Universiteit Leiden

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No more sleeping in lectures

How do you keep students’ attention when you have to compete with digital distractions like Facebook? What skills do you need in today’s rapidly changing world? Teachers attended a congress on innovative teaching on 23 November.

Ordering shoes online

‘Is innovation in teaching necessary?’, Beerend Hierck, chairman of the Teachers' Academy of student of public administration, asked Mikal Tseggai, president of the Leiden University Student Platform. Tseggai thinks it is. ‘Students today are not the same as students twenty years ago. We are used to all kinds of technical applications and online communication through social media.’ But he also believes that these online options can prove a strong distraction for students. ‘I’ve seen students checking their Facebook account during lectures, and even ordering shoes online.’

A sea of blue screens

Should we ban laptops and smartphones during lectures? This is a hot question at this conference on innovative teaching. Lecturers often talk about the sea of blue screens in the lecture room. In the best case, the devices are being used to take notes, but they’re also used for distributing ‘likes’. The teachers have different opinions about how to deal with this. Online applications can also be the catalyst for innovation in teaching, as an example given by keynote speaker Eric Mazur illustrates. Mazur is Professor of Physics at Harvard University and is also the founder of Peer Instruction, a working method that teachers across the world use to give interactive lectures.

Eric Mazur: Students stop thinking when all they have to do is listen to the teacher. Photo: Marc de Haan

Get students thinking during lectures

Focus less on content and more on getting your students thinking, is Mazur’s message. When he saw how his students became confused when he came up with less predictable exam questions, he decided to change tack. ‘During traditional lectures students suppress the tendency to think; they have to listen to the teacher. This means that the processing of information and the learning process take place outside the lecture room.’ During Mazur's lectures students really have to think hard and discuss questions with one another.


His students are given homework assignments that they have to discuss with one another via the online learning platform Persuall. They mark difficult passages and ask if any of their fellow students can answer any questions they may have. Students then respond to one another’s suggestions and questions. An automated tool makes an inventory of the interaction of the students and rewards them with points. In his lectures, Mazur discusses the issues and the questions that provoked most discussion online. He stimulates students by asking questions in the form of a quiz.

Students learn best from one another

Mazur demonstrated this quiz format at the conference, much to the hilarity of the audience. He had the participants think in silence about a physics question and then they had to give their answers via a voting system. After voting, they had to discuss the question with neighbours who had chosen a different answer. They then had to vote again. The question is whether their second answer was the same as their first, or whether they were swayed by their neighbour. Mazur commented: ‘This way you never again have students sleeping in your lectures. They stay involved in the lecture because they are constantly giving one another feedback. Students learn really well from one another because they are in the same learning process and understand what is difficult to grasp. That’s something a professor often forgets.’

Online teaching doesn't need to be anonymous

Vice-Rector Simone Buitendijk also stresses the importance of involving students in the lectures. ‘We want to educate involved students. We don’t just want to teach them particular skills, but how to address global issues such as climate change.’ An essential ingredient in this is good education for everyone, and universities can play an important role here. As an example she mentioned the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offered by Leiden University. People throughout the world can follow free lectures by Leiden researchers, such as terrorism expert Edwin Bakker. Buitendijk also emphasised that online teaching doesn’t have to be anonymous, and certainly not in the case of the SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses) where a small group of international students participate online in Leiden lectures.

Vice-Rector Simone Buitendijk, photo: Marc de Haan


The teachers attending the conference were also able to draw inspiration from workshops and an information market. A member of staff of the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences demonstrated how the Screencast programme works. Using this free online programme lecturers can film their presentations with a webcam and integrate them with texts. The combined presentations can be put on the student noticeboard or YouTube so that students can come to their lectures better prepared. Lisette van Lieshout, lecturer in parasitology at the LUMC, is enthusiastic. ‘I can give my students factual information in this kind of presentation so that there’s more time in the lecture period for interaction. With earlier e-learning methods we needed to have somebody from the ICT department present to put the whole thing together. Now I can easily do it myself.’

(24 november 2015 - LvP) 

This was the first annual Conference on Innovation in Teaching, organised by ICLON and the Leiden Teachers' Academy. The Teachers' Academy will be organising a conference every year on innovation in teaching. 

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