Tackling common teaching challenges

Even the most dedicated teacher faces difficulties. Despite possessing the disciplinary knowledge and preparing carefully, you may need ideas to manage a class of worried, uninterested or confused students. In such situations, take a step back and give it a bit of thought.

In addition, do not hesitate to share your concerns with someone who may help you out. Why not discuss problems with:

  • Student class representatives.
  • A colleague you trust (share points of view or observe each other’s teaching).
  • teaching advisor from CAPE.
  • The Section Director or Deputy.

This section reports common difficulties in teaching, along with suggestions as to how to tackle them.

EPFL students are typically quite capable and very interested in their subject matter. At the same time, they have lots of courses and homework as well as a life outside class and so it does happen that during class time, some students show up late or don’t show up at all. A few teachers have also noticed a decrease in student attendance after publishing their lecture notes (as a book).

There are many reasons why students might skip a class. They may prioritize courses with heavy credit weighting over courses that have fewer credits, they may prioritize courses that are more intrinsically interesting to them, they may feel that the support materials are good enough that they don’t need to attend or they may feel that the lecture is adding little to their learning. From your point of view as a teacher, you should try to control the things you can control (by giving the most engaging and effective lectures you can), but accept that some student absence is the norm. At the end of the day, it is what the student learns – not what teaching they watched – that matters.

You should note that, formally, there are no written rules regarding course attendance. There is a consensus that students are free to attend lectures or not, but they need to attend lectures which form part of a continuous assessment (e.g. classes with mid-term tests). However, attendance lists are generally not drawn up.  

Of course, attending lectures is generally beneficial for students’ learning. From a teaching point of view, contact hours as stated in each course description play a major role in student learning. As a teacher though you wouldn’t penalize absentees or withhold information from them. On the contrary, students typically respond positively to transparency:

  • notify test and submission deadlines to the whole class by e-mail or on the official course moodle page (you can use the ‘news forum’ function).
  • make course materials available (via moodle, purchase of lecture notes, from your office) and inform the class accordingly.

A first step to maximising student attendance may be to find out why students are not attending. For example, class delegates may be able to help you by gathering some responses from your class as to reasons for non-attendance. Advice on how to maximise student engagement in your classes can be found here.

Capturing students’ attention is an important element of teaching effectiveness. However, it may sometimes appear as if students are not paying attention, are reluctant or unwilling to raise hands, don’t ask questions or take the initiative, or sit silently, when you ask a question. It may also appear as if some students do not make eye contact with you or try to avoid your gaze when you ask questions. 

It is important to note that some of this could be cultural. In some countries, it may be common for students to ask questions of teachers, to seek clarification or to volunteer their ideas in class. In Switzerland (and in many other countries) this is not so common and so many students are not in the habit of responding to teacher’s questions, or of asking questions when they don’t understand.  In some cultures, making eye-contact with an authority figure is also regarded as rude. So even if students sit quietly and avoid your gaze, it does not mean they are not listening intently.

At the same time, a quiet class can be frustrating for a lecturer, especially if you feel you are not getting feedback on what students understand and on where they are having difficulties.  Here are some ideas that may help you to get students to participate a little more:

  • Students may need time to build the habit of participating in class. If you want class participation, build in some participation activities from the beginning of term and persevere with them for at least a few weeks.  Once students get used to participating it will become easier for them.
  • Sometimes teachers ask rhetorical questions, which they then immediately answer as part of their lecture. So, when teachers then look for student responses, the class often assumes this is another rhetorical question which does not require an answer from them.  If you want students to answer a question in class you may, therefore, need to make that clear to them. Introduce a question by saying something like, “OK, I’m going to ask a question and I’m looking for you to give me the answer”.
  • If you ask a question, give students time to think about it before looking for an answer. You may have to be comfortable with a few moments of ‘awkward silence’, while you wait for students to think, but if you jump in too soon by answering your own question, then they will know next time to just wait until you provide the answer.  If you don’t get any answer at all, then maybe propose a “think, pair, share approach” (described below) rather than volunteering your own answer.  
  • If students are slow to ask questions in public, you can use the SpeakUp app to set up a temporary, anonymous chatroom.  Using this, students can ask questions anonymously and can rate each others questions.  You can set aside a few minutes to address the most popular questions posed by your class that week.
  • If a student asks a question or answers a question, let her or him know their input is valued. Try to avoid responses that suggest the question is redundant (like, “OK, I explained this a minute ago but let me go back over it again”) or that their answer seems stupid. Of course, you do not want to tell a student that an incorrect answer is correct, however you can let them know it is incorrect gently by saying something like, “A lot of people give the same answer – it is quite a common error”, or “You are nearly there, but not quite”. 
  • A student with a question may not know if the question is a good one. In addition they may not be sure how to phrase it. If you ask them to first have a brief discussion with a classmate before asking for questions from the whole class, then they will have a chance to form their question and get feedback on whether it makes sense before speaking up in front of the whole class. This may give them the confidence to speak up (this approach is called “think, pair, share”).
  • In larger classes, you can use “clickers” and “concept tests” to get students to think about the lecture content, to apply it, and to give you feedback on how well they understand the material. 
  • If you do not want to spend time on questions and discussion in class but would still like some student feedback on what they do and don’t understand, ask them at the end of the class to write a short summary of the main points of the lecture and the points they struggled with. These can be left anonymous and collected by you. From the student’s point of view, doing such a summary will help them organise their thoughts and understand the lecture material better. From your point of view it is a great source of anonymous feedback (this approach is called the “one minute paper”).

