Planning a Course

In teaching, as in most things, planning and preparing is the foundation for success. That is why it is so important to pay careful attention to course design.

The “Planning a Course” section:

  • Leads you through the Course design process.
  • Helps you complete the Course Description, the official description of your course which is made available to students, other teachers and the public.
  • Suggests some practicalities to observe before the first class.
  • Explains teaching load statistics and the issues involved in teaching in another university.
  • Directs you to the academic calendar for teaching, you will need Gaspar access.

Importance of course design

Introducing a new course or having to adopt and adjust an already existing one requires you to clearly define the aims – or learning outcomes – for the course.  It also requires you to understand your students, their background knowledge and their goals.  Putting these two together, you can then design and organize your course reflecting your particular students and your goals.

If you want to set up a new course, get in touch with the Section Director or with the relevant Doctoral Program Director.

Having agreed on a new course, you will then want to think about what you will teach and how. One possible point of departure is to write down a list of the content areas that your course will cover and try to match this to your students’ prior knowledge (you can get an idea of their prior knowledge from their study plan or from talking to other teachers in the section).  Secondly, you can list what you want them to be able to do at the end of your course. Thirdly, you can list the teaching methods that you think will best help your students to meet these goals.

When you have completed this task, explain your course design to a colleague or to a Teaching Advisor. Their feedback may help you to identify elements that need clarification, or to adjust your ambitions for the course.

Course types and timetables

The 4 official teaching categories are: lectures, exercises (also called recitations), practicals (including labs) and projects; these are not mutually exclusive.

They are shown in the course timetable by lecturer and study plans.

These categories are defined during the drawing-up of the study plan, based on discussion between the lecturer and the section’s Teaching Commission. They are then approved by the Conference of Section Directors (CDS).

Most courses have a final examination which the lecturer may complement by mid-term tests that count towards the final mark.

Some courses have no final examinations and are instead assessed on a continual basis. Continual assessment may include grading of practicals or projects, mid-term exams, or even exams carried out in the last teaching week of the term.  As such, continuous assessment allows lecturers a high degree of flexibility in setting assessments.

Teaching Language

The official languages of EPFL are French and English. Bachelor courses are normally taught in French, though exceptions can be made, if the section agrees.  Master courses are typically in English, but can be taught in French also. Some first-year courses are offered in German, French and English. The regulations governing teaching language can be accessed here.

The course description 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 well in advance of the course being taught.

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.

Course prerequisites

Many courses have course prerequisites identified on their Course Description.  These are listed as:

  • Required courses (courses that a student must have before taking this course. Whether or not a student has the required courses is checked by the teacher or the section, not by the Registrar’s Office).
  • Recommended courses (courses that a student should have before taking this course. Whether or not a student has the recommended courses is not controlled by anyone except the student).
  • Important concepts to start the course (since many students – especially at master’s level – come from other universities, where the course titles may not be the same, this heading describes the pre-requisite knowledge and concepts for the course).

Weight/workload of a course within the student’s study plan

The weight of your course is defined by the number of ‘ECTS’ credits allocated or by its coefficient (for courses in the first year only) (ECTS stands for “European Credit Transfer System”).  This is the standard way of describing a course workload in the European university area.

  • One ECTS credit is taken, in EPFL, to represent, on average, 30 hours of total work per student.
  • A full-time student is expected to take 30 ECTS credits in a semester (60 credits in a standard, two-semester, year).
  • If the semester is thought of as being about 15-weeks long (14 teaching weeks, plus exam time), this means 1 ECTS credit translates as, on average, about 2 hours of student work, per week.  This translates as a total student workload for all courses of about 60-hours work per week (data from students shows that this is broadly accurate: the 2011 Campus Survey found students work on average between 50 and 60 hours per week, though this varies a great deal depending on the section and the year of study).
  • 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 preparation 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 student individual work (reading, homework, projects etc.) and fewer timetabled lecture, lab or exercise hours.

