Teaching methods

Choose from a Variety of Teaching Methods

Teaching effectiveness does not necessarily come from what the lecturer says, but from teachers who can identify which teaching techniques or approaches best enable their students to achieve the desired learning goals.

Since your subject matter will generally be complex and your student population quite diverse, it might be appropriate to have a number of different teaching methods for your course.

If you want to get to know more about the pedagogy of teaching and learning in higher education, you can consult the Teaching Support Centre’s specialized book collection.

If you would like some personalized advice do not hesitate to contact a teaching advisor from the Teaching Support Centre.

Focus on “Learning” (rather than on “Teaching”)

Traditionally, teaching and learning in higher education has been defined by custom and practice.  Lecturers may teach a given material in a particular way because that was the way their lecturers taught them the same material. Sometimes this has meant good practices being passed on from generation to generation. Sometimes it means that practices developed in one context or time period continue when they are no longer appropriate.

A useful way of re-thinking a course is, instead of asking “what will I teach and how will I teach it?”, to ask “what will students learn, and how will they learn it?”.  For example, if you want students to be able to apply a particular concept in real-world settings, then they should have a chance to practice doing that. Starting with what students will be able to do at the end of the course enables you to define what students should do during the course. This in turn allows you to see what you will need to do during the course (that is, how you will teach), if you are to make sure that students are actually engaged in these learning activities. Exams can also be aligned with the learning goals and can be used to validate that students have achieved the goals which you set.

The first step in this process is to clearly define the learning goals (or learning outcomes) that you wish students to have achieved at the end of  your course. This requires something of a change of mind-set: while it is relatively easy to list the content you wish to cover in a course (that is, a ‘table of contents’), specifying learning outcomes means clarifying what you want students to be able to do with that content.

The course’s learning objectives (as well as the course content) are defined in the Course Description. Drawing up an appropriate list of learning objectives can inform the choices you make about the way teaching is organized. Learning outcomes shift the focus from what the teacher does to what the students do.

The Teaching Support Centre has gathered and answered some of the most frequently asked questions (FAQs) regarding the Learning Outcomes.

Giving students feedback

One way in which we can change emphasis from “what I teach” to “what students learn” is through giving students feedback on how well they are learning during the course.  There is a lot of evidence that students, in general, learn better when they are able to manage their own learning.  Letting students know how well they are learning during the term provides them with both the motivation and the information they need to better manage their own learning.  Many students may not be terribly good at judging whether they have learned something until they are actually faced with a task to complete or a question to answer.  Building in tasks during classes and during the term will help most students to learn better.

Knowing how well students are learning on an on-going basis is also valuable for the teacher.  It can help the teacher to identify where a different explanation may be necessary or where a course section should be re-thought for the next year.

Students (and teachers) can get on-going feedback on how much is being learned in a number of ways:

  • concept questions or mini-exercises in class can provide students with immediate feedback as to whether they have understood and can apply an idea.  If students have to tell you their answers (for example, by completing worksheets, by raising hands, or by using clickers) then that also gives you feedback on how well you have explained an idea to them.
  • asking students for questions (such as using a “think, pair, share” approach) or asking for anonymous class summaries from them (called a “one minute paper”) can get them to reflect on what they have and have not understood and can also give you valuable feedback (see the section on improving student engagement for more ideas).
  • regular quizzes (for example, on a course moodle site) can give them quick feedback on how well they recall or understand that week’s material.  With moodle, you can use the quizzes to also give them automated feedback on what errors they are making.  Short, weekly quizzes can also motivate them to revise on an on-going basis – something which will help students to remember the course material on a more long-term basis.
  • well-developed exercises and exercise corrections can give them feedback on their ability to use tools and techniques developed. If your assistants can take notes of where students are having difficulty, this can provide you with valuable information.
  • mid-term quizzes can clarify for students what the final assessment will look like and can let them gauge their progress.  They can also provide students with a motivation to revise material periodically during a course rather than leaving it all to the end (again, aiding their long-term learning).

What makes a good lecture?

