Sarah Hofer is researching methods of learning and instruction in STEM subjects. She investigates how intelligence, prior knowledge and gender can affect learning methods and successful learning outcomes.
What’s the main challenge involved in teaching mathematical and scientific subjects?
A lot of the material is highly abstract, so the trick is to use illustrative models that help students visualise something they can’t normally see. Sometimes, too, everyday experience can interfere with the learning process. Our experience of moving objects, for example, is difficult to reconcile with the principle of inertia. That’s why it’s so important to make a connection between everyday experiences and scientific concepts.
How can we improve gender equality when it comes to education?
Teachers do sometimes show bias towards students of a particular gender, whether consciously or unconsciously. But we can help tackle that by raising awareness and encouraging teachers to self-monitor. When assessing student performance, the use of standardised or anonymised processes can help them stay as objective as possible. In general, students are more likely to achieve their potential in classes that address their individual requirements and interests - irrespective of their gender.
What led you to study psychology?
I wrote a term paper at secondary school about the behaviour and experience of the protagonists in two dystopian novels. It was so interesting that it made me want to find out more about how people think, feel, learn and act - how that all unfolds and what role the environment and context have to play.
What were the key learning experiences of your career so far?
A big step for me was the realisation that I shouldn’t let myself get sucked in by the huge pressure placed on young researchers. Otherwise, it’s easy to end up on a hamster wheel and forget what you’re actually there for - namely, to produce high-quality, meaningful research and innovative ideas, both of which generally take time, and not just churn out new stuff on a conveyor belt.
What will be your first project as assistant professor at ETH?
In one project, we’re going to be using augmented reality in physics teaching. We want to find out if computer-generated teaching aids displayed in AR headsets can help students achieve a deeper understanding of the subject matter.
Sarah Hofer is a tenure-track assistant professor of learning and technology in the Department of Humanities, Social and Political Sciences.