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Professor Karas about his Utrecht University Outstanding Teacher Award

What does winning the Utrecht University Outstanding Teacher Award mean to you?

Well, it is certainly a great honour to be recognised for the work. Especially in academia, where recognition is very important. However, I do also realise that, like in anything in the world, there is some luck involved. I can imagine that there were equally good candidates. But still, it is an honour to receive the award.

Do you value awards?

Yes, I do value awards.

According to you, what is ‘outstanding teaching’ and what would make an ‘outstanding teacher’?

*after quite some thinking* Empathy, so the ability to understand how others feel and think, and then to be able to do that as much as possible. It’s one thing to focus on good delivery of content, but it’s much harder to at the same time keep track of the perception of your audience. While instructing, you always need to have these two parallel thoughts; one is about econometrics and the other is about your audience.

Our working memory is limited, so if you want to have space in your working memory to pay attention to the audience, you need to know your stuff very well. That means you really need to practice what you are explaining and only then you can also assess if the students are following. This assessment can be done implicitly, by reading the faces, or through explicit channels. The clickers I use in class are such a channel. (In professor Karas’s classes, every student receives a small ‘clicker’ which they can use to answer the multiple-choice question displayed on the smartboard. They are hooked up to the computer so the professor can see which answers the students have given.) It is important that students feel comfortable enough to share their level of understanding. For instance, allowing the students to talk to their neighbour might help them realise there are more students who do not follow. (This is exactly what professor Karas does in class when the answers from the clickers diverge; he recommends students compare their reasoning to their neighbour. The answers always converge more in the second round of clicking.)

Did you always want to be a teacher?

No. But from an early age I thought that it might work for me. My earliest teaching experience was at the age of 15, when my high school chemistry teacher wanted to do an experiment where some of the students would teach a class. I felt relatively comfortable doing that.

But the real reason why I ever thought that I might be able to do it was that when I explained things to people, they explicitly told me that I could really explain it clearly. And at that point, I thought that since explaining is what teachers do, I should be able to do it. It’s only now that I realise explaining is only 5% of the job. It’s the most visible part but it’s really only 5%. But at that point I didn’t know so I thought this would maybe be something for me.

What attracts you to the role of teacher?

You learn a lot. Being a teacher is really a lifelong learning experience, very intellectually stimulating. I was always afraid of having to settle on a routine and just do the same thing for the rest of my life. But this is the job that is incredibly far away from that. Even though I do teach many of the same courses, I change a lot both in terms of teaching approach and content. I am far from being bored.

Adriana Kerkstra, Class of 2018, is a politics and economis major from Maasdam, the Netherlands.

Featured image by Robert Oosterbroek

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