Focus Groups

The “AG Fokusgruppen” is a working group of VSETH coordinating and promoting the implementation of so called focus groups. These are a special format of exercise classes for students that have little prior knowledge when starting at ETH.

The Idea

Exercise classes aim to support students in understanding lecture material, working on problem sets, and successfully passing exams. Students have diverse backgrounds and different levels of prior knowledge and assess their skills and abilities differently. These differences can lead to students not daring to ask questions during exercise classes. Such early negative experiences can affect students’ self-perception and sense of belonging and sustainably influence motivation and performance, dropout rates, and connection with ETH. Numerous studies suggest that underrepre-sented groups (e.g., women*, first-generation students) are particularly affected by this. On the other hand, teaching assistants face a very heterogeneous group of students and cannot meet everyone’s needs.

Focus groups provide a solution for students with little prior knowledge (based on self-assessment). The teaching assistants in the focus groups spend more time on the essential basics than in regular groups. This is communicated to students before enrolling in the exercise classes. Professors can easily implement focus groups into the existing setup. They do not require additional teaching assistants or other resources.

Below you will find the answers to the most frequently asked questions for the following interest groups:

A list of the most important milestones of the project can be found below these sections.

finally, at the very end of the page the focus groups team will continuously add some numbers from the project evaluations. For this, see ‘Some Numbers

For Students

Should I enroll in a focus group?

Whether or not you should enroll in a Focus Group is entirely up to you. If you feel comfortable asking you questions in a regular exercise class setting and think that your high school / prior education prepared you more or less well for your lecture, this project will not be for you.
If on the other hand you feel uncomfortable or dumb when asking your questions or just had a ‘not so sciency’ prior education then this kind of exercise class might just solve the problem for you as you will be surrounded by students with a similar background and similar feelings. You can be sure that the phrase ‘there are no dumb questions’ is a reality in focus groups and you are encouraged to ask every question, no matter how basic it seems.

Which courses offer focus groups?

The number and selection of courses that offer Focus Groups change every semester. In general Focus Groups are offered in first year lectures in mathematics, physics, computer science and chemistry.

For Teaching Assistants

What is different for me when I teach a focus groups?

When you teach a focus group you need to be aware that the students in your group classify their own prior knowledge as below average. That means that you should not expect any prior knowledge and explain solutions to exercises in more detail without skipping ‘obvious’ parts.

Other than that it is important to underline that focus groups students are just as intelligent as any other student. Don’t think you have to dumb anything down. Just make sure that your students feel comfortable in asking questions and voice their confusions.

One benefit that you might have in teaching a focus group is the knowledge that all of your students are on the same level. No-one is bored if you explain something in more detail.

We offer a TA workshop for focus group TAs in the beginning of every semester where you can learn how to foster a learning environment where focus groups students feel comfortable asking their questions and where you can discuss with other students what the most difficult parts about your course are, as well as search ways to teach them as comprehensively as possible together. The workshop only lasts 90 minutes and is the perfect opportunity to ask all of your questions concerning focus groups.

Are there any special requirements?

There are no special requirements. If you have ever felt like you are not as smart as other people in the room or if you ever felt like you lack knowledge that someone simply assumes you have in an exercise class, you are perfectly qualified to teach a focus group.

Of course there are some tips and tricks on how to teach a focus group especially focusing on ‘how do I foster a learning environment where all of my students dare to ask their questions’. These we will share with you in a workshop at the beginning of the semester when you signed up to teach a focus group.

Is the TA workshop mandatory?

No it is not.

We recommend you coming by as it only takes 90 minutes and was perceived as being useful by former focus group TAs. We will teach you how to foster a learning environment where all students feel comfortable in asking their questions live in class. The workshop has been developed in collaboration with MeWell, the mental wellbeing community. It will also give you time to think about which topics in your course are especially hard for focus groups students and discuss with other TAs from similar courses how you can teach these topics as comprehensively as possible.

