Improving the learning environment in the Department of Physics: a peer mentoring program for first-year female physicists alongside changes in the lecture programme

  • Viola Valentina Vogler-Neuling Department of Physics, Institute for Quantum Electronics, ETH Zurich 8093 Zurich, Switzerland
  • Klara Berg NCCR QSIT, Laboratory for Solid State Physics, Nanophysics Group, ETH Zurich 8093 Zurich, Switzerland
  • Mattias Beck Department of Physics, Institute for Quantum Electronics, ETH Zurich 8093 Zurich, Switzerland
  • Anna M. Garry NCCR MUST, Institute for Quantum Electronics, Ultrafast Laser Physics, ETH Zurich 8093 Zurich, Switzerland


In 2018, a D-PHYS evaluation of the Basisjahr (first Bachelor year) pass rates showed an imbalance of the pass rates between genders in the first and second attempt: the pass rate for female students was only 32 % compared to 46 % for their male colleagues. There was also feedback from female students to staff about problematic challenges during this first-year experience. In addition, the number of women starting the physics course was low, only 17% of the first-year students in 2020 (e.g., 45 out of 250). These factors raised concerns and questions, and an investigation was undertaken in 2019 to examine the first-year learning experience and to identify if there were issues that could be influencing the gender imbalance in pass rates. The study involved 21 interviews of randomly selected students (11 women and 10 male students) who had successfully completed the first year in the last 12 years.

This article describes the outcomes of these interviews, and the measures that resulted from this study. The interviews showed a distinct difference in experiences of the genders in the first year, and a consistent highlighting of problematic issues in the learning environment. In 2020, changes to the first-year physics learning environment followed, with a particular focus on a project to improve the situation for the female students. First, a peer-mentoring program was established for first-year female physics students. We report on how and why we established the program, the events that took place during the academic year 2020/2021 and present the evaluation data. Second, a number of changes were made to the physics lectures and exercise classes in 2020, which were designed to improve the learning environment for all. Finally, and in parallel, an anonymous grading system was introduced, to ensure that the differences in pass rates were not affected by unidentified biases. The paper concludes with a reflection on the impact of these multiple measures, an outline of plans to expand peer mentoring to all first-year students, and the importance of an ongoing evaluation to examine the effectiveness of the changes introduced.