“I like being intellectually challenged or surprised by students”

Erwan Morellec likes discussing with students. © Alain Herzog 2019 EPFL

Erwan Morellec likes discussing with students. © Alain Herzog 2019 EPFL

Erwan Morellec, a professor at EPFL’s College of Management of Technology and director of the doctoral program in finance, has been named best teacher in his section for the third time.

Erwan Morellec may already have several best-teacher awards under his belt, but he still invests just as much time and energy in preparing his classes. He is a highly experienced instructor, having taught previously at the University of Rochester. At EPFL, he gives an optional Master’s-level introduction to finance course – which has become so popular that it’s now offered twice a year – and a PhD-level corporate finance course that covers the latest developments in game theory and continuous time contracts. We spoke with Prof. Morellec about his vision of teaching, a year after we interviewed him for his last award.

How did you feel when you found out you’d won the award for the third time and the second year in a row?

I’m just as honored this year as I was last. I’m glad to see that students enjoy my classes and appreciate the effort I put in to continually improve them. Especially since many of the students who take my introductory class have little or no previous knowledge of finance.

What was teaching like when you started going to college?

The first college-level course I took was a preparatory course at one of France’s top universities. Teaching methods then were still very lecture-based with little interaction between students and professors. The first really positive experience I had was during my first stochastic calculus course with Professor Monique Jeanblanc. Her enthusiasm for the subject was contagious, and she was always trying to take us as far as she could.

How would you describe the perfect teacher?

To me it’s a teacher who helps students progress by equipping them with analytical and critical thinking skills, and who makes classes enjoyable for students so they have a fun time learning. I was lucky enough to have a few teachers like that. They stood out because – unlike the others who focused narrowly on specific topics and spent a lot of time on equations – they showed us how all the moving parts worked together. That gave us a big-picture view and a better understanding of entire systems, without comprising our technical capabilities. That’s what I also try to do when I teach.

Do you remember when you first started teaching?

The first class I taught was when I was a PhD student at HEC Paris, and I was asked to give a refresher course in mathematics to managers. These were people who had many years of professional experience, very little time and not qualitative backgrounds in non-technical subjects like law or political science. It was a real challenge, and I tried to do the best I could using simple examples and concrete applications that would be useful in their everyday lives.

What’s your favorite thing about teaching?

I like sharing my knowledge and experience with students, whether in relation to the “simple” subjects covered in my introductory course or the more “advanced” subjects covered in my PhD course. If I do my job right, then students will progress and improve – thereby opening doors for their careers. In my PhD class, I try to give students a solid foundation so that they can push their own limits and eventually surpass mine. I’ve had some really constructive conversations with my PhD students that have forced me to think about things in a new way. And thanks to some of them, I put in an extra effort to stay at the top of my game. One of the things I like best is being intellectually challenged or surprised by my students.

Why do you believe teaching is such an important profession?

Because as teachers, we are helping to build the future. Take the two classes I give – each one has a different goal. In my Master’s class, I aim to give EPFL students a basic understanding of finance so that they can assess the feasibility of a new technology or a business. They need to know how to finance a project or idea, how to manage a portfolio and how to plan for retirement. They also need to understand how a central bank’s decisions can affect interest rates, for example. So I want to give them the keys to unlock the doors that they will come across later in life. In my PhD class, the goal is to lay the foundations for future knowledge. I spell out for my students the latest developments in the finance industry and explain why they are important, and I suggest different paths they can take. 

What changes did you make to your class last year?

I updated over 100 of the slides I use in my Master’s class and added two new case studies, so that students can look at real challenges companies faced. That made me realize how hard it is for students to apply some aspects of financial theory in the real world. So for this school year, I developed a new case study that we discuss in class and that students can use as a basis for assessing new technologies or businesses. I also regularly update the materials I use for my PhD class to make sure I cover the state of the art in corporate finance. Here my goal is a little different because I’m also trying to choose students whose theses I may want to supervise. So the class has to be interesting but also very challenging.