Teaching Challenges

Even the most dedicated teachers have to face some challenges in their classrooms. Despite possessing the disciplinary knowledge and preparing carefully, you may need help to manage a class of worried, uninterested or confused students. This section will give you some strategies to tackle some common issues that might arise.

In addition, do not hesitate to share your concerns with someone who could help you, including:

Learning gains increase when students are actively engaged in their learning process. However, it may sometimes appear as if students are not engaging, that they are reluctant to pose questions, take the initiative to start a conversation, or continue one that you have started. Some students might also seem to be unwilling to make eye contact. 

It is important to note that some of this could be due to differing cultural norms. In some cultures, it is common and expected for students to ask questions, to seek clarification, or to volunteer their ideas in class. In Swiss schools (and in many other cultures) this is not a common practise and so students are not accustomed to responding to questions, or asking questions when in doubt. Additionally, in some cultures, making eye-contact with an authority figure is considered to be rude.

However, from your perspective as a teacher, an unengaged class can be frustrating, especially if you are unable to gauge what the students have understood and where they are having difficulties. Here are some ideas that may help you to get students to participate a little more:

  • Build the habit: Students may need time to build the habit of participating in class. Start by introducing some active learning activities from day 1 and slowly increase the number and frequency over the course of the semester. Once students get used to participating it will become easier for them.
  • Differentiate between rhetorical and actual questions: Sometimes teachers ask rhetorical questions to either make a point or to lead into the next part of their lecture. When a question is then posed to the students, they sometimes cannot differentiate from a rhetorical one. To reduce ambiguity, you might want to introduce a question by saying something like, “OK, I’m going to ask a question and I would like a response”
  • Pause after asking a question: It is important to give students ‘thinking time’ after posing a question (rule of thumb – silently count till 10). 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 responding to your own question, they will either not be able to differentiate from a rhetorical question, or will get discouraged and not attempt to formulate a response the next time you ask a question. After a pause, if you still do not get a response, you could use the ‘Think-Pair-Share’ approach described in the Active-Learning strategies section. 
  • Give students time to formulate/workshop their questions: A student with a question may be hesitant to pose it because they are unsure if it is a ‘good’ question, and they are afraid of your/their peers’ reaction to it. Additionally, they may not be sure how-to best phrase it. Using a Think-Pair-Share method for formulating questions, will allow your students the opportunity to vet and workshop their questions with a neighbour before putting it in front of the class. 
  • Encourage and welcome questions: When a student asks a question or responds in class, let them know that their input is valued. Try to avoid responses that would discourage them from engaging further (such as suggesting that the question is redundant – “OK, As I just explained…”, or bluntly stating that their response is inaccurate). While you do not want to tell a student that an incorrect response is correct, you can gently move on 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”. 
  • Use technology to enhance engagement: At EPFL you have access to a wide range of technological tools that you can leverage to enhance student engagement. See here for more ideas. 

You will find additional practical ideas to enhance student engagement here:

EPFL students are typically quite capable and very interested in their subject matter. However, they do have a lot of demands on their time, which might cause them to be late or to skip your class. Students may prioritise courses with heavy credit weighting over courses that have fewer credits, or they may prioritise courses that are more interesting to them, or they may feel that the support materials are good enough to achieve their learning goals. 

However, attending classes and actively engaging with the learning material is beneficial for students’ learning. The contact hours as stated in each course description play a major role in their learning. From your point of view as a teacher, while you try to control the things you can (by giving the most engaging and effective lectures you can), you might want to accept that some student absence is the norm. Think of it as focussing on student learning rather than your teaching.

At EPFL, there are no rules mandating 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). Attendance lists are generally not drawn up. As a teacher though you should not penalise 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. Your class delegates may be able to help you by gathering data about reasons for absenteeism. Another strategy is to give students cause to prioritise your class over other demands on their time. Advice on how to maximise student engagement in your classes can be found in the previous section.

At EPFL, courses are generally taught in French and in English. These languages are often not your students’ first languages. It is worth considering 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. 

You also might have to teach in a language that is not your first language. Practising what you will say will help you increase your confidence. Additionally, recording while you practise will allow you to re-watch and analyse how what you say may be perceived by students.

The EPFL Language Centre offers French and English courses specifically designed to help teachers 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.

“Good morning! Time for a new exciting project!”. You enter your class full of energy and eagerness to engage your students with the new project you have in mind, instead you get frowning faces and never-ending complaints; “But we already have so many other things to do.”

We often see a disconnect between the teachers and the students’ expectations of the amount of work that has to be done in or outside class for a particular course. Sometimes teachers find that students have not put in the required time and effort outside the class, have not read the recommended literature, or attended the exercise sessions. On the other hand, there are times when students think they have too much work for a particular course, given the number of credits it offers.

In general, it is important that you have a clear idea of the intended learning outcomes. Based on that, select an appropriate number and level of learning activities (projects, exercises and assignments) that will help students achieve the learning outcomes without being overburdened. Having a general idea of the average student work time required for each exercise, project or course helps balance the workload. Refer to this section to learn more about course weightages and expected workloads at EPFL. Here are some tips to when faced with issues about weightage: 

  • Students 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 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 complain if a workload seems heavy, but this may not affect their overall evaluation of a course if the work is considered 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.

You may find your students complaining not only about the number of assignments, but also about their nature. As a teacher, you may want to ensure that students understand the value of the work required from them by making the learning objectives for each assignment clear to the students.

The nature of student assignments in a course may be influenced by disciplinary teaching culture, the level of study level, and the desired learning outcomes. While 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. Other types of assignments that may be appropriate based on your course are problems to solve, projects, case studies and analysing scientific papers. While these may be more relevant for the more professional subjects or at a more advanced stage of studies, students will be more invested in engaging with them if they are shown to be relevant to their future professions. 

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.

Learning to work effectively in a group is an important transversal skill set for engineering students, and professional engineers. A series of Resources for student group work include videos and supplementary documents to address common challenges and present useful strategies for working in student project groups. Please use them and share them with your students.

Please note that these materials are exclusively in French.