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LTA conference: preparing students better for the job market

Can you, as a university lecturer, base your teaching on your research and at the same time prepare your students for the job market? This was the core question at the annual teaching conference organised by the Leiden Teachers’ Academy on 20 November. The two are not mutually exclusive, was the conclusion.

Some 100 lecturers gathered on 20 November to explore the theme of the conference: 'The changing role of academics in the professional development of students'. The Leiden Teacher's  Academy chose this as the theme of the conference because Leiden students have for a long time been less than enthusiasatic about the preparation for the job market offered by the University. A range of measures have been taken recently to improve the situation: Education and Student Affairs have increased the number of workshops on looking for a suitable job, for example, and the Alumni Office has set up the mentor network. And these measures are in addition to the initiatives taken by the programme departments themselves, generally beside their teaching. But students remain critical. Does this mean that the University needs to change its teaching? 

The Leiden Teachers' Academy is made up of 25 highly driven lecturers, each of whom has 25,000 euros available over a period of five years to work on innovative teaching. Their innovative ideas should be for teaching that can be used by all programmes. Every year the five longest serving members leave and five new members are appointed.  

Teaching conference 2017
Joanne Mol leading the panel, comprising (from l to r) Arjaan Wit, Director of Teaching for Psychology, Ghislaine Voogd, chair of the Leiden University Student Platform), Jan Sleutels, Director of Teaching for Philosophy and Sanne Akkerman, Professor of Educational Sciences at ICLON. The empty chair in the centre was intended for Paul Ashswin.

Research focus still important as well

The opinions are divided, as is apparent from the panel made up of several Directors of Teaching, a representative from ICLON and a student. The panel discussed a number of issues from the questionnaire that the LTA currently has available on internet. The results show that 80% of those who completed the questionnaire (mainly lecturers) believe that research should continue to be the primary focus. Ghislaine Voogd, chair of the Leiden University Student Platform, expressed the students' viewpoint: 'For many lecturers, it's obvious that in their heart of hearts they are more researchers than lecturers.' A fellow student, Voogd told the audience, was given mainly substantive feedback on her thesis. Later, when she submitted the thesis at a job interview, the comment was made that there were a lot of spelling errors in the text. Shouldn't these kinds of skills also be scrutinised? 

Criticism aimed at students

But the students also received some criticism by the panel members. Students tend to experience a wake-up call when they start their master's: help, I'll need to find a job soon. Meetings with alumni do not attract many attendees and if there are two talks during a meeting, many of the students leave after the first one. Students also have to accept their own responsibility. 'They shouldn't be pampered,' was one comment from the room. And: 'We have to help them with career building, not with finding a job.' 

Teaching conference 2017
The pre-conference lunch

Not a contradiction

Several of the panel members were not at all of the opinion that teaching based on research and preparation for the job market are at all a contradiction. All students learn academic skills such as how to analyse issues and how to take a critical approach, as well as practical skills, such as writing a paper, giving a presentation and summarising a text. The lecturers accepted that there are not enough links between their lectures and the later job market of their students. And the solution: always emphise specific skills and explain why they are important for later, and in what context.All the lecturers agreed at the end of the day that something had to change. And that will probably be more than just emphasising the usefulness of particular skills. 

Keynote speaker was Paul Ashwin, Professor of Higher Education and Head of the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University in Great Britain. His vision: good teaching is about knowing your students and connecting their identity with the knowledge they are building about the field, in such a way that they gain a different perspective on the world. He accepted that that is difficult to do. 'Sometimes it will work just as you want, and sometimes not. But it is only by achieving this connection that you prepare students for the job market.' Maths becomes an approach to life, accountancy a moral wash, law an extension of the self. After Ashwin's talk, a critical listener asked him: 'How popular is your vision and how long will it remain popular?' His answer was that it would undoubtedly be overtaken by a new vision within a number of years. But for the time being he continues to stress that a new way has to be found of preparing students for a world that is changing very rapidly. 'It's not employment that's important in today's world, but employability, and that means not a direct connection between teaching and a job, but something much broader than that.'

Teaching conference 2017
One of the round table discussions following the pitches


To prepare for the round table discussions, a number of lecturers pitched on a subject closely related to preparing for the job market. Sarita Koendjibiharie told the audience that in the International Studies programme, for example, every year some 250 to 300 students - making around 900 so far - act as consultants for a company or institution. The students and the companies are hugely enthusiastic about the programme. Jelmer Schalk talked about Traintool, that students can use to teach themselves how to network. He uses the tool himself in the Public Administration Master's. The software can also be used to practise presentation skills, for example. Florian Schneider lectures on the politics of modern China and studies gaming techniques to teach people how to overcome fear of failure, and how to deal with the talents and preferences of participants. In his course, students can choose components themselves that they want to become more skilful at, so they can progress to different levels. (Read the description of all five pitches.)

Teaching conference 2017
Vice-Rector Hester Bijl: 'An inspiring conference....'

Ideas from the round table discussions

The round table discussions generated all kinds of ideas. How can you encourage creativity and out-of-the-box thinking among students and even reward them with study credits? How can you integrate soft skills into your lectures? We often learn skills implicitly, and particularly in a research environment. Students can test these skills in a different setting, such as an internship, and they often realise that they have learned more than they thought. But not all students do an internship; is it possible to incorporate another form of self-reflection? And: teach students to think in terms of personal development and let them set their own goals.

Vice-Rector Hester Bijl complimented all the teachers present at the conference, saying that she felt very inspired by their enthusiasm. 


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