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Marcel Schaaf: 'Lecturers need to come off their islands'

Biologist Marcel Schaaf is one of four science faculty members who achieved the Senior Teaching Qualification in Leiden last year. How was that and what drives him? ‘Students receive way too often feedback that they cannot put into practice.’

What did you like best about the SKO trajectory? ‘It was really nice to meet lecturers from totally different fields during the three inspiration sessions. I would normally never come across them. For example an interesting discussion ensued about how important knowledge really is. Some people thought that knowledge quickly becomes outdated and that it is better to focus on analysing, interpreting and hypothesising. Maybe it's different in other subjects, but I still think that knowledge always provides an important framework to be able to perform and train these skills well.’

Marcel Schaaf: 'I make sure I know the students in my course by name.'

Is the SKO committee very strict? ‘I also applied a few years ago because I wanted to add more theoretical backgroundto my intuition for education. At the time, they thought my portfolio was too meagre. I just carried on with my work. When another e-mail came along with the possibility to apply, I realised that I was probably eligible now.’

What do you find most important in your teaching? ‘Two things. I think interaction is important: education should be a conversation rather than a story. For example, I make sure I know the students in my course by name. Sometimes there are about a hundred students, so I sit down an evening to learn their names, Luckily there are some  handy tricks for that. I get so much pleasure from it! Sometimes a student is completely surprised that I know his or her name. Secondly, I want students to learn actively.’

'My colleagues know that in the weeks when a course is running I only respond to e-mails at the end of the day.'

What does active learning look like for your students? 'Last year Dennis Claessen and I redesigned the minor in Biotechnology. Fifty students take three courses in six months: on plant, medical and micro-organism biotechnology. At the end of the minor, they have to hand in a research proposal that covers all three subjects. After each course, they have to write a part of the proposal for which they receive feedback. They can then immediately incorporate this feedback into the next section and into the final version. Too often, students receive feedback that they cannot put into practice until much later.’

Sounds great! Can't we do more with this? ‘I am the chair of the educational innovation committee at Biology. Many courses are structured by the academic year. We have chosen not to do so and defined five subject-based learning lines. We looked at how each learning line runs through the study program and brought different teachers within one line of learning into discussion with each other. That was fantastic! For instance, a lecturer in cell biology from year 2 was able to discuss with the lecturer from year 1 how their subjects could fit best together. It's very important for lecturers to leave their own little islands behind them.’

You seem like  a passionate lecturer. But let's be honest, isn't it still mainly the research that counts? ‘That’s shifting a little, look at the attention paid to teacher qualifications. But indeed, young scientists who are obliged to obtain their basic qualification are not always motivated and I completely understand that. Only when someone is appointed professor because of significant educational achievements, I will believe that universities really care.’

So how do you combine your research projects with your extensive teaching work? No private life? ‘Haha, yes I do, I play football twice a week and I coached my daughter's hockey team for eight years. My colleagues know that in the weeks when a course is running I only respond to e-mails at the end of the day, and between April and September I don't teach. But then I still have to make sure that my next research proposal is finished before teaching starts again.'

Senior Taching Qualification (SKO)

Every year about fifteen lecturers at Leiden University obtain an SKO. This qualification shows that you are didactically and educationally strong and that you contribute to the development of education beyond your own subject or department. Senior lecturers are eligible on the basis of their CV, reflection and portfolio. The programme includes three inspiration sessions and, if desired, individual coaching. Read more>

Text: Rianne Lindhout

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