The workshop is also useful as we provide some dos and don’ts from previous focus group TAs that might help you along the way.

However if you can’t make it to the workshop due to time constraints or other reasons, don’t hesitate to write to klara.sasse[at] and we will be able to get the information to you in one way or another.

For Lecturers

How do I need to adapt my exercise class set up?

Not at all.

Focus groups happen in the regular exercise class setting. That means they will solve the same exercise sheets, you can expect the focus groups to follow the speed of the lecture and there is no need to change anything in the sign up process except for marking the focus groups.

Do I need additional TAs?


The focus group TAs are recruited from your pool of teaching assistants. You or we will send out an email to inform them on what focus groups are. Then we will ask them who is interested in teaching such a group and as soon as we have the names of the volunteers, the focus groups team will take over the rest of the organisation with the TAs.

What is my role?

What we need from you:

  • Approval: We need your approval to offer focus groups in your lecture
  • Names of the volunteering TAs: we can send you a template email to inform all of your TAs about focus groups and ask for volunteers. (of course you can also send out your own email). As soon as we have the names of the focus group TAs we take over.
  • Information: we need you to inform the students about what focus groups are before the sign up for the exercise classes opens. This can be done verbally in class when you explain the exercise class set up or via email beforehand. Additionally you should mark the focus groups on the website where students sign up such that they can make an informed choice.

Of course the focus groups team helps you in every step and provides all necessary materials and templates.

What is taught in this TA workshop?

The focus groups team has made a collaboration with the mental wellbeing community MeWell. They help us in making a workshop where we discuss how to foster a learning environment where everyone dares to ask their questions by thinking about what hinders some people from doing so.

Other than that TAs have the opportunity to talk to other TAs teaching similar classes on which concepts of their course are especially difficult for focus group students and work on solutions to teach them in the most comprehensive manner.


One of the milestones of the focus group working group is the steady growth of the project. Every autumn semester, more lectures are added to the project and more people are convinced by the idea. In HS21 there was one focus group in one department, in HS22 there were already 10 focus groups in 4 departments and in HS23 there were 16 focus groups in these same departments. We also saw steady growth in the spring semester.

In FS23, the focus groups were discussed at a departmental conference in the Department of Chemistry. The department is very supportive of focus groups and made a strong recommendation in favour of establishing focus groups in a series of first year lectures. These lectures include both first year lectures at the department itself as well as service courses from other degree programmes.

In FS24, various discussions took place between the EPT Hub of the Department of Physics, the department’s teaching officer and the focus group working group. It was decided to migrate the ‘Exercise Class Market’ initiative from the Department of Physics, which has existed here since 2013, and the idea of focus groups and to firmly integrate focus groups into the Exercise Class Market. Both initiatives are to be used together to ensure a more inclusive and instructive practice programme.

Some Numbers

Pilot Project Autumn Semester 2021

In the fall semester of 2021, a pilot took place with two focus groups in the Physics I lecture of the first year in Mathematics / Physics. The pilot was very successful: 79.6% of the focus group participants passed the exam (compared to 74.6% in the entire cohort). The proportion of women in the focus groups was 52.5%.

More numbers on the first pilot can be found in the following document:

Project Evaluation Autumn Semester 2022

In the autumn semester of 2022, a further evaluation of the project was carried out with 10 lectures from a total of four departments (Chemistry, Computer Science, Mathematics and Physics). The final report has not yet been published. However, the initial figures show once again that focus groups are of great interest, especially for students with a non-mathematical/physics background.

Educational background of focus group students versus regular exercise classes, 358 responses

It is also clear that many students with a non-high school educational background value the focus groups. For example, 17% of the students in focus groups have completed a passarelle, while this percentage is only 8% in conventional practice groups.

Further analyses, explanations of the methodology and the scales used will be published with the evaluation report. However, a final picture should provide a little pre-view.

Graphical illustration of some evaluation elements, analysed by exercise class type and student success in the chosen format