“Face-to-face teaching is so much better than teaching online”

Rachid Cherkaoui electrical engineering professor since 1999. © Alain Herzog/EPFL

Rachid Cherkaoui electrical engineering professor since 1999. © Alain Herzog/EPFL

Rachid Cherkaoui, an electrical engineering professor since 1999, has been named this year’s best teacher in the electrical and microengineering section.

2021 was the year it finally happened. Rachid Cherkaoui has been named this year’s best teacher in the electrical and microengineering section – but that doesn’t mean he plans on switching to online classes permanently! “One thing the pandemic has taught me is that face-to-face teaching is so much better than teaching online,” says Cherkaoui. “To be totally honest, I think this prize honors my many years of teaching, and not just this past year in particular.”

“I rely heavily on intuition,” explains Cherkaoui. “Making eye contact with students is the only way to understand if the message is getting through. Then you can adapt your teaching accordingly.” Especially if you teach a Bachelor’s class at 8am on a Friday morning! “Students would connect to the class, but they weren’t all at their screens,” says Cherkaoui. “I would ask ‘Do you have any questions?’ and get no response. I would repeat ‘So you don’t have any questions?’ Again, no response. I was surprised, however, that their results weren’t bad at all.”

Therefore, this school year Cherkaoui intends to teach all his classes face-to-face. For the few students who are unable to attend in person, he will make last year’s recordings available. “Teaching remotely was a great experience, but it completely changes how you interact with students,” he says.

Breaking the ice

Experience has taught Cherkaoui that during in-person classes, his first task should be to encourage interaction. It’s important to break the ice, so that students aren’t afraid to go up to him after class and ask questions in private. Cherkaoui does admit, however, that if he can answer a question in front of the whole class, then it benefits everyone. Students can also be very shy around one another. “It’s the teacher’s job to prompt and support interaction so that everybody leaves the class feeling satisfied,” explains Cherkaoui.

It’s equally important to keep the subject interesting and bring it to life. For example, Cherkaoui teaches a Bachelor’s class on electric power systems. “This class doesn’t change much from one year to the next because it covers basic, fundamental concepts,” he says. “But I change how I teach it. That keeps me motivated – otherwise I might as well play a tape recording,” he adds candidly. “Students love stories. I always try to think of a personal anecdote or use a recent news story related to power grids,” he says. “If my students stick with the subject, then I see that as a success.”

Increasing popularity

Cherkaoui also teaches Master’s-level classes on power system dynamics and the electricity market. These topics change a lot faster and touch on burning issues, such as how to implement renewable energy systems coupled with power storage technology, develop smart grids, and maintain power-supply security. Cherkaoui has seen the growing importance of these topics reflected in his classes. “When I first started teaching, there wasn’t much interest in my classes on power grids,” he says. “But since major blackouts started occurring, like those in Italy and the northeastern US in 2003, almost three times as many students have been signing up.”

Cherkaoui studied at EPFL for a long time before becoming a professor himself. He completed a Master’s degree in electrical engineering, and ten years later – following a spell in the private sector – obtained a PhD. “Many of my teachers impressed me while I was a student,” he says. “Sometimes I take inspiration from them for my own teaching.”