Despite being the most popular and widely used teaching method, the keys for good lecturing may not be obvious. Good lecturing results from a combination of the following elements: subject knowledge, study program awareness and student engagement, all wrapped up with effective communication skills.

When EPFL students rate teaching highly, they typically point to the following characteristics of the course:

  • the content is seen as being new, interesting or important.
  • the class is regarded as well-organised and well-structured.
  • the teacher’s explanations are clear (that is, the teacher explains things in ways this class would understand and the teacher can give alternative explanations if students don’t understand).
  • the teacher is enthusiastic or dynamic.
  • the teacher or their assistants are available and willing to answer questions or provide guidance.
  • the teaching resources (such as the polycopié or the moodle site) are good.

On this page we look at three key ideas to lecturing well:

  • Structuring and organising your lectures ;
  • Ensuring students are actively learning during lectures ;
  • Encouraging and facilitating students in taking notes.

Organizing a lecture

The structure of a lecture may vary depending on the discipline and the subject, but it can be said that the main parts of a lecture are:

  1. Introduction to the subject for that class.
  2. Development of the subject.
  3. Conclusion or summary.

Below are some ideas to inspire you in organizing a successful lecture.

1. Introduction to the subject:

  • State clearly the goal of the lecture, what it is that you expect students to know or be able to do by the end.
  • Make a link between what the course has already covered and what will be covered in this lecture. This will help students to make connections in their learning.
  • Activate students’ previous knowledge which is relevant to the lecture content. For example, if the lecture will use a mathematical technique they have seen previously but may have half forgotten, then let them know at the start. Another way of activating prior knowledge is to carry out a short “concept test” at the start. You can use clickers as support for this.
  • Give students a reason for paying attention.  For example, this can be done using an analogy, a cartoon, an experiment or a vignette.  Make an explicit reference to the academic or professional importance for covering the material seen in the lecture (that is, give them a reason to learn).

2. Development of the subject:

This should be the longest part of the lecture.

  • Use a narrative from the general to the particular, from “real-world” situations to abstract models, or from simple to difficult. Make this explicit by telling students the path you are following (even if it seems obvious to you, it may not seem obvious to many of them).
  • It can be difficult for learners to keep taking in new ideas continuously over a 45-minute period. Therefore it is a good idea to take one or two interactive breaks of five minutes or so. You can use this to ask questions, solve a first exercise or check solutions, and so on. This allows students to consolidate what they have heard before moving on to new material. Remember to allow for time to reply to questions.
  • Use AV supports (slides, black or white board, simulations, etc.) that help make the structure of your argument clear. Try to ensure that the support does not contain so much information that it ends up competing with you for the students’ attention.

3. Conclusion or summary:

Often teachers feel they run out of time and so they do not get to conclude properly. This is a terrible pity, because a good conclusion can really help students understand how the lecture fits together and how it relates to the rest of the course. From your point of view it may seem that you are repeating yourself, but from the student’s point of view it is often a chance to organise ideas and understand them better. Before the bell rings you may:

  • Remind students of the goal of the lecture and make a quick summary of the main points covered.
  • Remind students what is to be done for the next lecture / exercise session.
  • Take notes of students’ questions and points that need clarification after the lecture, to help you prepare the introduction for the following one.

For further support you can register for the workshop ‘Effective Lecturing‘ or you may contact a Teaching Advisor.

Active Learning

A common metaphor for traditional teaching describes students as empty vessels which the teacher fills with knowledge. However, the last several decades of educational research have shown that learning is an active process performed by the learner, where each person constructs their own understanding through making connections to existing knowledge and experiences. Teachers can thus best support learning by creating opportunities for students to engage with new material.  In other words, what you do is important in a lecture, but what your students do is crucial.

Active learning has many definitions but all include the idea that students are actively involved with the content during class time, by reading, writing, talking, or reflecting. It is certainly not required that students move about or even speak, simply that they are engaged in actively thinking about and applying the information rather than simply receiving the information.

