“Being a good prof' means sincerely wanting your students to learn”
Teaching is part of her job, but Vasiliki Tileli doesn’t view herself as a full-time teacher. That didn’t stop her from completely revamping her lectures in response to negative student feedback – and winning the 2022 best teacher award for the materials science and engineering section.
“If I wanted to be a full-time teacher I wouldn’t have gone down the research path – I would’ve gotten a job at a high school back in Greece,” says Tileli, not one to mince her words. Today her career involves teaching “only” part-time, through her role as EPFL associate professor and head of the School’s Laboratory for in situ Nanomaterials Characterisation with Electrons, yet that didn’t stop her from being voted best teacher in her section.
“Teaching is part of my job, but that certainly doesn’t make me the perfect teacher!” she says. And she admits to being frustrated that she can’t invest all her time and energy in her students. “If you look at the ideal in ancient Greece, the main role of academics was to educate their younger colleagues,” says Tileli. “Now I try to do that as best I can.”
But her first love is research, and that’s the direction she chose for her career. “I’ve always been driven by curiosity. At a young age I already wanted to know all about how matter and materials work.” Tileli notes that sometimes people ask why she didn’t go into history or philosophy. “Those two disciplines are everywhere in Greece, to the point where it’s almost too much.” As a Bachelor’s student, she was particularly interested in physics and chemistry, and when she heard about a new materials engineering program at the University of Ioannina, the largest city in Epirus, she didn’t think twice about signing up. “Since it was a new program, a lot of Greek professors who had been living in the US came back to teach it. That created a fantastic dynamic,” says Tileli. That’s when she understood “just how instrumental a good professor can be in getting students to like a subject.”
A dream that turned into a nightmare
After graduating with a materials engineering degree, Tileli obtained a PhD from SUNY Polytechnic Institute’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering in Albany, New York, and then completed a postdoc at Imperial College London. “I was thinking seriously about going back to Greece after my postdoc, but then someone told me about the associate professor position available at EPFL. For me it was the dream job in every respect – probably one of the best in the world in my field.” And she still can’t believe she got it. “All the stars must’ve aligned,” she jokes.
But the dream quickly turned into a nightmare. In the class evaluations Tileli received at the end of her first year of teaching, 80% of the students made negative comments. “It was a real shock, so much so that I considered giving up,” she says. But then she took a step back and reflected on the feedback. “I realized there are considerable cultural differences between the Swiss school system and the ones I’d experienced before. For instance, here students go directly from high school to university without taking an entrance exam and with a relatively narrow set of technical skills.”
Tileli discussed the feedback with her students and had several “sometimes very tense and emotional” conversations. She realized that her lectures were too advanced and theoretical. “Students didn’t really get the bigger picture,” she says. So she took the bull by the horns. “I completely revamped my lectures to include lots of concrete examples and to regularly make the link between theory and practice.” Her efforts paid off, since the following school year, the ratio between positive to negative feedback switched.
Catching students before they lose interest
“In my opinion, being a good professor means sincerely wanting your students to learn and helping them advance,” says Tileli. “In that sense, I guess you could say I’m a good professor.” She goes on to note that: “The biggest challenge for a professor is finding a way to make the material easy to grasp. One of the best ways to do that is by knowing your subject inside out and owning it. You have to understand something thoroughly before you can explain it in simple terms.” There’s another aspect Tileli feels is important. “When we teach, we’ve also got to be attentive to our students and spot those who are about to lose interest or give up. That way, we can give them the support they need as quickly as possible.” She found that identifying these students was one of the hardest things about teaching remotely during the pandemic.
Tileli took up her current position as associate professor in April 2023. This has given her another reason to “improve my French.” But only up to a point. “Students need to learn the technical terminology in English – if I speak French too well, they’ll want to stick to that language!”