Seven students from the Maastricht Science Programme who have gathered this Thursday morning for a tutorial, will be talking about tropical ecology. Ordinary building: Minderbroedersberg 6. Ordinary classroom: square, four tables, eight chairs, and a whiteboard. A little on the boring side.
Just before eleven, a few students have already dropped into chairs. Roy Erkens, lecturer and researcher, enters the room. He presses a button and up comes the desk. Students follow his example; in no time, there are four standing tables. The chairs serve as racks for coats and bags for the next two hours.
It was Erkens who introduced the standing tutorial last year. “I sometimes spent hours teaching in one day, I became tired of sitting inactively. That is when I started standing up. Students did it too. The electrically adjustable desks are wonderful to work at, but in the beginning I just used a regular standing table.” He points to a folding model resting against the wall. Of course I was a little sceptical, afraid that the students wouldn’t like it, but my wife said: ‘They stand in a pub for hours, don’t they?’”
Folders and notes are open in front of everyone. They all appear to have a good stance, although the female chairperson’s pose comes closest to the recommendations displayed on sheets of paper on the wall. They contain tips and images. A good pose? Relaxed shoulders, head in the centre, knees slightly bent, bottom tucked in, feet slightly apart. Bad? More weight on one leg, bottom sticking out, hanging head.
University College Maastricht has also been experimenting since September with ten standing tutorials. The Edlab, the new centre for education innovation headed by Harm Hospers, is supervising the project. “They had to get used to it – one student literally said: ‘I’m not here for my health’- but most now think it’s fine,” says Nicolai Manie from the Edlab and co-ordinator of academic advising at UCM. Nevertheless, it is not all about health. “We are also looking at what it does to learning and the interaction between students. Moreover, we don’t know if standing for two hours is the best alternative. The only thing we do know, is that sitting is bad.”
Sitting is the new smoking, wrote James Levine, a British researcher and writer of Get Up!, in which he declares sitting to be the enemy. Levine reckons that sitting is the worst thing you can do. Scientists are linking sitting to a higher risk of diabetes, depression, and cancer.
Hans Savelberg, a Maastricht movement scientist, carried out a study in which he subjected eighteen test subjects to three different exercise regimes (a combination of sitting and a little walking, strolling, and intensive exercises) for four days. After that, the test subjects’ blood levels were analysed. The strolling regime clearly turned out to have the best health benefits.
Savelberg and his colleague Bernard Duvivier are about to test the learning effects and group dynamics of the Edlab project. Savelberg welcomes the initiative. “In the literature, you can read that attention increases when you are active.” According to him, the crux is the alternation between sitting and standing. “If I stand at my desk for a whole day, I start to feel my knees around three o’clock. Others experience problems with varicose veins more quickly.” Savelberg doesn’t expect huge health effects. “For students it is only two tutorials of two hours a week. I think they will become more conscious, they will wonder why they automatically always sit and maybe because of that they will remain standing more often.”
Think outside the box
Back to Erkens’ tutorial. He urges the chairperson to make haste. The assignment has not been discussed in full, but the clock is about to strike twelve. Later on Erkens says, when asked: “The discussions take much longer. Keeping an eye on the time is something they will have to work at.” Still, most of the feedback is positive. The students feel more energetic, they say. Tired legs, cramps? None of that. Erkens: “Certainly in the second hour of most tutorials, you can see fatigue setting in. That is a pity, especially because that is when the next assignment is discussed, a time for brainstorming. In our case, you see that the discussion remains lively. Students also feel free to come up to the whiteboard to make notes.”
Manie: “The Edlab wants to innovate and that means you occasionally have to think outside the box. Standing is one option to change the dynamics, but perhaps something needs to be changed in the room, like a different setup or desks and walls that can be written on, multiple whiteboards, working in subgroups.”
Whether standing discussions will be the standard throughout the UM next year, remains to be seen. “It is not suitable for everyone and everything. Roy is enthusiastic, but according to one of the UCM lecturers, it doesn’t work with his skills training where one student makes a presentation. Students thought it was boring to just stand and listen,” says Manie. “Still, we would like to expand the project, preferably a number of tutorials at every faculty. Just to try it out.”