A little explanation goes a long way

A professor giving students one-on-one help to understand their subject raises questions about the nature of university teaching, says Brian Bloch

February 5, 2015

The weekly news magazine Der Spiegel has reported on a German physics professor who was not hired to lecture at all, or even to research, but to offer “consulting hours”. That is, he helps students with elements of the course that they don’t understand or with which they have problems. And he does so all day.

Alfred Ziegler, a professor at the University of Osnabrück, clearly relishes his role and describes it as “the perfect mix of university and school”. He points to the many students, even on advanced courses, who still don’t really understand the fundamentals of the subject. He sees his job as that of explaining what the other professors really meant and has a note on his door proclaiming: “We’ll get you through!”

This all raises some fundamental and contentious issues about the nature of university teaching.

Most of Professor Ziegler’s work is done in his office, often with small groups of students who have similar problems. He says that this is all paying off, with declining dropout rates (a major issue in Germany) and students who tell him that without his assistance, they would have given up. German universities are notorious for mass lectures in huge halls, producing problems for which Professor Ziegler may be an antidote.

As an undergraduate, I remember asking an accounting professor some questions during his office hours, only for him to whizz through them, obviously keen to get rid of me. I did not return.

Professor Ziegler is 63 and highly experienced. He started his career as a high school teacher, where he learned how to teach and convey complex material so that anyone can understand it. He argues that many of his colleagues do not have the didactic skills or experience to help students to bridge the substantial gap between school and university. This reminds me of my first accounting lecture, in which it was assumed that we already knew how to draw up a trial balance. In fact, I had zero knowledge of the subject and survived two unhappy years of accounting before majoring in economics instead.

Professor Ziegler’s role might be addressing a need that has been added to by changes in the German education system. Shortening the duration of high school from nine to eight years and switching to shorter and separate bachelor’s and master’s degrees (under the Europe-wide Bologna Process) have revealed or created weaknesses in the system. School pupils arguably need to develop some educational initiative far earlier.

Online responses to Professor Ziegler’s initiative have been mixed. Some complain that this “mix of university and school” signals a decline in standards and normalises spoon-feeding of students, who should simply work harder and read more. Nonetheless, he is obviously popular in this unusual role.

It seemed to me even in the days of VHS that there was little point in professors teaching the same standard theory in person year after year. I also hear the occasional horror story of professors whose lectures comprise roughly one PowerPoint slide per minute.

I have always felt that perennial principles could be taught better with a good video in the old days and online now, and that, like Professor Ziegler, lecturing staff would do better just to deal in person with students’ essays, questions and problems.

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