Professor Emeritus Paul A. Kirschner: Farewell But Not Goodbye

Mirjam Neelen

paul 3

On Friday, December 13, 1991, Paul A. Kirschner defended his PhD thesis on Practicals in Higher Science Education at the Open University of the Netherlands (OUNL). Exactly 28 years later, the same Paul A. Kirschner, now professor emeritus, delivered his farewell address at the end of a vibrant and memorable day.

The morning…

In the morning there were three workshops for Master of Educational Sciences students at the OUNL. I had the honour of facilitating one of the workshops on evidence-informed learning design. The students had really good ideas on how to improve a one-day face-to-face course design, backed up by strong evidence from the 4C/ID model which is a part of their curriculum. They also asked excellent questions and it made me realise again that there’s a big difference between what we know works and how things work in practice (also see Tim Surma’s theme below).


After lunch…

After lunch there was a symposium with three speakers. Here is a thumbnail description of the presentations:

Prof. dr. Jeroen van Merriënboer –
Designing complex learning: 4C/ID design model for problem-based learning

Jeroen van Merriënboer kicked off after lunch with a nuanced story around the 4C/ID model (have I mentioned that I think this is by far the best instructional design model, also for learning in the workplace as we’re dealing with complex skills all the time in that context!) and problem-based learning. Actually, he talked about ‘problem-directed’ learning but that isn’t a term that’s commonly used in English.

Van Merriënboer explained that we need refinement when discussing the types of guidance required to help students learn. It depends on context, task complexity, and also on the level of the learner (spectrum from pre novice to expert).

For example, with problem-directed learning help/support/scaffolding is essential during the problem analysis and synthesis phase AND learners also need help with identifying resources that can help to solve the problem (this is called second-order scaffolding).

Using the School of Athens to illustrate where we’re at, Van Merriënboer explains that Socrates (in the green robe) is in dialogue with his student (inquisitory). In the image on the right we see Aristotle (blue robe) who argued that all our knowledge flows from our experiences (inductive). In the red robe we see Plato. He claimed that what we see doesn’t have anything to do with ‘what is’ but with what we already know (deductive).

2000 years later, we still have the same debate and we are, using Van Merriënboer’s words “no more than a footnote to philosophy”. It’s always good to see the relativity of our battles 😊.

Prof. dr. Halszka Jarodzka –
Making testing great again! A plea for a cognitive theory of multimedia testing

Halszka Jarodzka, who doesn’t only impress with her excellent Dutch language skills and her awesome hair do’s, but also with her eye tracking research so that we can measure learning processes in an objective manner.

She explained various highly interesting studies on student testing and by using eye tracking we can literally and figuratively look through students’ eyes.

There is a clear relation between the knowledge level of the student, the difficulty of the test item, and the multimedia design. Attention can be directed, only through layout (position of multimedia). Be careful, so warns Jarodzka, as students have a tendency to ‘take the easy route’. Therefore, we need to be really careful with adding images to tests. Students look at them (especially when they include human faces) so you better make sure the image is required and useful for the purpose of the test.

Her conclusion: We need a Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Assessment.

Tim Surma – These research findings are just obvious

Tim Surma confirmed the gap between research and practice. Although he focused on education, it’s very similar in workplace contexts. We have crystal clear findings from research, for example those from cognitive psychology on prior knowledge, retrieval practice, testing effects, worked examples, dual coding and multimedia effects.

However, in practice these recommended approaches for effective learning are not so obvious. Surma discusses three challenges:

  1. Learners don’t intuitively/spontaneously choose the best learning strategies. Therefore, we need to consider teaching effective learning and study strategies explicitly.
  2. Although teachers seem to be doing OK when asked to judge scenarios with evidence-informed effective strategies versus ineffective strategies, they don’t seem to do so well when asked to recommend an effective strategy to students when they need to improve something. For example, they often suggest to ‘reread’ or ‘summarise’, and strategies such as mindmapping are overestimated as only making a mindmap is not effective; it’s what you do with it afterwards.
  3. Surma also referred to the study that he conducted with Kirschner, showing that teacher education doesn’t adequately teach future teachers about evidence-informed learning strategies.

After Limburg pies…


The guest of honour himself presented a 4-act historic tribute to the Open University of the Netherlands.

Some might have been disappointed that Paul Kirschner didn’t go for rocket science, fireworks, or with criticism (for which he’s, after all, well-known). Not today. He just told a beautiful story about the very start of a new university, its model and strong didactic principles, its research, and its innovation in which he blended facts with personal anecdotes and stories.

His colleague Saskia Brand-Gruwel closed this memorable day by painting a picture of a man who has always been working extremely hard, doesn’t avoid the spotlights, is very critical when it comes to ‘content’, and very personable and caring when it comes to people, especially his students.


I’m happy to say it wasn’t a real farewell. Paul is busier than ever and he’ll be around! I’m taking my hat off for this man who has taught me so much. To be continued.


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