Enabling students to learn

Education is rapidly changing, as well as the way students study. Not much has systematically changed at universities since the breakthrough of internet, although the mindset of students and teachers has. On a national level, universities are opening up for more and more students and lecture rooms are getting crowded. At the same time students have much more on their mind during lectures, as computers in the form of laptops, smartphones and tablets have made their way into these rooms. Students expect more from their lectures, since all information is accessible through the internet. What should the university be like to enhance these societal changes? How should universities prepare for the future and adapt to the present?

From the 12th to the 16th of May, I was in Glasgow for the U21 Student Summit to discuss these subjects with student representatives of 27 different universities. Presidents of the boards of all these universities were also attending the summit and after three days of lectures and discussions, we gave the presidents a presentation on our view of the future of the university. The summit was a delight and it really brought some great inspiration for the work of the student council at home, here in Amsterdam.

What did we tell the presidents of universities from all over the world? One universal message all students agreed upon: We don’t want to just absorb information, we want to learn from experience. Experience should in this case be interpreted in a broad sense. It could be an internship, practical exercises, or projects. It could also be problem-based learning, a widely acknowledged technique which is not used very often at the University of Amsterdam.

To let students learn from experience, the university should change. Lectures of two hours where the students have no responsibility at all, not even to think along, except for regurgitating the information and being present, don’t make any sense at the time. Instead, the university should enable students to learn, by organizing the opportunity to gain experience and from that to learn. This way the university gives the students much more than basic knowledge.

Especially in a research intensive university as the University of Amsterdam, this is a pressing issue that should be given importance. Doing research is not just reproducing information, and while the classes grow, the distance between researchers and students grows as well. In small classes, students easily interact with the current research of their lecturer, but in today’s classes this no longer happens. The university should therefore think carefully about how they are going to give students experience, above information.

The university should also change their mindset towards students. Instead of requiring full attendance at lectures and imposing the current or traditional state of the knowledge on students, they should give students a little more responsibility (and freedom) for their own learning process. Curiosity can not be imposed, but an opportunity to learn (even from failing) could cause curiosity.

Would you like to join the conversation about the future of universities? Come by the student council’s room in A1.26 or email me via You can find more information on the U21 network via