Active learning is possible in all sizes of class, but it can be good to use an approach which is suitable for your discipline, your teaching style and your students. Here are some examples of ways you can help students actively engage with material during a lecture:

  1. The Pause: After ~15 minutes of lecturing, give your students 2 minutes to review the notes they have taken, asking them to note any questions they may have, underline vocabulary which is unclear or add extra information useful for their understanding. You can conclude by asking if anyone would like to ask a question (although this is not always necessary). If students seem reluctant to ask a question in class, you can use the SpeakUp app to allow students to ask you questions through an anonymous, temporary chatroom. The goal is simply to give students time to actively integrate the new information and to prepare them to understand what you are about to present.
  2. Minute Paper: Ask students to take 1 minute and half sheet of paper to record their response to a specific question (for example, “Calculate the final temperature when [O2]=16 ppm” or “Propose an appropriate monitoring system for X”). Collecting the anonymous answers provides you with immediate feedback on students’ understanding and the nature of their difficulties.
  3. Clickers: Poll students in real time with small handheld clickers or an app on their mobile device. Use the results presented in automatically generated histograms to stimulate discussion and probe student reasoning. For more information, please visit the dedicated page on clickers.
  4. Think-Pair-Share: This 3 step strategy involves first having students individually THINK and write down their answer to a specific question, then PAIR with a neighbour to discuss their answers. To conclude, you can ask for a few pairs to SHARE their answer with the whole class. This strategy decreases barriers to participation with built-in thinking time and gives students the opportunity to check an answer before sharing before the whole class.  It is a particularly useful strategy when students are non-native speakers.
  5. Worksheets: Constructing a lecture worksheet for students can help them process complex information by having them complete each step at a specific point in the class. This allows them to immediately apply and assimilate the information. Consider if your goals would be best met by having students work alone or with a neighbour, remembering that groups of students can handle more difficult tasks than a single student, and groups will often persist longer on a task.

For further support, consider attending the workshop ‘Effective Interactive Teaching‘ or contacting a Teaching Advisor.

Note Taking

Although the availability of a polycopié and of laptops means that note taking by hand has somewhat gone out of fashion, there is evidence that students learn more when they take handwritten notes in class.  If it seems reasonable to do so, you might want to encourage students to take handwritten notes.

However, the volume and complexity of the course content in higher education can make it hard for students to take notes. You can assist students in developing good note taking skills, and thus the effectiveness of their attending classes, in several ways:

  • Explicitly share the logic that you used to structure the course and provide students with an overview of the day’s class to enable them to anticipate the layout and organisation of their notes.
  • Design hand outs to allow students to add supplementary information, as the quality of students’ notes has been shown to depend on having sufficient space to write clear, well-organised notes.
  • Encourage students to use active note-taking methods (using their own words, identifying connections between topics, jotting down any questions they have and marking passages that are unclear) rather than passive methods (underlining words or writing down the lecture verbatim).
  • Introduce students to different note taking systems, such as the Cornell System or mind maps, and encourage them to experiment in order to find what works best for them (Oxford has a nice page presenting several). Different approaches might be more appropriate for certain classes, but developing abbreviations and leaving plenty of space to allow for post-hoc amendments and additions is always useful.

Exercise sessions

Exercises are an opportunity for students to put into practice what they have learned. For teachers, exercise sessions provide immediate feedback on students’ level of understanding of the subject.

In EPFL, students need to be able to understand scientific concepts, but they also need to be able to apply them, to model them in mathematical terms, and to complete calculations and derivations accurately.  Exercise sessions can address all of these goals.

Ideally, what sort of activities should students do in exercises?

  1. Because repetition is crucial to developing fluency and memory, they should repeat the skills and approaches which have been demonstrated in class.
  2. As students become more fluent in using techniques, they can be asked to develop their abilities by applying them to more complex questions or to previously unseen situations.

