Neuroscientist Lars van der Heide coordinates the Molecular Neurosciences track of the Master’s programme Biomedical Sciences. He also lectures in the Bachelor’s programme Psychobiology. His research focuses on the role of the dopamine system in relation to Parkinson’s disease.
For Lars van der Heide, good teaching is all about striking a balance. ‘The highest aim at the Master’s level is to educate creative people. People who recognise problems and come up with solutions themselves,’ he says. ‘So you have to give students enough to solve a problem on their own, but not so much that they no longer have to think for themselves.’
‘I cover maybe three quarters of the subject matter during a lecture, but there’s always a quarter that remains a bit unclear. This is also the quarter addressed by scientific papers, the quarter that prompts students to ask questions and engage in discussion. If I arrive at a point where I have to say I don’t know the answer either, that it’s still being studied, then I know I’ve given a good lecture.’
This is where you have added value as a lecturer, says Van der Heide. ‘When doing a self-study assignment, you find the material in a book, and it’s understandable that as a student you think you’ve found the answer. I certainly did sometimes when I was student. But the value a lecturer offers is in encouraging you to make connections with material you studied earlier. You can’t brainstorm alone either; you need someone to challenge you.’
While a lecturer’s expertise is certainly important, it’s also important to give students free rein when teaching them to become independent researchers. ‘What you want to avoid is that students find themselves in a position where they have to carry out research later but are unable to do so,’ continues Van der Heide. ‘You have to conduct your own research, apply for grants, hold presentations for large groups of people, deal with criticism… How do you cope with that?’
This is why students are given a high degree of freedom during their practical training, such as in the Molecular Biology track of the Bachelor’s programme in Psychobiology. ‘For this subject, coordinated by my colleague Marco Hoekman, the students have to come up with a research question themselves. Almost anything is possible, but because they have to carry out two subsequent experiments, there has to be a common thread. And they can’t repeat experiments, so they have to make sure their results are sound enough to base their subsequent experiments on.’
As a lecturer, Van der Heide has learned to allow students to make their own mistakes to a far greater extent. ‘In a practical sense, I point them in the right direction, although in terms of theory I give them much more leeway. In some cases, they realise after two or three weeks that an initial decision in their research design was flawed. If I had pointed that out immediately, they would have missed out on a valuable lesson.’
He finds it fantastic to see students becoming fully engrossed in their experiments, and it cuts both ways. ‘Students think it’s great to do their own research and the research group blossoms with enthusiastic Bachelor’s and Master’s students around who are still open-minded and unbiased. And, ultimately, they will become the scientists who continue the research we’re doing now.’