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Teaching with a Vision

I mentioned in a recent post that I haven’t yet detected any great vision behind the medical teaching in Cambridge. Today, I’d like to write about a place where I have actually experienced teaching with a vision: at the university where I did my undergraduate degree. Ok, admittedly I did not go to a large state-funded university, but the small private University Fresenius in Idstein/Germany (where I did a chemistry degree), but I don’t think it’s necessarily the source of funding that makes a difference here.

In Germany, the name Fresenius (for an article on the Chemist Carl Remigius Fresenius, see here) is associated with excellence in analytical chemistry. Therefore, one strong point of the chemistry degree at Fresenius Uni is still a solid background in analytical chemistry to this day. However, being named after the great founder of analytical chemistry does not mean that the university is resting on its laurels. A quick visit to the website reveals that the chemistry course has undergone several transformations since my graduation year, proof of ongoing improvements and adaptations in times of change. Already when I was a student, the curriculum had been refined over the years by constant feedback from industry, ensuring that it was up to date, but also that the graduates would be readily recruited and employed. Furthermore, I found the content of the course very well constructed, both in terms of what was taught and what content was omitted (that’s also important!), as well as in terms of organisation. (Ok, to be completely honest, those who’ve known me since then know that I sometimes wished at the time to learn particular topics in a bit more detail, such as quantum chemistry, but that still has not changed even today as a student in Cambridge. It’s obviously more to do with my personal preferences than anything else!)

Studying at Fresenius, it seemed as if someone had sat down initially to really think about what knowledge makes a good chemist and then built up the curriculum from first principle, open to constant improvement. The key philosophy seemed to be the communication of what is the most comprehensive “working knowledge” of a chemist, and to really bring across these principles. One way in which this was achieved was the high amount of practical lab teaching, more than 50% of the time if I remember correctly. Apart from the obvious different disciplines of chemistry, the overall masterplan also included the possibility to integrate minor studies in other subjects such as economics and languages, in order to develop a well rounded set of skills relating to a career in chemistry. Another very important aspect of the degree was the possibility to study/work abroad for up to 3 semesters (of 8 in total) during the final two years of the degree (which by the way I took full advantage of, as explained here).

All this is the result of a conscious effort to not just educate excellent chemists, but “international chemists” equipped with a set of generally applicable skills indispensable in our modern world. I think all this is possible because the groundwork is laid down so conscientiously, which enables students to develop into their own direction and indulge in more detailed studies, able to fall on the fertile ground of a sound foundation of knowledge.

Germany is different to the UK in that there aren’t (m)any elite universities with longstanding traditions (although there is a discussion if this should be changed), and there is a much more common-sense attitude towards the significance of school grades. As a result, there is no restriction on the A-level average of a student wanting to study Chemistry at Fresenius or anywhere else (apart from the requirement that he/she gets an overall pass, of course). Some may say that this puts a limit on the quality of graduates that can be produced, but I am convinced that every student going through the Fresenius system, no matter how academic or not, will emerge with a sound knowledge of chemistry in the end. I think this steady output of good graduates is quite an achievement in the light of the generous admission policy and is certainly tribute to the educational philosophy. In Cambridge and Oxford on the other hand, where only the best A-level students of the country are admitted, I don’t think it’s as surprising that the graduates are excellent, because they were already excellent in the first place. (Sometimes I even think they are excellent despite the teaching they have encountered, not because of it! ;-))

To sum up, as a result of this overall vision, I think that the students graduating from Fresenius enter the professional world with a great foundation and working knowledge of Chemistry, perhaps not excessively familiar with the academic intricacies of the most advanced chemical topics, but well rounded and ready to be placed in any lab and start working. I don’t think this is the result of chance, but of a well thought through approach to produce exactly the type of graduate needed in the world of chemistry.

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I definitely think that every course on offer in an institution should be based on an overall vision or special philosophy, whatever that may be. This allows a course to stand out among the plethora of available programmes and gives the students something unique along the way. Fresenius definitely shows that this can be done, even on a smaller budget and without relying exclusively on the best students in the country.


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