 Here are some suggestions which may help to improve student learning in exercises:

  • Include some easier exercises at the start before moving to more complex or challenging ones.  Students will find it easier to face complex problems, if they have had a chance to develop some fluency with the techniques first. In fact, there is some evidence that students complete exercises quicker and more successfully, when the complexity of the exercises is graduated, even if that means there are more exercises for them to complete.
  • Give exercises on material covered in the previous week’s lectures (i.e. give exercises in week 3 on material covered in week 2, and so on). Although students may find it challenging to go back to the previous week’s material, the repetition over time will increase their chance of remembering the material long-term.
  • Make sure that students have some way of checking their answers, such as by getting worked out solutions. These can be provided a few days after the exercises, if you want to ensure that students have a chance to attempt the exercises before going to the solution.
  • Avoid typos or errors in exercises or corrections. Remember that while the error may be obvious to you, students do not have your level of expertise and consequently may waste lots of time trying to “figure out” where the “new” formula came from.
  • Students generally like it if the exercises provide them with an opportunity to practice the kind of skills they will be assessed on. In other words, they appreciate it if some exercise questions have the same format and level of difficulty as the exam.

In the first year, many exercise sessions in Math and Physics are organised as “tutorial” sessions (“tutorat”).  Here students work in small groups of about 8, alongside a more experienced tutor (typically a master’s student), who can guide their thinking. Ideally the tutor will try to avoid directly pointing out their errors to the students, but will instead help them to develop their problem-solving and error-checking abilities by guiding them with questions. Students in tutorat are also encouraged to help each other, because such peer-teaching has been found to be very beneficial for both the peer-teacher and the peer-learner (for more information, you can go here).

These same ideas can be applied in other exercise sessions also:

  • Supervision of exercises can be seen as a process of guiding students to a solution, without providing the solution but by scaffolding them towards the acquisition of efficient problem solving strategies by asking questions that direct their attention.
  • Similar group-work practices can be utilised in other exercise sessions even in the absence of a dedicated tutor. Simply organise students into teams of three and arrange that they should ask each other in the case of a problem before asking for help from the person supervising the session.

If you wish to strengthen your skills during exercise sessions, you can register for the workshop “Effective Exercise Sessions” offered by CAPE or ask for personalized advice.

Getting hands-on

Designing labs

Good lab sessions provide students with the opportunity to analyse, discuss, and solve real problems, in addition to fostering the development of practical, technical and engineering skills.

Labs are effective learning experiences when students understand not only how to do the experiment, but why the concept or process is important in their studies and how it might be applied or connected to real world situations.

Traditional laboratory experiments typically provide students with three elements:

  • a problem or question,
  • a procedure to follow to obtain the necessary information,
  • a solution, which may be arrived at through answering the analysis questions or through calculations completed with their experimental data.

While this approach, disparagingly called ‘cookbook’, is generally effective for having students learn basic procedures, it has been shown to be less effective for developing conceptual understanding and reasoning skills. More effective approaches include providing students with only:

  • a problem + procedure, requiring them to develop their own analysis and discussion.
  • a problem, requiring them to develop their own procedure + analysis (this is called inquiry-based).
  • a concept or issue to be explored, requiring them to set an appropriate problem, develop a procedure and analysis (discovery-based).

For example, a discovery-based lab assignment from M. Gindy & G. Tsiatas, University of Rhode Island gives the following instruction to students:

You are provided with two steel truss structures similar to those used in previous labs. One of the trusses is damaged while the other is not. Your task is to identify the damaged structure using measurements and simulations, prepare a preliminary report describing the testing approach and methodology used to make your decision, and propose a test plan for locating and assessing the type and degree of damage including the type, number, and location of sensors, experimental methods, and expected outcomes.

In this instance, one group of students proposed to assess the truss’ vibrational properties using an impulse hammer and accelerometers, while a second group evaluated the strain and displacement signature of the structure under controlled loading using different methods.

Lab sessions are valuable opportunities to reinforce transversal skills, such as collaborative work, project management skills and problem-solving competences. It is also appropriate to create explicit opportunities for students to learn how to work safely in a lab, to apply critical thinking in new situations, to analyse data, to interpret data, and to record and report procedures and results correctly and professionally.

