Liesbeth Bijlsma started as Senior Fellow: focus on educational innovation and teacher development

In September 2023, Liesbeth Bijlsma has started as Senior Fellow at the Centre for Academic Teaching and Learning (CAT). As Senior Fellow, Bijlsma will lead a project that centres on educational innovation and teacher development in higher education. This trajectory will eventually lead to a full professorship with a specific emphasis on education. This is significant because, despite Utrecht University's appreciation for education quality, full professors specialised in higher education remain scarce. The Faculty of Science interviewed Liesbeth about her appointment.

Why is it important for the Faculty of Science staff to be aware of your appointment as Senior Fellow at CAT?

Within my network, I have noticed that many educators face challenges in effectively supporting students to become independent and critical-thinking scholars. Faculties also experience difficulties with increasing student numbers and heavy workloads, which puts tension on the small-scale teaching methods often used for training critical thinking skills. With my project, and in collaboration with the faculty's programmes, I hope to contribute to finding solutions for these issues.

Senior Fellow Programme

The Senior Fellow Programme aims to strengthen educational leadership within Utrecht University by increasing the number of full professors with a focus on education. The programme seeks to enhance the recognition of teaching and learning as vital components of an academic career and demonstrates that career advancement opportunities are attainable in the realm of education. Additionally, the programme strives to stimulate educational innovation and contribute to the overall quality of education. Senior Fellows play a crucial role in enhancing the university's education standards and serve as a source of inspiration for their colleagues.

Senior Fellows are appointed to UU's Centre for Academic Teaching and Learning (CAT) for two days a week, spanning a period of 3-5 years, during which they have the opportunity to develop the necessary competences for taking on leadership roles and work on projects that positively impact the quality of teaching at UU.

Within the Faculty of Science, there is an ongoing drive to professionalise education. Innovation and teacher development hold a prominent position on the agenda. How does your appointment align with this renewed focus on teaching?

I believe that the faculty's support for my appointment as Senior Fellow is an important expression of the value the faculty places on education. In doing so, they recognise the importance of having more full professors with a focus on education and it shows their commitment to making this happen. Furthermore, the faculty's endorsement displays a promise to fostering career development in the domain of education, which serves as a crucial token of recognition and appreciation for all those dedicated to delivering high-quality education. The faculty’s support also aligns well with other ongoing efforts aimed at encouraging and professionalising teacher development and educational innovation.

Why is it crucial to have more full professors with education as their central focus?

Education is considered one of the core responsibilities of a university. While it was previously believed that a researcher's output correlated with their teaching quality, we now know that teaching in and of itself is a distinct expertise. From this perspective, it is rather surprising that so few full professors currently have education as their central focus.

I believe that the faculty's support for my appointment as Senior Fellow is an important expression of the value the faculty places on education.

Liesbeth Bijlsma

What makes the Senior Fellow programme special?

To the best of my knowledge, this programme is unique in the Netherlands. Since the introduction of the University Teaching Qualification (UTQ) in the 1990s, Utrecht University has played a pioneering role in the professional development of teachers. The university has since set up various very successful development programmes, some explicitly linked to career advancement in education, such as the educational leadership programme (formerly known as 'CEUT'). UU's exemplary role in this area is well recognised and many other universities seek to benefit from its expertise. The Senior Fellow programme represents another step in UU's leading role in positioning education within academia.

What is the aim of the project you will be working on over the next five years?

Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) is an inquiry-driven form of learning that effectively supports the development of analytical and critical thinking skills. While this method is already being used in some parts of the faculty, it is often implemented on a small scale and accessible only to a select group of students. The goal of my project is to implement this effective form of learning on a larger scale within our programmes and to investigate the most effective forms and necessary conditions for sustainable embedding in those programmes. My hope is that this will effectively support a broader group of students in developing skills essential for their professional development. Another key aspect of my project is teacher development, since the successful implementation of IBL relies on teachers' ability to provide appropriate support to students.

Regarding content, the project I am embarking upon aligns well with UU's push for small-scale, student-driven education and the goal to strengthen the connection between research and education, also in bachelor programmes. Moreover, it builds on our experiences with inquiry-based learning within our innovative undergraduate programme, the College of Pharmaceutical Sciences. This programme fosters a close-knit community and provides early exposure to an inquiry-driven approach, cultivating critical and research-based thinking among students. We aspire to extend the benefits of this approach to students in large-scale programmes, for instance, our Pharmacy programme.

The goal of my project is to implement this effective form of learning on a larger scale within our programmes and to investigate the most effective forms and necessary conditions for sustainable embedding in those programmes.

Liesbeth Bijlsma

What motivated you to pursue the Senior Fellow programme with a focus on education?

I have a passion for continuously challenging myself and furthering my development, and I prefer doing this in collaboration with others. I derive great energy from collaborating with passionate colleagues to enhance education. Engaging in conversations about what constitutes quality education, and how to achieve this in higher education, is both stimulating and fulfilling to me. Additionally, I appreciate the opportunity to work on relevant innovation projects that tangibly contribute to the quality of education. The Senior Fellow programme, along with the community it fosters, provides ample opportunity to combine these pursuits. My role as Senior Fellow also allows me to participate in policy-making discussions, which aligns with my professional aspiration to contribute to building a collaborative educational culture where we collectively take responsibility for delivering effective, evidence-informed education to all students.

Finally, when you reflect on your career in the future, what ultimate contribution do you hope to have made to education?

Above all, I hope to have contributed to the development of critically thinking and engaged citizens, capable of constructively and empathetically engaging in an open dialogue on complex societal issues. Achieving this goal requires students to be more aware of their position in society and the contributions of their discipline and profession, as well as those of others. While I am under no illusion that my intended full professorship alone can bring about this transformation, I would be immensely gratified if, from this position, I can make a substantial contribution to gaining more insights into how we can best support students in this development and translating these insights into evidence-informed educational practices.