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‘I build my lectures around the questions students ask.'

Lecturers should take something of a back-seat role so that there is more opportunity for discussion among students. That is what cell biologist Roland Dirks believes. This inspiring lecturer has won the LUS Teaching Prize.

When Dirks recently saw some camera images of his lectures, he couldn't help laughing. And the reason: he himself was barely visible. That is typical for his teaching style. Dirks doesn't stand at a lectern, but spends his time moving about from place to place in the lecture room. And very often he has less to say than his students.  This is how the cell biologist teaches his students about the building blocks of life, such as DNA, RNA and proteins.

Roeland Dirks
'Lecturers have to create a safe environment where students can say whatever they want.'

Your style of teaching has brought you a nomination for the LUS Teaching Prize.

‘It has, and that's fantastic. It came as a complete surprise. I really enjoy teaching, and I love to see that my students appreciate my enthusiasm.But the university is big and I know so many excellent teachers. I must have done something right.'  

What could that be?

‘I don't work my way through a thick pile of Powerpoint sheets. I know from experience that it's a waste of time to race through dozens of slides in a lesson, because that's a sure way to lose students' attention. I prefer to build my lectures around questions asked by students. They tell me what material they find difficult, and then we talk about the issues together. In an ideal situation, other students come up with the answer or the solution.' 

What does that need from the lecturer?

‘First of all, a bit of reticence. I probably spend less time talking than some other lecturers, so that students feel they have the room to join the discussion. And I give them plenty of opportunityto look things up during the lecture. The main thing is that the lecturer has to create a safe environment where students can say whatever the want. I would prefer my students to say something wrong than not to say anything at all.' 

That sounds like an easy role for the lecturer

‘It's far from that! Facilitating discussion doesn't mean that the lecturer can just sit back and watch what happens. I have to know the lesson material inside out because one thing is sure: students realise straight away if the teacher doesn't know something. And not only that, I have to know the solution if students don't come with it themselves. I prepare every lesson in the evenings.' 

You often hear people say at the university that research is more highly valued than teaching. What can a university do to stimulate good teaching?

‘In my department we have chosen to separate teaching and research as much as possible. I would say that there's little point in forcing researchers to teach. If someone has to give lectures when they don't really want to, the outcome will not be good. That's why I and a few of  my colleagues only teach, while others mainly do research. With this division of roles, it's a win-win situation for everyone. We could also do with more interaction between lecturers, so that we can share tips with one another. There's no staffroom at the university, as there is at secondary schools. '  

The winner of the LUS Teaching Prize will receive 25,000 euros to spend on teaching innovation. If you win, what would you do with the money?

‘I run a lot of practicals in the lab. These lectures are a bit too much like classes in school: you have very little time and nothing can be allowed to go wrong. But there are now software packages with which you can create an online lab situation.With this kind of environment, students can don their virtual lab coats, take the right chemicals out of the virtual cupboard and do their virtual experiments. The good thing is that it's OK for students to make a mistake. You see what happens if you mix the wrong chemicals together. I'd like to develop this programme further, together with an appropriate company so I can use it in my lectures.' 

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 given 'exceptional service' to teaching. All students at Leiden University can nominate a lecturer. Members of the LUS then attend a number of lectures given by the lecturers  who have been nominated, after which they select three finalists. The LUS focuses on such issues as innovation in teaching, interaction with students and to what extent the lecturer is able to continuously improve his or her teaching. This year the nominees are Roeland Dirks (LUMC), Maarja Beerkens (Governance and Global Affairs) and Robert-Jan Kooman (Maths & Physics). The winner is also given a place in the Leiden Teachers' Academy and a grant of 25,000 euros, to be used for teaching projects.

Text: Merijn van Nuland
Photos: LUMC

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