Universiteit Leiden

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Anna Loh

Teaching students to work together: 'This course came at exactly the right time'

Collaboration is becoming increasingly important in university education, but how do you get students to actually work together? On a special training day, lecturers from the Faculty of Humanities pondered these and other questions. What did they learn and what do they take with them into their teaching?

University lecturer Hannah De Mulder: 'The course came at exactly the right time for me: I was just then working on the details of my Virtual International Cooperation project, in which students from the Netherlands collaborate online with students of Vigo University in Spain. I thought it would be nice to exchange ideas about this and to pick up some tips and tricks. What I learned from the training course was that, as a teacher, you don't have to do everything yourself. Teaching often becomes more fun when you leave things to the group. For example, one of the assignments from the training was to submit a question you would like to discuss to colleagues. The twist was that you yourself were then only allowed to listen to your colleagues discussing that issue. That fly-on-the-wall principle yielded some very surprising insights.

‘Meanwhile, I have also tried out some teaching methods on my students in the Netherlands, such as the concept of Silent Democracy. As a lecturer, you indicate what the topics are from which to choose. Then the students themselves choose how to divide themselves over those topics by standing on a certain spot in the lecture hall. Initially, many students walked to the same spot, but they made sure to balance the distribution without my intervention, because they themselves saw that that would work better. I consider that a really useful result.'

University lecturer Johan de Jong: 'People often think philosophy is a solo activity, but actually you often don't know what you are thinking until you discuss it. It is precisely in the exchange with others that ideas take shape. That’s why, since last year, we have had a course that centres on collaboration. For us as teachers, this raised the question of how to properly supervise such cooperation. On the one hand, cooperation is a skill that students acquire mainly by trying things out; on the other hand, as a teacher, you want to offer the right advice.

‘The workshop covered different teaching methods to try to find that balance. Some of these I have already used in my own lectures. For instance, I had students evaluate the collaboration process so far by interviewing members of other groups. What went well, and what didn't? In the end, they had to give each other tips on what could be improved. That worked out very well. Another aspect from the training course that I have refered to is that a group process, if it is good, starts with a stage of creativity, which eventually culminates in an orderly product. I now advise students to structure their process accordingly, as well as to think about which part they are strongest in. You might find yourself in a group of five creative people. In that case, you need to keep an eye on whether there will actually be a result in the end, while orderly groups may need to put more emphasis on brainstorms and room for creativity.'

University lecturer Looi van Kessel: 'As a lecturer, I am increasingly involved in group work. On the one hand, this is a way of efficiently engaging ever larger groups of students, while, on the other, we increasingly recognise that students need skills that allow them to work in groups after they graduate. That does mean that, as a teacher, you have to make sure you get all students involved in group projects, which can at times be quite difficult: there is a lot of uncertainty about what works well didactically for group work. It was nice to discuss this with colleagues during the training day. We also tried out various teaching methods ourselves and put ourselves in the student's shoes again to experience what does or doesn’t work. That was also very instructive, and I learned a lot, especially in the area of coordinating and preparing group processes.: that it takes a lot of time, for example, but that you have then already done half the work.'

The lecturers interviewed attended the training 'Begeleiding samenwerking studenten in projectsituaties'

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