News - January 17, 2013

'Getting a reaction from students'

There is more to teaching than spoon-feeding a class with a story. On that the finalists for the Teacher of the Year Award all agree. The five best teachers talk about what drives them, the tricks of the trade, and the students of today. 'I really care about their development as people and not just about their intellect.'
text: Emma Diemont, Alexandra Branderhorst, Rob Ramaker


'Today's students are very dedicated'
Name: André van Lammeren, university professor
Courses include Cell Biology, Structure and Function of Plants, Plant Reproduction and Plant Biology for the Cell Biology department.
Previously nominated in 2004 and 2010. He was Teacher of the Year in 2010.

'People often find moths and horses more fun than plants. You only start to find plants interesting when you see what is unusual about them. So that's what you need to show. I used some of the money from the teacher's prize in 2010 to buy ten simple time-lapse cameras. If you use them to record images over a longer period, you can see how much a plant actually moves.
Some people learn by listening, others by reading a text and others by looking at a drawing. I use different methods to present the material. Personally, I like to visualize things so I use a lot of photos I took myself, from all over the world.
People are better able to understand complex processes if you gradually build up a picture of a situation, process or construction principle. If you help students to figure out a complicated process, you can get much more into their heads than if you provide isolated snippets of information. These days, students work very hard and are incredibly dedicated. They have to make better use of their time than previous generations.
I chose a university career because I wanted to keep doing both teaching and research. The planet is so fascinating and it's great to gain an understanding of cause and effect and the bigger picture. Hopefully, when students go on to become decision makers they will make more responsible, ethical decisions thanks to the knowledge they have acquired here at the university.'
'I want to show what fun science is'
Name: Dolf Weijers, professor holding a personal chair
Courses include Cell Physiology and Genetics, Systems at Work, Bio-informatics Technology and Systems Biology with the Biochemistry department
First nomination.

'It's fascinating to be a cog in the machine of knowledge acquisition. I give basic biochemistry in the second year. We tackle such subjects as haemoglobin, which is used to transport oxygen in the blood. That sounds pretty boring at first but it's really interesting if you think how it could work at all. Haemoglobin absorbs the oxygen from the lungs, for instance, and releases it again in the muscles.
I also try to incorporate the latest developments in the basic modules. You can work your way through a textbook but you can also use recent scientific papers so students get up-to-date information about a topic.
I've been teaching in Wageningen since 2006. Before that I worked for four years in Germany and I got my PhD in Leiden. If I compare these places, Wageningen stands out. I see a lot of enthusiasm and a genuine desire to learn among the students. They come here because they have a specific interest.
As far as I'm concerned, research and teaching go together. I work at the university because I think it's important to train the next generation of researchers. Sometimes research is driven primarily by a political goal. But I always stress how important the desire to understand things is. That is the recipe for success. I try to pass that enthusiasm on to students. I want to show what fun science is and how privileged we are to be able to do this.'
'People came in wearing clogs, a dog wandered through the lecture room'
Name: Huub Savelkoul, professor
Courses include Cell Biology and Health, Development and Healthy Aging, and Food Allergies with the Cell Biology and Immunology department.
Has been nominated for Teacher of the Year five times before.

'Nominated again for Teacher of the Year! I find it amazing that I consistently end up on the shortlist. On the other hand, the Dutch word for professor is literally "high teacher". Teaching should be the number one priority for a university.
Students listen best to other students: if a fellow student is doing the talking, you have got their full attention. I like to make use of that. In the food allergy and immunology course I ask who suffers from an allergy. A lot of hands always go up. If I ask the students how they deal with their allergy, the whole room goes quiet at once. The information comes to life and is more tangible if you relate it to students' own experiences.  
Students have changed over the course of time - they are much nicer now. When I was a student we had women in the lecture room knitting and taking the occasional note, people arriving in clogs and once there was even a dog wandering through the room. Another difference is that students prefer to get easy-to-digest material. They want to know exactly what will be in the exam down to the final detail. In short, less of an academic attitude.
I like to encourage good students by getting them involved in teaching. If a student is really interested, you can offer them something extra intellectually. For instance, we have 10 to 20 students a year who help out with practicals. That is really useful. After all, you learn most by explaining something to a fellow student.'
'I get bored listening to myself talk'
Ljiljana Rodic-Wiersma
Courses include Closed Cycle Design and Managing Urban Infrastructure with the Environmental Technology department.
Previously nominated in 2012.

