Impact success story: Education

When it began working on the project in 2011, Wouter Duyck’s team’s ambition was not to set up a large system of orientation tests in Flanders. But because people noticed that many psychology students were not well prepared in statistics and therefore did not pass the course, the Ghent University scientists developed the Simon Test. This grew into an example for education in Flanders as a whole.

“We found that the body of students coming into the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences did not make it through the first year due to inadequate study orientation.” Wouter and his colleagues started small and stripped the statistics exam of all content and prepared a short test consisting of twenty questions. To their great surprise, they saw that up to one third of the students answered fewer than fifteen out of the twenty questions correctly. “We went to other faculties with the same test: the Faculties of Law, Political and Social Sciences and Literature. The results were no better there.”

Brein met computerThe scientists saw that their test correlated with the exam results and delved into the scientific literature to design a scientific ‘test battery’ that was more than just mathematical. Sometimes Wouter was accused of working on a system that would select only the best students. “But we actually did the opposite, because while classical tests for civil engineers and medicine rightly aim for an elite group, we worked on an algorithm that predicts who will not succeed.”

“We gradually built up the Simon Test and then further tested the psychology students, but we never gave them study advice. Why? I think it’s very important to be sure of the advice you give to students, that it’s evidence-based. That’s why we first complied a series of historical data sets in those first years. We had to ensure that with these series we had enough information over the long term to make a prediction. And then we were lucky, because this approach turned out to work. Over time, we were able to make faculty-specific predictions, so it was about much more than just the psychology programme.”

Success of the Simon test

Ghent University now tests almost every student who registers via the website Students receive a report with study advice about the courses that match their profile and an overview of their skills. When the advice is negative, they are offered a range of alternatives.

Research has also shown that study efficiency is higher among students who receive this type of feedback.

And even if the results are not binding, they still have a motivating effect on the prospective students. “So we can solemnly say that fewer students have failed since we introduced our test.”

The Simon Test has also had political implications. “Suddenly we received a phone call from the Minister of Education who asked us to design a test for Flanders as a whole. There was also a good initiative developed by the Faculty of Letters in Leuven: the Luci Test. We took the initiative and set up an expert group with the Catholic University of Leuven, the University of Antwerp and Artevelde University College. Together we developed the Columbus Test, a test for the entire Flemish education system that includes modules from the various partners.”

And in the future? Wouter continues to break new ground: “Only universities and colleges took part in the Simon Test. With Columbus, we want to go one step further and also involve people who were previously more practice-oriented. This will take some time, but we will certainly get there.”

More information