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‘It's all about curiosity’

The opening of the academic year will see the presentation of the LUS Teaching Prize to the best lecturer at Leiden University. Get to know the nominees. This week: Jan van Lith.

‘I am honestly surprised by my nomination for the LUS Teaching Prize,' says Jan van Lith, head of the department of Obstetrics at the LUMC. ‘I am a gynaecologist and head of a department, so teaching isn't my main task. The fact that my students have nominated me in spite of that is a great honour.'

What is your vision of teaching in medicine?

‘Many students have a particular idea about what it means to be a doctor. I trigger them to test that idea against reality. These days a doctor is no longer the respected man in the village who always knows better, as he used to be. Patients today have increasing control over their own lives, and in our changing world, a doctor is more of a coach than an omniscient expert. Not only that, in five years medical science will have changed completely. That means that doctors always have to continue learning.'

What do students need?

‘It's all about curiosity. Everyone can gather knowledge from books or lectures, but what's important is your attitude. I hope I am able to encourage them to develop a critical but positive mindset. These are the tools to find out how things really are. That's also important on the workfloor. No doctor works completely alone and you can only perform well in a team of doctors by being critical of one another and yourself. Being willing to show your vulnerability is important.' 

How do you teach that?

‘Lectures in medicine are mass affairs. Even so, everyone in the lecture hall has to feel they are in discussion with me. I try to achieve that by asking a lot of questions, after which students work together to come up with the answer to a medical question. And I have no problem letting them see I am vulnerable too. If we have a patient visit, I often ask afterwards: 'What went well? Were there things I forgot to ask?' In tutorials I sometimes play the part of the patient myself. It might mean I play a woman who is unable to conceive and then the students have to answer my questions. It can be a little awkward at times, which is even more challenging for them. It's great having theoretical knowledge, but what's important is what you do with that knowledge in practice.'

What does that ask of the lecturer?

‘Some acting ability. You can't be afraid of bringing emotion to the classroom. Imagine, we are discussing the future of the healthcare system, and then I suddenly bang on the table with the palm of my hand and shout, 'Do you have any idea what all that costs?!' These kinds of shock tactics keep everyone's attention and they also add another socially relevant dimension. That helps make sure that everyone stays interested.'

About the LUS Teaching Prize

The LUS Teaching Prize is an initiative of the Leiden University Student  Platform. Every year the LUS honours a lecturer who has been 'exemplary' in his or her teaching. All the nominees are put forward by their own students. Members of the LUS attend a number of lectures, and then make a shortlist of three finalists. The key areas they look at are innovation in teaching, interaction with students, and whether the lecturer is able to keep on improving his or her teaching. This year the nominees are Kim Beerden (Humanities),  Jan van Lith (LUMC) and Marion Boers (Humanities).

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