Students engage for various reasons, but mostly they tend to work more if they see the applicability and utility of what you are asking them to do. You can find some further ideas in “Engaging my students“.

The teaching language for your course is set in the course description which functions as something of a contract with students – the course should be taught in the language outlined on the course description. If you would like to change the language of a course, you should contact your section director, but also be aware that there are regulations covering the language of teaching (see here). 

Remember that students who may appear to have a high level of skill in a second language may still find it quite challenging to follow an academic course in that language. Providing them with a glossary for technical terms can be helpful, and it can also be useful to try to avoid using multiple different terms for the same concept or phenomenon.  

The EPFL Language Centre offers French and English courses specifically designed to help lecturers teach in a second language (French or English). More specifically, if English is a second language for you, you can find more information here. If French is a second language for you, information can be found here.

Finding the right balance

“Good morning all! Time for a new exciting project!”. You enter your class full of energy and eagerness to “seduce” your students with the new project you have in mind, instead you get frowning faces and never ending complaints; “But we already have other things to do. It’s too much, we don’t have the time needed and the day has only 24 hours”. Sometimes students haven’t read the recommended literature nor attend the exercise sessions. On the other hand, there are times when students think they should have worked more for a course, given the number of credits it offers.

In general, it is important for the teacher to have a clear view of the intended learning outcomes and the corresponding learning activities which could be the most appropriate, so that they assign an appropriate type and number of projects, exercises and assignments.

Having a general idea of the average student work time required for each exercise, project or course helps balance the workload. Here you can find some numbers:

  • On average, 1 ECTS credit corresponds to roughly 2 hours per week of student work in a 14-week teaching semester (2 ECTS corresponds to roughly 4 hours, 3 credits to roughly 6 hours and so on).
  • This workload includes both timetabled time in class and non-timetabled student work outside class.  For example, a course with a weighting of 3 ECTS credits may have 2 lecture hours, 1 exercise hour, and 3 further hours of student individual work which should cover homework, personal study, and preparing for the exam – in other words, as much time spent on the course outside class as time spent in class.
  • The ECTS credit system allows considerable flexibility. The balance of lectures, exercise and individual student work can be adjusted depending on the course. Courses could have more hours of students individual work (reading, homework, projects etc.), and fewer timetabled lecture, lab or exercise hours. But since students sometimes think in terms of timetabled hours rather than ECTS credits, you may need to remind them of credit weightings and of how their time should ideally be distributed.
  • Students will sometimes tend to devote more time to projects and less time to exercises than is merited based on their credit weighting. You may need to remind them of the credits associated with each component of the course.
  • Students will sometimes complain if a workload seems heavy, but this may not affect their overall evaluation of a course if the work is seen by them to be productive. However, work which is seen to be irrelevant or to be a result of bad organisation will often leave them feeling very frustrated.

For further information, take a look at the credit system. Credits allocated are set out in the course descriptions.

Coordinating workload with colleagues

If possible, you may wish to coordinate your assigned work with that of other courses. Experience has shown that the number of assignment submission deadlines at the end of term for each student can be excessive. Further, it should be taken into account that for cross-section courses students have often different deadlines. 

It is worth spreading submission deadlines and coordinating them with other faculty members from your sections, if possible. You could also discuss with colleagues, so that you make sure that there is no overlapping in the assignment schedules of classes.

Which types to choose and why

You may find your students complaining not only about the number of assignments, but also about their nature, as not everyone thinks they are relevant or helpful based on the set learning outcomes. It is essential that students see the value of the work you request from them, if they are to commit to it.

The nature of student assignments in a course may be influenced by disciplinary teaching culture as much as by the study level and learning outcomes. For example, exercises that involve applying knowledge may seem adequate for basic first year courses; giving them a disciplinary touch will enhance students’ motivation to complete them. Problems to solve, projects, case studies and analysing scientific papers may seem more appropriate for the more professional subjects or discipline-related courses or at a more advanced stage of studies. It can be that the more work is related to a professional application, the higher the student investment.

Given that we learn by doing, it is important that students are actively involved in doing exercises and figuring things out for themselves.  In general, it is better to assign guided and supervised work in the early stages of a curriculum and to increase your expectations on student autonomy as they progress along the study plan.

Effective group work is an important transversal skill for engineering students, and professional engineers. The videos and supplementary PDF resources below address common challenges and present useful strategies for working in student project groups. Please do use them yourself, and share them with your students.

Please note that these materials are exclusively in French.