“I was mountain biking in the woods when news of the nomination reached me,” says Mark Bentum, Full Professor in Radio Science at Electrical Engineering . “It was a Sunday and when I stopped for a break I checked my mail - yes, I'm that addicted - and just being nominated felt like a huge honor.” He was asked to make a pitch of seven minutes no less for the SAO (Student Advisory Body) and his preparation was thorough. “I did my very best and it was an enjoyable gathering at which the students posed very critical questions.” That was in June and afterwards he heard nothing until MomenTUm.
His surprise at winning leaps out of the photo taken Saturday October 16th of the Best Bachelor's Teacher 2021-22. “I didn't see the pitches made by my fellow nominees (Jim Portegies, Bettina Speckmann and Hans Jeekel, ed.) and I had no idea whether I would win,” says Bentum. Cursor is speaking to him onscreen. Looking outside, he can see Dwingeloo's huge telescopes; he is seated in his office at the national astronomy institute ASTRON, where he currently works three days a week.
What makes him a good teacher? A modest laugh preludes Bentum's understanding of what he does well when teaching. “I am very committed, but I'm not alone in that. The situation was like this: at our department the percentages of students passing the Electromagnetics II course were very poor. In a very good year 20 percent of students would pass. Then I was assigned that course, since it is a precise fit with my research. Together with my colleague Ramiro Serra, I introduced a new approach.” This is the student-led tutorial, and it was conceived by a Swede whom Bentum and his colleague asked for advice.
“Every week we set the students six very difficult problems - one week before a tutorial - all of which they have to prepare. These are challenging exam-level assignments and often they have a humorous twist. How can you eavesdrop on a neighbor? Explain the prism shown on the Pink Floyd album cover Dark Side of the Moon. They can solve them alone or with other students, by using the internet or by asking us questions, everything's allowed, as long as they are actually working on them. During the student-led tutorials, which we hold in fifteen groups of no more than twenty students, the problems are discussed, with a teaching assistant present to supervise.”
A few rules for student-led tutorials: lecturers give no answers, students decide for themselves which problems they present (but must cross the 60 percent threshold by course end) and report their choices, with complete honesty - something Bentum is strict about. “If it turns out that the student has clearly not presented a problem but has reported otherwise, then we view all their assignments for that session as invalid. Which means the student must work harder in later sessions to reach the 60 percent threshold.”
The main issue for Bentum is that from day one the student gets involved in the course. “Hey ho, jump right in. And explaining to someone else, which we what we facilitate here, is the highest form of learning. And it works. Electromagnetics II is still difficult but now the percentage of successful students has shot up to 60 percent, without any drop in the academic level. And another important gain: students enjoy it more and are now motivated to work hard.”
A very good lecture is not a good form of education, Bentum believes. At his screen, he slumps back in his chair to show how a student listens to a great lecture. “Sure, I can do that, thinks the listener. But you can't own knowledge unless you have taken your own steps.”
By his own admission, Bentum invests a ridiculous amount of time in his teaching. The home front is understanding. “My wife is the principle of a primary school and she sees the funny side. Oh, your work is never done as a teacher. There's always more you can do. But there comes a point when you have to say enough is enough. That's when you're glad of the deadlines for exams, which you don't have in research. That's the end of it.”
Listening to Bentum talk, it seems as if the remark ‘Work pressure, what's that?’ is drifting through his mind. “You have particularly busy times, but that's part and parcel of the academic world. Making choices is my least developed competency. I like to say 'yes'. And I've just agreed to write a research evaluation for a South African colleague and so I'll have to do that during my next two train journeys between Beilen and Eindhoven. Just about doable.”
Even though he considers the gaming platform Discord unsuitable for use in education, Bentum and his colleague have nonetheless opened a Discord channel to enable students to discuss assignments between themselves. “Every student is familiar with Discord and we have tried to introduce a little structure. To be honest, we've embraced it. It has become a massive success. We have had two thousand interactions on the platform this year.” When they see that student collaboration has hit a brick wall, the lecturers step in. Not with answers but with pointers.
Students can ask him anything, at any time. “Personal problems I cannot solve for them, but they are free to ask me anything. And they know I'll always respond quickly.” Bentum recalls a student who could not sit an exam in the traditional way due to medical issues. “We came up with a solution and the student passed the exam. That's what I do it all for! Going an extra mile to give a student the chance to go on to the next level of study.”
What else does the Best Bachelor's Teacher want to achieve in the educational field? “I would like to do more research in innovation in education. This is something we have been awarded BOOST! funding to do. And I'll be using some of the 10,000 euros I've just won to create a MOOC on radio astronomy, together with colleagues here and at other universities. But I'll also use some of it to buy something like a small statue. This is on the advice of my colleagues: Buy something that you'll often see, so that you are often reminded that in 2021 you were the Best Bachelor's Teacher.”