‘I try to make my students enthusiastic about the subject’
‘My lectures have to be as enjoyable as possible for the students, even when they're about the drier parts of maths.' Robert-Jan Kooman is one of the nominees for the LUS Teaching Prize.
Robert-Jan Kooman teaches ‘support' maths to students of Physics and Astronomy. These programmes have a heavy proportion of maths in the first two years. Kooman, together with a colleague, also gives a course on calculus in the BioPharmaceutical Sciences programme: repeating and building further on the pre-university maths new students have done at high school, with some additional aspects that are relevant for biopharmacy. For second-year students of Astronomy and Physics who are interested in the theoretical side of maths, Kooman has developed an optional course. 'I put together a new set of material, lecture notes, and the package of assignments and model answers specially for these students,' he explains.
Kooman graduated in Leiden in maths, and also obtained his PhD here. After that, he passed the bachelor's in Physics. Later, also in Leiden, he took the teacher training programme in Maths, a master's in Physics and then the teacher training programme in Physics. Kooman has a half-time appointment as a lecturer at the Mathematical Institute and a half-time appointment as a lecturer in the teacher-training programme at the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences.
Were you surprised by the nomination for the LUS prize? After all, you have already won the Faculty Teaching Prize.
‘I was pleasantly surprised! I didn't expect it and certainly hadn't counted on it. But I regard it as a real sign of appreciation.'
You seem to be successful in your desire to make maths enjoyable...
'I think teaching is a bit like play-acting. That's how I try to make it more fun. And I try to improve my own performance every time. I always write up what went well and what didn't go so well, and then the following year I look at my notes again and make some adjustments. I also want to be there for the students. I usually stay in the lecture room in the break, so students can ask any questions they may have. Or else I'll start a conversation with some students myself.'
Is it more difficult teaching maths to students who haven't actually chosen to study maths?
‘I think some students don't realise that the Astronomy and Physics programmes have such a broad basis in maths. They may have seen Vincent Icke on the TV talking enthusiastically about astronomy and thought: that sounds like fun, that's what I'm going to study. We now have a matching day every year for prospective students, aimed at students who haven't scored so well in maths. We give a lecture of three-quarters of an hou - this year I'll be giving the lecture - followed by a tutorial. Our aim is to give students a realistic idea of what the programmes really consist of, so that, if it turns out to be something they're not really keen on, it may be better for them to consider choosing a different programme.’
‘What's also difficult is that the maths I teach is only relevant later in the programme. I always try to make a connection with physics or another aspect of maths, but sometimes such a link just isn't there.'
Maths isn't developing as rapidly as other subjects. Doesn't that make it boring?
‘Maths is developing, but the basis remains the same. And it's that basis that I am dealing with in my teaching. It means you have very little room for variation. In spite of all the innovations in teaching, traditional teaching methods are still the best for maths. You lear maths by hearing someone who is good at it explaining the material and pointing out where the pitfalls are, and then working on the assigments yourself. Nothing much has changed in that respect since I was a student. A video doesn't really add much, unless it's a recording of someone who can explain it better than I can. I do see the added value for other subjects, like physics, for example, where you can show experiments and what happens if you do somethig wrong. But not for maths. For me, the satisfaction comes from actually teaching, from conveying my knowledge and those wonderful occasions when students share your enthusiasm for the subject.’
You don't reprimand your students if they haven't read the material you gave them to study in preparation for a lecture?
‘No, I don't. The students at our faculty have an enormously full programme and they get a lot of homework, including from me. I say at the start that it is betterif they read through the preparatory material in advance - they can see on Blackboard exactly what I'm going to be dealing with in class - but I know they don't actually do it. I didn't do it myself either when I was in their position. Their first meeting with the material is when they come to the lecture; at least, that's what I assume.'
If you win the 25,000 euros for teaching innovation, what will you do with it?
‘I'd really like to spend time researching IT methods that would make it possible for students - particular first-year students - to practise more with the material, in a way that gives them some feedback. And then the research findings would have to be implemented.’
Text: Corine Hendriks
Photography: Marieke Epping
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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.