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Initiatives to support EPFL students before the winter exams

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It’s not easy to stay motivated given the challenges of distance learning, lack of social contact and difficulties in maintaining study habits. But help is available. EPFL is committed to supporting its students, and a range of initiatives have been rolled out.

Staying motivated can be challenging for students, who started out the semester attending one-third of their classes in person, only to switch to 100% remote learning in November 2020. Quite a few of them have been disoriented by the sudden disappearance of a class setting, the lack of student/teacher interaction – either during breaks or at the end of the day – and the struggle to stay focused on Zoom for long periods of time. The new format of the winter session exams, which has partly been hold online, are a further source of stress.

“The restricted access to the campus changed everything,” says Manon Boissat, a third-year Bachelor’s in electrical engineering student and Vice President of AGEPoly, EPFL’s student association. “That’s why we asked that failing exam grades not be counted. How can you know if you’ll earn a passing grade when you can’t study with your friends and measure yourself against others?” EPFL exceptionally allowed students who have obtained a mark below 4 to retake the failed test at the next winter session without it counting as a new attempt. In case of a second attempt, the Registrar’s Office will keep only the best of the two marks on the report card.

A wide range of initiatives

Still, a AGEPoly survey to which more than 6,800 EPFL students responded, and whose results were published on 16 November 2020, found that “the examination process is the biggest source of uncertainty for students as regards their future, and this uncertainty is a major cause of stress and discouragement.”

To address this, a whole range of initiatives have sprung up on campus at every level: between students as well as by student associations, faculty members and the Vice Presidency for Education. These initiatives are designed in response to lessons learned from last spring’s completely unprecedented lockdown.

«It’s not only first-year Bachelor’s students who experience feelings of loneliness, isolation, discouragement, stress and a fear they are not ready for winter exams – although Master’s students seem to be faring relatively better.»

One important new initiative is a mentoring system for first-year Bachelor’s students, since for them everything is new and they may not have had the opportunity to make friends or form working groups before the shutdown. Under this new initiative, set up by AGEPoly and EPFL’s sections with the suport of the Vice Presidency for Education, groups of around ten new students are assigned to second- or third-year Bachelor’s-level (or even Master’s-level) mentors who provide support. “We wanted to create a student-oriented support system: the mentors encourage students to seek help and to ask questions. They also help build team spirit by making everyone work together, so as not to lose the studying momentum,” says Nicolò Ferrari, a third-year Bachelor’s in physics student and President of AGEPoly. Although he regrets that the mentoring system was launched somewhat late in the semester, with the result that some first-year students did not take part, he’s pleased with the positive feedback.

“Providing the best support possible”

It’s not only first-year Bachelor’s students who experience feelings of loneliness, isolation, discouragement, stress and a fear they are not ready for winter exams – although Master’s students seem to be faring relatively better. The counseling service within EPFL’s Student Affairs office provides one-on-one support on these issues for students in every discipline. Student Affairs has also teamed up with AGEPoly to create the Helping Hand working group. Each Monday, a newsletter on topics related to this semester’s special challenges is sent out to the student community, providing information on programs such as Telegram bots and PolyPrev Bridge. In addition, every Thursday the counseling service sends out tips on how to improve your well-being during the semester.

“Under the current circumstances, students’ stability and well-being are at risk. As a result of losing their bearings, some of them are neglecting the self-care they need (having a routine, eating healthy, getting enough sleep, scheduling activities, etc.) to perform well in their studies,” says Nathalie Ritter, head of Student Affairs. “Hence the importance of our counseling service and our work with Helping Hand, because we offer resources that we hope will provide them with the best support possible.”

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