'I get bored of the sound of my own voice for a whole hour - it sends me to sleep. That is why I always try to get a dialogue going with the students. If we have all decided to spend this time together in the interest of learning, we should make proper use of that time. We need to work hard.
What I want to teach my students is how to deal with the uncertainty in real life. There is probability but no certainty in the universe. That is why I don't give too many instructions in my assignments. That worries and frustrates students sometimes but if I map everything out for them there is little scope left for creativity. I only enter into a discussion if students take the chance to ask questions themselves and develop ideas. Sometimes I'm amazed by a report they have written and then I really enjoy reading it.
That is what motivates me: I really care about their development as people and not just their intellectual knowledge.
 I'm continually asking myself how I can get better at activating knowledge. If I'm about to explain something complex or if I see they are nodding off, I wake them up first. You have to stand up and spell the word "coconut" with your whole body. The blood starts flowing, everyone laughs a bit and this increases the brain's capacity to absorb information.
Students are far more outspoken than 20 years ago. Of course they had opinions then as well, but now they let the lecturer know what it is, whether it's positive or negative. I like that feedback, it helps me improve.'
'Supervision takes up loads of my time'
Name: Ute Sass-Klaassen, assistant professor
Courses include Forest Resources and Sustainable Forest Management Systems for the Forest Ecology and Forest Management department.
Previously nominated in 2011.

'Good teaching depends crucially on the preparation and being committed to the subject matter and the students. That may sound simple, but in my opinion it's the key to success. When I'm giving a lecture, I always look first for the latest news about the topic I'm discussing. What was in the papers yesterday? That shows students that what they are learning really matters, now and in their future jobs.
Personal supervision of my students costs me loads of time. For example, I ask the 50 students currently taking the Forest Resources course to write a report after every excursion. I review all those reports and they all get personal feedback. That takes a lot of time but it's really worth the effort. You see them improve each time. If students see you really care about them, they are also more inspired and motivated to work harder.
What I like most is taking my students on trips. There's nothing better than seeing in real life what you learnt about in lectures. Of course we look at real-life examples of forest management but if possible we also visit a biomass plant or big sawmill. Then you smell the odour of a freshly felled tree and you see gigantic trunks of tropical trees with a diameter of two metres. Believe me, that brings home to you what it means for such an enormous tree to fall in a rain forest.'

From left to right: André van Lammeren, Ute Sass-Klaassen, Dolf Weijers, Ljiljana Rodic-Wiersma and Huub Savelkoul
Become Teacher of the Year 2014
Any lecturer would like to win the Teacher of the Year title, of course. But that is no simple task given the competition: Wageningen University has come out top in the Student Survey for Bachelor degrees for years. How can lecturers enthral, entertain and inspire entire lecture rooms full of students so they vote for them in 2013? We asked education specialist Olivia Peeters of IOWO, an education consultancy that trains university lecturers.
According to Peeters, teaching is not just about getting information across, it is also about eliciting a reaction from students. 'Getting them to think and draw their own conclusions. A passive attitude, merely consuming information, is outdated.' Innovative lecturers use the latest technology. They get students to answer questions via smartphones and laptops during lectures. The lecturers usually know what the stumbling blocks are so they explain them in advance in online mini-lectures. That cuts down on the number of glazed looks in the room. In addition, the really smart lecturers use tricks to make their lectures memorable, says Peeters. 'One gave a lecture on the legal protection of the process used to make Wokkels snacks. He illustrated it by throwing bags of Wokkels into the room. The students will never forget that.'
The university can also help lecturers to improve their teaching. For instance, lectures traditionally last 45 minutes but people can usually only concentrate for about 20 minutes. Peeters: 'Why not experiment with shorter lectures of 20 to 30 minutes followed by a workgroup? You need to see how you can get the maximum amount of information across effectively, not how you can squeeze the maximum amount of information into the minimum amount of time.' Enabling video recording - something Wageningen is experimenting with a lot - is also a good idea. 'When the Nijmegen Physics faculty started doing this, attendance increased. Students no longer drop out because they lose the thread and can't keep up with the following lectures.'
Peeters does not agree at all with the complaints about modern youth, distracted students and doing away with lectures: 'There are still lectures where students are all ears the entire time.'