Appreciating the importance of the lab notebook

Students often do not understand that the lab notebook should be a complete record of procedures undertaken, including rough observations and nascent ideas or explanations generated during the experiment. Rather, students may perceive the goal of the notebook as being to produce a clean, linear presentation of the ‘perfect’ experiment and not an authentic account of their actions and findings. In doing so, they miss out on capturing the complex and creative side of real research. Care thus needs to be taken when setting grading criteria so that students do not simply try to give you what they think you want, but instead take seriously the idea that it is their notebook describing their own experiences. Discovery or inquiry labs, where students are not simply replicating a set procedure, are well suited to learning to appreciate the role of a notebook.

It is appropriate to assist students in choosing appropriate equipment for keeping a notebook, either paper or electronic (for example lims in SV), and in establishing a structure for organising their records. Furthermore, students should learn to see their lab notebook as a legal document important for future patent applications or refuting allegations of research fraud.

Supporting thinking in labs

Asking questions is an important way to check on student understanding, and to keep students moving in the right direction.  The questions you ask may depend on what stage the students are at in the lab.  Here are some questions that you might expect to pose to students:

  • Initial stages: What do you expect to see? What looks like it is going to be difficult to measure/assess/evaluate? What equations/theorems/frameworks do you expect to apply?
  • In progress: What sorts of things are you taking notes on? Are your observations what you expected? Why do you think that happened? What are you going to do next?
  • Concluding stages: Have you thought about how you will do the write up? What have you got out of today? How does today’s experiment relate the course?

When answering questions, try to make sure that the students are doing most of the thinking (rather than relying on you or a TA) by reframing their questions or asking leading questions that prompt them to work it out themselves. You can also suggest that students discuss with another group, review their course notes or refer to a reference book.

You can register to the workshop ‘Effective TP and labs’ offered by CAPE, or contact a Teaching Advisor for assistance finding resources for your field.

Laboratory

Bringing some ‘real life’ into courses

Projects can be short or long and they may take a full semester or just a few sessions. Whilst they may vary in what they are asking for (a construction, a programmed application, a design, a report or a written proposal, etc.) and on the type and timing of deliverables, projects have one thing in common: they put students in (more or less) real-life situations. Interdisciplinary projects often drive students to exchange views with experts or with fellow students from other disciplines across campus.

Despite their benefits, students can also find projects to be quite challenging:

  • Bachelor students are often used to completing pencil-and-paper type exercises, which are clearly defined and have more or less straightforward solutions. Projects which are closer to real-life situations are often open-ended or ill-defined with multiple possible solutions, each of which can give rise to multiple possible difficulties. This can be a challenge for them.
  • Some students can struggle to manage the autonomy which a project gives them, can fail to manage the project process and find themselves rushing to unsatisfactory solutions at the last minute.
  • Some students can find themselves expending far more time on a project than is justified by the credits.
  • Projects often follow a particular emotional trajectory with students feeling interested and excited at the start, lost and frustrated in the middle and either frustrated or proud (and often exhausted!) at the end.  Students who do not have much experience of projects can blame the teacher for their frustrations during the project rather than seeing this as a normal part of the life-cycle of a project.

The following advice may help in organising a project course:

  • Put in place a structure to help students to cope with the “cahier de charge”.  This may mean giving them a very clear outline of what is expected. Where that is not possible (such as in open-ended design or research projects) having a process in place, where students can validate their project plan at an early stage may help them cope with the uncertainty.
  • Students – especially in the Bachelor programme – may benefit from having clear milestones in place which will allow them to manage their time better.
  • Clarify for students what the goals of the course are. For example, if the project is ill-defined because students are expected to learn how to deal with ill-defined problems, then tell them that. While it may not stop them being frustrated, it will at least help them to understand that their frustration is not simply due to bad organisation on behalf of the teacher. Likewise, if they know that one goal of the project is that they learn to be autonomous, then they are more likely to understand why the teacher does not give them a straight answer to many of their questions.
  • In your discussions with them, draw their attention to the emotional and organisational stages of a project. This can help them realise that frustration and feeling lost can be a normal part of a project’s development.
  • If your students have difficulties working as a team, you can encourage them to watch the videos and to read the documents created to help them tackle team-work challenges on http://te.epfl.ch (in French).

In the early stages of a project, you might want to set times for debriefing with groups. This can prevent students from wasting time “hanging around”, while trying to catch the lecturer or assistant.