Triple Crown for tuition

Winning three titles is a rare feat in any discipline, but physics professor Jan Lipfert obviously has a rare talent for teaching. He is the first lecturer at LMU to win teaching awards from the Faculties of Physics, Chemistry and Biology.

Professor Jan Lipfert while holding one of his lectures.

Professor Jan Lipfert while holding one of his lectures.

What does it take to win prizes for teaching in not one, not two, but three different Faculties? “Believe me – I really don’t have a secret formula,” Jan Lipfert says with a chuckle. He is a professor of physics at LMU and, in addition to giving lecture courses in his own Faculty, he teaches students of biology and chemistry – two fields in which a good knowledge of physics is essential. “I simply do my best to adapt the content of my lectures to the needs and interests of the students in front of me.”

Lipfert has a gift for capturing and holding the attention of an audience. He speaks clearly, laughs a lot, and sweeps his listeners along with him. But does this talent alone explain why he has received multiple awards for his teaching skills? “My biggest challenge lies in the very diverse levels of motivation with which I am confronted,” he says. “I know that many of my students regard me as a lecturer who teaches an accessory course – a minor subject, not the real thing. And I always say so in my first lecture.” To ensure that his students remain attentive to what he has to say, he varies the topics and the examples that he uses, in accordance with their interests and backgrounds. For example, to teach chemists about gravitational forces, he talks not about planetary motions, but about centrifuges. And biologists learn physics from examples drawn from biophysics and cell biology.

Group learning with 400 students?

But he doesn’t focus exclusively on the content of his courses. He also seeks more effective ways to get his message across. “I try to include lots of IT, and so far that has worked very well. He is particularly taken with audience response systems, which enable students to take part in ballots and multiple-choice formats. This ensures that, even in courses with large numbers of participants, every student has a voice and can take an active part in the proceedings. Based on his own experience, Lipfert is well aware that these approaches must be well planned. “I previously taught in Delft, and there every student had to buy a clicker,” he recalls. “But that sort of requirement automatically scares off part of one’s potential audience.” To ensure that as many students as possible can take part in ballots, he uses a browser-based system called Pingo.

Lipfert makes use of these tools to deal with a problem that faces all university lecturers. Many of the tricks of the trade that they pick up on the job simply do not work with audiences of a hundred or more. “Workshops on good teaching practices are all well and good, but organizing and supervising learning groups for 400 students would keep me busy for years,” he says – with a twinkle in his eye. “But one or two Pingo questions per lecture are good way of making sure that the students stay the distance.” In addition, the responses provide the lecturer with immediate feedback.

Lecture notes that make connections

Aside from his enthusiasm for IT, Lipfert earns kudos above all for the ways he finds to present the material. During his lectures, he uses two beamers. “One projects a description of the exercise or problem, and the other shows how I go about solving it on my tablet,” he explains. That makes it possible for his students to follow even complicated deductions and trains of thought, and it shows that the Professor hasn’t forgotten that “for students, there’s nothing more dispiriting than the sudden appearance of a long proof at the touch of a button!”

At the end of each lecture, Lipfert also provides digital copies of his handwritten notes and complete sets of the overheads used. He regards this as a vital service which helps to keep students motivated by clarifying points that might otherwise act as obstacles to comprehension. “Not all students are good at taking notes on the fly, and sometimes they can’t help missing a lecture. But, in this way, they can always be sure that they have notes that are complete and correct. Indeed, his lecture notes are so popular that “students and lecturers at other universities have asked for copies for their own use.” He readily complies with these requests, because he sees such cooperation not only as a chance to improve the quality of university teaching, but as a useful mode of knowledge transfer.

Crisis – and chance for university teachers

The current coronavirus pandemic presents university teachers and their students with unprecedented challenges. “The great majority of lectures in physics can be provided as video streams,” Lipfert explains. It’s far more difficult to digitalize tutorials and – above all – laboratory practicals, since these are formats in which spontaneous discussion and hands-on interactions, respectively, are of the essence.” Encouraged by his colleagues’ willingness to familiarize themselves with new methods and tools, he believes that the present situation might even have positive effects. “I think the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to act as a powerful stimulus to the further digitalization of teaching and other aspects of university life. Lots of approaches will be tried out, and those that work well will be retained when the present crisis has passed.”

Here too, Lipfert is ahead of the game. He has already invested a considerable amount of time and energy in the digitalization of the courses that he teaches. – It’s also an expensive undertaking, and obtaining state funding for this purpose turns out to be more difficult than he thought. The amounts available are restricted and competition for them is fierce. The applications he has submitted so far have been rejected as insufficiently innovative. “It’s not my intention to develop an entirely new concept just for the fun of it,” he says. “My primary aim has always been to find pragmatic solutions that will make learning a little easier for students.” His efforts so far have certainly been appreciated by his students – those three titles for tuition speak for themselves!

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