The credit (or coefficient) weighting of a course is defined in the study plans and in the course description.

If in doubt, the best is to discuss this with the Section Director.


A “course description” (livret de cours) provides all the necessary information about a course. It outlines the teaching format, the course content, the intended learning outcomes, the grading system, the amount of ECTS credits allocated to the course and the language(s) in which the course is taught. You can explore many course descriptions by visiting IS-Academia.

Each teacher is responsible for defining their course’s description, which is then validated by the relevant section. Some aspects of the course can only be modified after agreement with the section (e.g., teaching language and ECTS credits). Ensure you know the expected deadline to submit a course description for a course.

How to complete the official Course Description

If you need technical support for completing the course description, you can consult the page “Assistance in completing the course description“. Having a look at Frequently Asked Question for the Course Description might also be helpful.

The process of accreditation for EPFL programmes requires that all courses are written in terms of learning outcomes, i.e. clear statements of what successful students will be able to do at the end of a course. If you need to know more on this topic, you can consult the Learning Outcomes Frequently Asked Questions.

Teaching Advisors are available to support you in this task.


Room and timetable

To locate a classroom, type the room number in the EPFL Interactive Campus Map search box.

The course timetable team allocates rooms for teaching. To discuss the allocation of classrooms, contact the Registrar’s Office (SAC).  They can also be contacted for occasional room bookings during the academic term.   Rooms are allocated based on projected student numbers, but the actual numbers of students taking a course can vary. If your room is not suitable for the number of students, contact the Registrar’s Office.

The concierges provide the logistics, such as the keys (to the lecture halls and classrooms – lights, blinds, ventilation, locking the room), furniture or cleaning. Operating the lights may require a key (depending on your room), so make sure to check this in advance.

You should note that classrooms do not normally have a computer for projection installed.  Each teacher will normally bring their own and will connect to the projector in the classroom. Access to the projector’s remote control requires a key – if you need a key for the projector’s remote control, contact SAVE.

Make sure too that your computer has a video output that matches the cable in your classroom. Many classrooms have VGA cables, but many computers and mobile devices do not have a VGA output, so you may need a VGA adaptor.

You should make sure to check your classroom before your first lecture, to ensure that (a) it is appropriate for your class and (b) you have all of the material (and keys!) you need.

Teaching load statistics serve to take stock of teaching activities and to analyse them. They are based on data from the study plans checked and completed by each lecturer.

These statistics take a “facts & figures” approach. For each lecturer, a personal table summarises teaching activities and classes by course level (preparatory, Bachelor, Master, PhD, continuing education and miscellaneous). It also sets out three types of activities:

  • Lectures and recitations/exercises;
  • Practical courses (also called TP and including practicals or lab work) and projects;
  • Student support (Master projects, theses, …).

Load indicators

The indicators are calculated as follows:

  • For lectures and recitations the indicators take into account the lecturer’s share of teaching and credits allocated to the teaching activity. Where no credit is allocated (e.g. preparatory year or continuing education), 14 teaching hours is equal to 1 credit.
  • For practical courses (practicals, lab sessions) and projects, the credits allocated to the teaching activity are multiplied by the number of students.
  • For student support activities, the number of Master’s projects, theses and students with tailored curricula is calculated according to the lecturer’s share of support. For example, for joint thesis supervision each lecturer’s contribution rate is 0.5. 

Average load

The average workload of a full or an associate professor is estimated to be 2-3 courses (based on a lecture-exercise course of 3 ECTS and a lab or practical course of 4 ECTS, with 30 students). In addition, they will support 2 Master projects and the supervision of 5-6 PhD students.

It is important to bear in mind that this is only an average and that actual loads may vary.

May I also teach in another university?

EPFL gives you the opportunity to teach in another university (in Switzerland or around the world), provided that your choice respects the laws/ordinances/rules set by the management governing conflicts of interest (see directive number 4.1.1). The request to teach elsewhere should also be approved by the VPE.