not feasible timewise. This challenge sparked the idea of finding a way for applicants to verify the prerequisite knowledge themselves before applying, and, when needed, work remotely on any deficiencies before starting at TU Delft. “It puts some responsibility on the shoulders of the students coming to Delft and it’s for their own benefit to be prepared,” Schipper said.  

With support from an Open Education initiative at the TU Delft Library, the PRE-for-CEM project began to take shape. “We have lots of material, but much of it is behind a paywall which students only get access to once they are here,” said Schipper. By offering them an Open Educational Resource (OER) platform and guiding them through topics they need to review or learn, applying students will have a means to be better prepared and improve the odds of finishing within the desired timeframe of two years.

Student-led & student-centred research

In order to create a useful platform, the PRE-for-CEM project team needed to conduct some research. Two master’s students from the CEG faculty, Mehmet Kisa and Ahmed Farahat, led these efforts. Farahat, a second-year master’s student specialising in concrete structures, first came to Delft to do a bachelor’s degree. “I have an international background so the system was new to me,” he said. “In the bachelor I also faced a lot of the problems that international master’s students face.” Kisa, who earned a master’s in building engineering in 2021, has a different story. Coming from a Dutch university of applied sciences (HBO) he had to do a pre-master’s programme to meet the prerequisites required for a master’s at TU Delft. Schipper noted that having students involved was critical to the project as they could better understand other students and contribute based on their own experiences.

A core part of the project was hosting focus groups and conducting a survey, which produced both qualitative and quantitative data. Working together with the CEG study associations, small groups of current international master’s students were assembled to share their experiences and insights. They found a common thread that students indeed experienced challenges during the transition from their bachelor to their master's. Some of these challenges were related to lack of prior knowledge, but also some non-academic factors like practical and cultural issues related to a study abroad. “We also found that most of the students didn’t really know what to expect from the master’s at TU Delft or didn’t know how difficult it would be,” said Kisa.

They survey conducted by the PRE-for-CEM team had a relatively high 24% response rate, indicating the relevance of this topic for students. The results also showed that an open educational research platform would be widely supported amongst students.

Clear subjects

With a clear purpose, the project team moved forward with creating the PRE-for-CM platform. It features a list of seven “container subjects”, each of those including more detailed topics that applicants should understand before beginning the master’s programme. Their goal is to ensure that any Open Education Resources provided will be clearly connected to the detailed content topics. These resources could have many forms, such as open-source textbooks, knowledge clips or videos, study guides from TU Delft courses, MOOCs or websites.  

The platform itself is a combination between a Jupyter Book (an open-source platform for collaboration) and a GitHub repository. “We wanted to make an interactive platform where students and teachers can contribute to the development of the platform and make suggestions for improvement,” said Farahat. “I review the resources that are currently there to make sure that they are related to the topics and we want to get more teachers involved in checking for quality purposes.” Creating such a dynamic system allows for continuous adaptation and improvement.

Platform with a purpose

Now that the website is live, the next step will be including it on the CEG admissions page. “This is the moment we can start sharing it more with staff members and prospective students,” said Schipper. “We invite staff members from the master’s to help us make the system richer, to add more and better content. If students come better prepared, that is to the benefit of the instructors as well.”  

Ultimately, the aim of PRE-for-CEM is to help new international students have a smooth transition from the bachelor’s to master’s.  “I don’t want other students to struggle like I did because I know how difficult that can be,” said Farahat. The PRE-for-CEM platform has the potential to help both students and academic staff. And the project team agrees that it’s not limited to CEG, but other faculties at TU Delft could adapt it for their own use in the future. 

The TU Delft Library supports teachers in adopting and adapting teaching and learning methods through open education. Learn more about the Open Education project within the Open Science Programme. Please feel free to contact Michiel de Jong, project lead Open Education, for questions.