Who are you?
I am Gerda Andringa, I am an associate professor in cognitive science. I do research in neuro-degenerative diseases, especially Alzheimer’s disease. That research is very much based here in Zeeland. And I am the head of the Science department.
And where are you from?
I am from Zuidwolde in Drenthe. I am a so-called ‘Noorderling’ (‘Northerner’). I grew up in Drenthe, on a dairy farm. My parents would always say: “Why would you want to become a doctor if you can become a doctor’s assistant?”
I have a wonderful relationship with my family but I did leave home quite early, I was seventeen. I decided to study physics, chemistry, or biology. In Groningen. I didn’t think I had enough people skills to become a medical doctor for that. So I picked biology. In the first year there was a lot of stuff about plants. I am not very interested in plants, but later on I discovered my niche: neuro-biology.
How did you discover that?
I got in touch with an old professor, he was over seventy, Béla Bohus, a Czech. He was intrigued by anti-depressants and how they influence the brain. I was fascinated. How something that is physical, a pill or a liquid, can influence something that we think of as non-physical, thinking, mood, mind — that really intrigued me.
How did all of this bring you to UCR?
There were several reasons. My parents in law live here and I have two children with special needs who feel really at home with them. So this allowed me to combine the care for the children with academic work — which I love to do. Another reason was that I had an assistant professorship at the Free University in Amsterdam and discovered that I did not enjoy the culture of fierce competition in research. I did enjoy the teaching a lot. I gave up the tenured position and my friends said: “Are you crazy?” I went to the University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht and set up a big part of the curriculum in life science and chemistry there.
How was the teaching?
I got a bit bored with it. There was not sufficient time to think through things with the students. For the reasons I mentioned we were thinking of moving to Middelburg and I found out that a position in cognitive science opened up at Roosevelt Academy (the then name of UCR). I called the head of department at the time, prof. Henk Meijer, and I asked him: “Are you looking for a scientists or a social scientist?” “I am looking for a scientist,” he said. So I applied, and the rest is history.
So you arrived at Roosevelt Academy, what did you find?
The students, they were so interesting, so inquisitive! I came into the first class I taught and it turned out that several students had already completed reading the book. So I asked myself, “what can I teach these students?” And that question has remained central for me. How can I assure that every individual student in my class learns? I think of myself as exploring with the students what they need to learn.
You have been nominated for the Outstanding Teacher Award of Utrecht University. Which case did Academic Affairs Council (AAC) and Roosevelt’s All Student Association (RASA) build for you?
It is all about students learning at their own pace, from their own backgrounds, within a clear scope set by me. I start with homework assignments and the only purpose of these is for me to get to know my students and for them to get to know themselves. I ask them what they want to learn, what they find difficult, what they find motivating. Some will be struggling, others will not. This sets us a common task as a class and some students become teachers. They can take a next step in deep learning by having to explain things themselves.
How does that work in class?
For instance, in Psycholinguistics, I have groups that I call linguistics experts, psychology experts, and cognitive science experts. I use the term ‘expert’ because I want to set high expectations. Students will have to start explaining knowledge that they take with them from their field. They work in groups of three. One student will explain a concept, the others will ask questions. I walk around and the all I do is facilitate. This works much better than me explaining things in front of a class of 25 students. Students get to ask more questions; there is room for those who do not know that much or find it difficult; there is room for those who work at the A+ level and can stand in for me as a teacher.
Are you open with students regarding their level?
I don’t single out anyone in class. But I will confront the group with what they will need to know, and ask them whether they have covered that all. I always explain why an assignment is there. I am clear about what constitutes D, C, B, and A level work. With formal criteria, of course, but more importantly with examples. Self-efficacy – knowing what you struggle with; knowing how much time you need for certain tasks – is very important in the learning process. It is important for me, and even more important for the students, who will have to work with who they are for the rest of their lives.
Is there a more general lesson in this for the whole of our program?
Well, students need to get to know themselves and instructors need to know individual students really well. This is crucial to effective teaching and learning. If you know where you stand you know what you need. There is this very old theory by Vygotsky in social psychology on the zone of proximal development. Sometimes there will be a task that you can easily manage on your own. If you can, you probably did some learning but not a lot. There are also tasks that you will never be able to manage, not even with help. For teaching and learning we need to focus on what you can just do if you get a little bit of a push. That is what we as instructors are there for, we give a little bit of a push, we facilitate. Of course, not everyone stands in the same place, so not everyone needs the same kind of push.
Is our way of organizing most of our curriculum in terms of 25 students in a classroom the right approach?
The ideal classroom size for me is typically 15. That enables me to listen to every single student and the groups they work in. 25 is difficult for this approach. When I walk past the classrooms at UCR I see a lot of lecturing going on. I’d much rather have five tables with groups of students that are arranged so that they all can see me and easily work in groups. I really believe in working in groups and having a facilitating instructor at hand. On a very different scale, in groups of two or three, I do it with senior projects as well. It’s good for students to have a partner. They can only do so much on their own. And if they meet with challenges they cannot handle then they come to me with very clear questions and needs.
Let us switch to another question: what is your greatest ambition?
Let us set an ambition for UCR, that is more interesting than an ambition for me. I think that as colleagues and students we could work together more in interdisciplinary projects that are in touch with parties outside the walls of UCR. That is my ambition. We are a knowledge hub and the hub needs interaction with the world around it.
Let me give you an example. I work with students about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. These students know that people with Alzheimer’s have memory problems. Then when they became a buddy for people with the disease I had the smartest student say: “This is the third time I visited her and she still does not remember that I will visit her on a Wednesday.” So I said, “But the woman has memory problems, remember?” What the student had learned in class had never really sank in, it seems. We need constant interaction with the world outside; it is an intrinsic part of learning.
At the end of the interview, do you have a message for our community?
In the small community we are, we need to care for ourselves and for each other. Teaching and learning are always a work in progress. Both students and teachers should feel safe in the process. There should be a positive relation to that process. Don’t pull all-nighters, don’t learn for results just for tomorrow. Sleep! Learning works best in an environment that gives you room to breathe. Students have the responsibility to know what they can and cannot do; to really plan; and to make choices. As an institution we need to help them with that. That is why we always need to know where a student stands and how we can help them in their learning process.