Engaging my students

In EPFL, attendance at lectures and exercises is not obligatory. This may leave teachers fearing being left with an empty room.

Here are some words of advice on how to capture your students’ attention.

Your class will have students from diverse backgrounds (educational and cultural) and with diverse reasons for taking your course (obligatory, interest in subject matter, teacher’s reputation). When planning your teaching, it is useful to have in mind your students’ prior knowledge, their expectations of your course and ways in which they are used to being taught.

Students’ engagement in class is enhanced when they can identify the progress they are making, and when they have a sense of achievement. Therefore, it is important that:

  • They have the required background knowledge to be able to understand the new ideas presented in a course.

  • The tasks assigned in the course should be challenging but not insurmountable.

So, to start, you may want to assess if your students have the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in your course. If you are teaching in the first year, remember that while students come to EPFL with a diversity of prior educational experiences, they are expected to have some basic level of knowledge and skills.

In mathematics, to clarify requirements before starting EPFL, all first year students receive the book ‘Savoir-Faire en maths’ during the summer months which outlines this content and gives them the opportunity to revise key mathematical skills. They are also invited to self-assess their level.

For teachers of subjects other than mathematics, there are published concept inventories that can be used to assess students’ levels. E.g.: Physics: Force concept inventory (Hestenes, Wells, & Swackhamer, 1992); Chemistry: Chemistry Self-Concept Inventory (Bauer, 2005). The University at Buffalo maintains a list of validated concept inventories in multiple disciplines. Examples of concept inventories in Chemistry tests can be found on ChemCollective, a Carnegie Mellon University project to support the teaching of Chemistry. In case published inventories do not meet your course requirements, a short, tailored survey administered on/before your first class will give you the required information. Additionally, you could ask questions about their motivation and expectations in this survey. 

Talking to other teachers in your section, or referring to the course descriptions of their required/recommended courses will also give you some idea of their potential prior knowledge and skills

Using the information about students’ prior knowledge and skills, you could tailor your course to ensure that the learning is appropriately challenging as well as relevant to your students. Since each group will be different, you might have to tweak your course to best suit the needs of each group of students.

Each educational institution has its own learning and teaching environment and culture. This includes some implicit and explicit expectations. Although there are wide differences between students and between courses, some features of the culture at EPFL are:

  • Students often expect to get your lecture notes (‘polycopié’). Best practices include writing them clearly, without typos (particularly in formulas) and covering only material from the course. See How to produce your own teaching notes (polycopié)
  • Some students do not take notes during lectures. However, since evidence shows that students who take handwritten notes tend to perform better than those who do not take notes or those who type notes, it may be best to encourage students to take hand-written notes. See Note Taking.
  • Many students feel comfortable solving well-defined pen-and-paper problems, but feel less comfortable with open-ended or ill-defined problems or content. Best practises could be scaffolding them and scaling up the ambiguity of the problems.
  • Only some students read reference material other than the polycopié, and mostly when the relevance to classroom content is made explicit by the teacher.

To better understand the teaching and learning culture in your own section you could have a discussion with:

Your students are managing busy workloads and will be making decisions about prioritising their time. Helping them relate to the material and making its relevance more explicit will help them appropriately prioritise your course.

To achieve this, you could:

  • Highlight the intrinsically interesting aspects. Drawing their attention to such aspects will pique their intellectual interests. One of the most effective tools at your disposal is your infectious enthusiasm for your subject. When students see that you are genuinely interested, it will help grip their attention. 

  • Make the course relevant. Consider your group of students, and their prospective future professions. Making the course relevant in light of their future needs will help students appreciate the practical and realistic value of your class. Identify if a course is a required part of their professional training and highlight its importance as a complement to the other courses which make up their curriculum.

  • Help students relate to your course: Speak to your students’ current motivations for being in your class. Consider their background, or their future professions and using examples from their past experiences / future expectations help them relate to your teaching. 

Make sure that this information is communicated clearly and frequently, so that students can be internally motivated to excel in your course.

A class is much more motivating for students if they are actively engaged in their education. There are many ways in which you can increase their engagement. Technology can also be easily leveraged to enhance students’ engagement.

Some ideas to increase student engagement:

Further ideas for generating student engagement and interactivity in class can be found in our section on Evidence-based Teaching and Learning