Teacher Story: Erwin van Vliet

time saver (EN)
teacher story (EN)
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Interview with Dr. Erwin van Vliet (Photo: Petra van Velzen)
Faculty of Science (FNWI)


Perusall: Every Student Prepared for Every Lecture


In 2019, assistant professor Erwin van Vliet was awarded a Grassroots grant for developing the UvA application of the online learning platform Perusall. Now, there are over 250 courses making use of this tool, and their number is still growing.

What a difference a year makes

Assistant professor Erwin van Vliet is an epilepsy researcher and UvA lecturer within the Faculty of Science (FNWI). In addition, he develops teaching methods based on a combination of education theory and IT. In 2019, he received a Grassroots Programme grant for further developing the wider UvA application of the online learning platform Perusall.

At the end of a twelve-month trajectory under his inspired leadership, there are now (September 2020) over 250 courses that make use of Perusall at the University of Amsterdam. The most recent months in particular have seen a spectacular rise in the number of courses using Perusall, and this is estimated to continue in the near future. Van Vliet and his team’s pioneering work has resulted in Perusall being readily available within Canvas for all UvA educators. A central helpdesk has also been set up, with the help of the TLC, which can be reached through info.persusall@uva.nl.

Beginnings and Eric Mazur

Whilst working on his teaching qualification programme (BKO) some years ago, Erwin van Vliet first encountered professor Eric Mazur’s (Harvard) ideas and methods in relation to active learning. Van Vliet began to use Mazur’s notions of the flipped classroom and peer feedback and instruction in his Psychobiology bachelor courses at the UvA’s Faculty of Science. Students had to prepare for classes through various assignments, and subsequently followed interactive sessions between peers to encourage deeper learning. Student numbers in the Psychobiology bachelor had risen to the point that regular tutorial teaching became increasingly challenging. Van Vliet’s research showed that Mazur’s methods ensured that students came to the lectures well-prepared, and that this resulted in better exam grades.

In the light of these favourable results, as well as a successful pilot at the University of Groningen with the then new Perusall tool, which was based on Mazur’s insights, Van Vliet decided to try Perusall in his teaching. He intended to further develop the tool for the use within the Faculty of Science, and – with the help of the Grassroots Programme grant – eventually for all UvA educators.

Prepared students - a Utopian vision?

Perusall: every student prepared for every lecture is what the slogan promises. This may sound like a Utopian vision, but if properly used, with this ICT tool more than 90 percent of the students are prepared for class. This is every educator’s dream.

Here is how it works: Perusall offers support for students outside contact hours, during their reading and processing of course materials in preparation for lectures or other classes. In Perusall, students can write comments, ask questions, and respond to others. In this way, they help each other navigate through the readings. They are rewarded with points for engaging with Perusall in this manner. The teacher is provided with an overview of sections that were not clear for students, known as the  “Confusion Report”.  This report can be quickly scanned just before a lecture or session, and function as a starting point for an immediate discussion with students, leaving the possibility to dive deeper into the main topic during the remainder of the lecture. Thus, the lecture becomes a co-creation between student and teacher.

Tailored course content and teacher time-saving

Perusall combines Eric Mazur’s activating learning methods, which encourage students to prepare. There are flipped-classroom assignments that are done prior to class, and are intended to prepare students. The lecture or class then continues where the assignment stopped. There is peer feedback and peer instruction, as well as, social online learning: students discuss the course materials and reading with each other prior to a class or live, during a class. Then there is a reward in the form of points that may be used as a bonus on top of the end grade, or as a means of rounding off the end grade. In addition, because the teacher is able to quickly tackle any issues based on the Confusion Report, sessions are more tuned to student needs and instill a sense of ownership in students, because they become co-creators of the course.

“It will take a little bit of a teacher’s time to get to know Perusall and use it for structuring lessons, but the rewards are significant,” Van Vliet says. “It incorporates an automated assessment option which saves time, allows for more tailored feedback, and gives teachers insight into what students are doing and where they encounter problems. There is increased interaction between student and teacher, and among students themselves. Perusall also offers a tutorial-type experience for larger student numbers. Even your lectures can be made to feel more personalised. These type of tools approach one-to-one teaching without taking up the time that would normally come with that.”

Where to from here?

Being as inspired a teacher as he is, Erwin van Vliet has already embarked on his next project, for which he obtained a Comenius Teaching Fellowship. Together with a team of IT experts, Educational Sciences and Legal Affairs, he has developed a feedback tool called IguideME (I guide My Education) to help motivate and activate students, and to provide them with automated individual feedback. A Canvas-integrated dashboard allows teachers to monitor student progress and – especially important – offer tailored advice. Perusall data is also part of this dashboard. Currently, the IguideME pilot has been set up within the UvA for a course that Van Vliet teaches. Preliminary results are expected at the end of the year.


Interview by Rebecca Lobry