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.

Hit the right level

For students to remain engaged in a class, it is valuable for them to have a sense that they are achieving and making progress in the class. There are two elements to this: first they should have the required background knowledge to be able to understand the new ideas presented in a course, and second, the tasks assigned in the course should be challenging enough to stretch them, but should not be insurmountable.

So, as a first step, you may want to check if students have the expected knowledge needed to readily follow your course. This may help them get engaged and feel they are achieving the course goals. If you are teaching on the first year, consider that first year students come to EPFL with a wide diversity of prior educational experiences. At the same time, they are expected to have basic notions of plane geometry as well as the fundamentals of trigonometry and calculus of trigonometric functions. In order to help clarify for students what they should know before starting EPFL, all first year students receive the bookSavoir-Faire en maths during the summer months which outlines this content and allows them to revise key mathematical skills. They are also invited to self-assess their level. Responses are automatic, allowing students to verify their level of maths before the opening of the first semester.

As a second step, you could try to ensure that exercises and other tasks push students beyond what they can comfortably already do, but at the same time are achievable for the majority of students.

Consider their study habits

Each educational institution has its own learning and teaching environment and culture.

Although there are wide differences between students and between courses, some features of the culture at EPFL are:

  • students will often expect to get your lecture notes (“polycopié”). They appreciate these, when they are clearly written, do not have typos (particularly in formulas) and cover the material actually dealt with during the course (and only that).
  • some students do not take many notes during lectures (however, since there is research evidence that students who take handwritten notes tend to perform better than those who do not, it may be useful to encourage students to take written notes).
  • many students feel comfortable with solving well-defined pen-and-paper problems, but feel less comfortable with open-ended or ill-defined problems or content.
  • only some students read reference material other than the polycopié, and mostly when the links to lecture content is made explicit by teachers.

To better understand the teaching and learning culture in your own section you might discuss with:

Give them a reason to learn

Don’t forget that students attending your class are managing busy workloads and will often be making decisions as to how to prioritise their time. This means that they will often benefit from having explicit explanations as to how they could benefit from your course.

To achieve this you could:

  • address their intellectual interests by highlighting what makes the material intrinsically interesting. It has been suggested that one of the most effective tools at a teacher’s disposal is their infectious enthusiasm for their subject. Many students will be gripped, if you can display your own enthusiasm for the material.
  • highlight the practical relevance of technical skills and knowledge which are specific to the profession they have chosen. This would help them realize the practical and realistic value of a class that might otherwise seem very theoretical in their eyes.
  • 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.

Make sure that this information is communicated clearly and as early as possible in the course, so that students can find an internal motivation to pursue the course.

Exchanging views with my students

A class is generally much more motivating and engaging for students if they are asked to participate actively in the course. A teacher can deploy many techniques to achieve this interactive atmosphere in the class. Alongside traditional methods, technology can boost students’ engagement by asking and allowing them to exchange instant feedback with the teacher and among them.

Clickers is an audience response system provided by EPFL that encourages students to participate in the class by submitting responses to interactive questions real time. A chart showing the distribution of responses is generated automatically, thus stimulating general or small group discussions. Additionally, this system could contribute to formative assessment, as it can provide students with immediate feedback regarding their understanding and progress.

Another idea would be to discuss the results of the indicative evaluation in one of your lectures, so that you can trigger a discussion with your students about how to make your course as engaging as possible for your specific audience.

Keep in mind that the students’ representatives can also be a source of rich and meaningful information on how your course is evolving and what can be done to enhance learners’ engagement.

Further ideas for generating student engagement and interactivity in class can be found here.