Photos: DUB

Students appreciate going outdoors for classes, despite the challenges


The global situation has pushed universities to go above and beyond when it comes to maintaining the quality of classes. University College Roosevelt (UCR) has gone back to its roots and implemented a method that has long been used in Liberal Arts and Sciences: teaching outdoors. Although outdoor classes are not perfect, students of Utrecht University’s honors college in Middelburg seem to prefer them to zoom classes.

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When asked about her experience in outdoor classes, student Anne-Rosa, comments that it is “often hard to be enthusiastic about indoor classes ”, but that she is always enthusiastic about outdoor classes such as the Persuasion in Society course she attends.

Moreover, during the zoom classes that now are taught frequently, she has a lot of problems trying to hear the professor and her colleagues, Anne-Rosa says. Although this is still a problem in outdoor classes, due to the natural commotion of a city, the benefits of going outdoors outweigh the costs.

She explains that in an outdoor setting she often feels more comfortable asking questions and despite all the distractions from the “outside world” she tends to participate more. She particularly likes that she can interact with the whole class while still social-distancing as it is “easier to keep distance outside, compared to a classroom”.

Anne-Rosa also believes that zoom classes are more stressful because it is often difficult to let the teacher know when there is a technical problem, a point which a second student that I interviewed agreed with.

Socrates would do it
Law professor and former UCR Dean, Professor Barbara Oomen, explains that teaching outside is part of the Liberal Arts and Science methodology which UCR believes in. This is, in fact, not a new thing in the world of teaching. “Socrates would go outside with his students and just walk and talk”.

With that in mind, in 2017 an outdoor classroom was built at UCR and it has been used by teachers ever since. The classroom in the middle of Helm Square is characterized by its circular, simple and open design.

Professor Oomen says that with the current situation, the classroom has proved very useful and it has inspired even more professors to teach outside. “With corona we really encourage professors to teach outside".

To do so, she explains that a map with all the “different places in Middelburg where teaching outdoors is possible” was created and made available for all teachers and students. This map can be found in the university’s website and it includes parks, gardens and even fields near the university.

Blankets and warm drinks
UCR’s Rhetoric professor Michael Burke, allowed me to attend his third-year Persuasion in Society course, where I was able to observe the dynamics of outdoor teaching. The class took place in the Molenwater Park near the university’s main building. There, 22 students sat in a semicircle and listened to their professor as he walked around and gave his lesson.

During this lesson, many students brought folding chairs, blankets as well as hot drinks to accommodate to the outdoor setting and the weather. The atmosphere was pleasant and the students were very interactive. Many asked questions, made comments and exchanged critical ideas with the teacher and with each other, which according to professor Burke “is not always the case in an indoor classroom setting”. Burke believes that outdoor teaching is beneficial for students in many ways, irrespective of the current pandemic, and he will continue to teach outdoors “ as long as the weather allows it”.

Hard to take notes
Rhetoric is not the only subject that allows for outdoor classes. Yannick Peeters is currently taking the Introduction to Biodiversity course and has had various sessions outside. In these sessions the class goes on excursions to apply knowledge learned during online class.

Like Anne-Rosa, Yannick mentions that outdoors courses are more engaging and allow for more interaction between students and with the teacher. Yannick experienced that due to all the technicalities surrounding remote teaching, professors are often harder to reach when classes are online as it is “harder to ask them question or to stay after class”.

Although Yannick describes his outdoor classes as memorable, he is happy that not all his classes are outdoors as he finds it difficult to take notes outside due to the lack of desks. This would make his learning process very difficult as taking notes has proven to be the best learning method for him.

No stress
In sum, it is true that outdoor classes have their disadvantages such as bad weather and loud noises. However, students and teachers seem to notice that the overall dynamic of the class improves as it is easier for students to interact with each other and with the teacher. Outdoor classes also seem to take away some of the stress that comes with the technical difficulties often encountered during an online class. More importantly, students seem to enjoy having classes that allow them to learn while staying safe.


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