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‘My students don't stop at a six!'

During the opening of the academic year, true to tradition the LUC Teaching Prize will be awarded to the University's best lecturer. Get to know the nominees. This week: Florian Schneider.

China specialist Florian Schneider was on a working visit to China when he heard about his nomination for the LUS Teaching Prize. The first thing he did was to ring his wife. 'I was so touched that students had nominated me. My wife didn't find it so surprising. We talk a lot about teaching, so she knows how important it is to me.' 

Why do you think you've been nominated?

‘I believe it's important as a teacher to have complete respect for my students. That means that I don't want to impose my knowledge from above, but would rather enter into a debate about the material as equals.  Why is that? Well, partly it's that I don't really value hierarchical structures, but also because I firmly believe that you can only help students gain a better understanding of the material. At most, you can teach them better ways of learning, but after that they largely have to do it themselves. I see teachers more as mentors or guides than as omniscient narrators.' 

How do you do that in your lectures and tutorials?

‘First of all by showing my own vulnerability. I regularly try to step outside my comfort zone, for example by analysing figures about the Chinese economy. By talking about this kind of challenge, students see that learning has its ups and downs. The same goes for taking part in debates and in lectures. A student may say something that is factually incorrect, but the fact that he or she takes part in the debate is in itself valuable.  It's no longer about only factual knowledge; you can pick that up easily on line. It's much more important to teach students research skills so that they know how to look for the right sources. I get them to compare Wikipedia pages in different languages, for example. What's different, and why? It teaches them to be critical about sources.' 

'The feedback was phenomenal'

And your students say you use innovative teaching methods?

‘Yes, I do. I recently gave one of my master's subjects in the form of a game. The students could choose from different part-assignments in the form of quests, a kind of adventurous online treasure hunt. For every point they won, they could earn points. It was quite a tense experience for me. Would my students stop once they were sure they had a six, or would them carry on for a higher mark? They carried on! And I got some phenomenal feedback on that set of lectures; almost everyone who took part thought it was great. I also use Twitter to share important reading tips with colleagues and students. Some other lecturers ban mobile devices from the  classroom, but I don't do that. Multitasking is a fact of life; it'll be part of their working life later on.'

'I often work 70 hours a week, combining research and teaching'

What tips would you give other teachers to improve their lectures?

‘I'm convinced that people who are passionate about their subject will become good teachers. The problem is that as an academic you don't build a career on teaching, but on scientific research. I often work 70 hours a week, to be able to combine my research with high-level teaching. That's not a problem, because I love my subject; I have no children and fortunately I have an understanding wife. However, at the same time I understand that many of my colleagues focus primarily on research and that teaching comes second place for them. This is something we need to find a solution for at national level. My suggestions would be smaller classes and less paperwork. That would allow a lot more time for thinking.'

About the LUS Teaching Prize

The LUS Teaching Prize is an initiative of the Leiden University Student Platform. Every year the LUS honours a university lecturer who has made an ‘exceptional contribution’ to teaching. All students at Leiden University can nominate a teacher. Members of LUS attend several lectures by the teachers nominated, after which they select three finalists. The skills LUS are looking for are innovative teaching, interaction with students and whether the lecturer is able to continually improve his or her teaching. This year the nominees are Thijs Porck (Humanities), Florian Schneider (Humanities) and Christine Espin (Social and Behavioural Sciences). The winner becomes a member of the Leiden Teachers Academy and receives an award of 25,000 euros, to be spent on teaching projects.

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