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‘I take my students with me up the mountain’

It's good to have high expectations of your students, says public administration lecturer Maarja Beerkens. ‘But I don't stand at the top of the mountain telling them to climb up.' This empathic and at the same time demanding lecturer has been nominated for the LUS Teaching Prize.

She generally opens a new series of lectures with a stimulating case. Did Obama manage to get Americans to eat fewer fatty snacks? How do opponents and proponents regard the disappearance of the light bulb? During her classes students consider issues and theories related to public administration in the form of discussions, role plays or sometimes online quizzes like Kahoot. But Beerkens doesn't want to be too predictable. 'I use a different model every time to keep my students interested.' 

It has brought you a nomination for the Teaching Prize

‘My first reaction was: is this real or is it spam? The mail started with "Congratulations. You have been nominated for a prize..." It really is a wonderful surprise because teaching is often one of the least valued activities at the university. I had no idea. My students didn't breathe a word.'

Why do you think you were nominated?

‘What it comes down to is that you like teaching and you take it seriously. I have high expectations of my students. But I don't stand at the top of the mountain telling them them they have to climb to the top; I take them along with me up the mountain. I understand where my students are coming from and how they can get up that mountain. For me education is like a sport. You can't simply say: just run that marathon, and expect them to get on and do it. As a good trainer, you have to keep them motivated and they themselves have to work on their condition.'  

Maarja Beerkens: ‘What drives me in my teaching? The fact that you can have a real impact on someone's thoughtsen een verschil maken. Dat is cool.’

How do you train your students?

‘They have to prepare really well for lectures. For example, by making an analysis of a case and learning the theory from  a textbook. Sometimes I give them three hundred pages of reading, because being able to survive a flood of information is an important skill in present-day society. During the lecture we mainly think about and test what we know and what needs to be strengthened. I want to get the very best out of my students. That's my aim with my lectures.' 

You have been doing this for almost twenty years. How have you developed as a lecturer?

‘First you learn from your own lecturers, but some techniques don't work for everyone. There are brilliant teachers that students spend two-hour lectures listening to,while others make everything interactive - and students still don't feel that they are learning a lot. I don't take just one approach, nor do I think that education mainly has to be entertaining, although there's definitely room for laughter in my lectures. I think what a good teacher does is keep the motivation high. I would say my most important development is that I am now able to keep even the best students challenged. I have to admit, I'm still nervous when I stand in front of a class for the first time; that first impression is so important. But it's a positive kind of stress; it shows that you care.'  

If you win the prize, what will you do with the 25,000 euros?

‘Statistics is very important but it's not one of my students' favourite subjects. I want to prepare students better for working with large-scale data. With the help of visualisation and processing techniques, we can use enormous masses of data for research. To do that, I'd have to develop a whole new course and set up a kind of data lab with a big screen and other digital resources.' 

You've also worked for the World Bank, an international NGO, and you do applied research for the European Union. Do you use this international experience in your lessons? 

‘Definitely. I carried out a study for the European Commission for example on why European students tend not to study abroad very often. I use that in my lectures to explain how statistics are used in society. Also, my students come from all parts of Europe and further afield, and they are often used to other styles of teaching. Dutch students have more experience with interactive education than, say, Indonesian students. You need empathy to see what all these different students need. It doesn't work if you take them completely out of their comfort zone.’ 

Text: Linda van Putten
Images: Merijn van Nuland
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The LUS Teaching Prize is an initiative of the Leiden University Student Platform. Every year they honour a lecturer who had 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 Robbert-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.

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