For Ilja, learning is the most fun thing there is

Het ComeniusNetwerk 15-08-2022
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As curriculum developer, STQ trainer and programme manager of a large­scale innovation project on learning trajectories, Ilja Boor knows every corner of the University of Amsterdam (UvA). Her ambition is to help equip all students with the necessary skills to tackle society’s transitions.

‘Ten years ago I stood at a cross­roads: should I continue in research or dedicate myself to teaching? The combination wasn’t working any more. (With twinkling eyes) What I’m going to say now is super nerdy, but my favourite brain cells are astrocytes, and that was also my field of research. I became hyper specialized. But after a while, it made me feel trapped. The world is a lot bigger than this, I kept thinking. On top of that, there was the academic rat­race: the time and energy it costs you to apply for research grants, without getting enough back. Another influence was the hassle with contracts, which meant I never knew whether I would be able to build a scientific career with job security. I will always have a place in my heart for scientific endeavour, but you can’t focus on everything at the same time and I made a conscious decision for university teaching. I like the university environment, I like teaching and personally I think learning is the most fun thing you can do.’


‘My background is in molecular science and initially I gave practical classes, and designed the practical part of courses on cell biology. I was quickly asked whether I wanted to set up a whole course. Then that became a learning trajectory. From innovating one study programme I was given the opportunity to get involved in multiple study programmes and so I became less of a lecturer and more of a cur­ riculum designer. In 2018 I was awarded the Senior Fellow grant from the Come­ nius programme for the project ‘Towards the self­directed student’. That was a real catalyst. Being awarded the grant brought me recognition and appreciation for the innovations that I had developed up to that point. You get a kind of external stamp of approval that says: that’s OK, what she’s doing. It led to me being asked to take on some new tasks and I was given access to positions that are relevant but rather scarce. I’m now working as curriculum developer at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies (IIS) and at the UvA Teaching & Learning Centre (TLC) as Senior Teaching Qualification (STQ) trainer and co­programme manager of the Visible Learning Trajactories Programme.

Self‐direction and visible learning lines

‘I’m a great advocate of self­direction in education, of problem­driven learning, and letting more come from students rather than only spoon­feeding them in­ formation. That’s the golden thread running through all the innovation that I’ve developed. In many subjects, knowledge becomes obsolete quite quickly, so we have to set up educational programmes such that students learn to be pro­active learners, while developing and monitoring their own progress. This demands metacognitive skills and insight into what is expected of them and where they stand. Lecturers are also assigned a different role. That’s why we’re developing the Visible Learning Trajectories Tool. It gives programme management, lecturers and students a good overview of the attainment goals and learning objectives of the programme, and which courses contribute to which goals. This makes the curriculum more coherent. We used the Senior Fellow grant to expand the project so that students can monitor their progress and, in consultation with their in­ structors, learn to adjust their strategies. Since then, we’ve been busy at the TLC with the teaching teams mapping out the learning lines for all our 83 Bachelor’s programmes. It’s fantastic to be working on innovation on such a large scale.’

Teaching transitions

‘The IIS will be devoting itself in the next four years to designing (part of) pro­ grammes that train students to make a meaningful contribution to society’s tran­ sitions. I’m talking about the energy transition and tackling social inequality. The terms that we use to talk about this are impact learning, challenge­based learning and transdisciplinary education. (With amusement.) People get irritated if you use those terms interchangeably, but generally speaking they’re all based on the same idea: we have to teach students more than just monodisciplinary knowledge. For example, they have to learn to listen (deep listening), entertain different points of view and work with others. We want to train people who can connect and build bridges. One of the electives that we’ve designed is Building Bridges for Global­Local Challenges. In the course, students from four European universities work together on sustainability goals. One of the learning objectives is intercultural communication; the students find it quite difficult to work together. Another learning objective is social entrepreneurship, meaning they really have to create something, for example an app for sorting waste.

Teamwork and more time

‘How can a university facilitate educational development? (With satisfaction.) If I could have my way, I would make more time available and really partner up with the teaching teams so that we could decide together: what do we want to achieve with this curriculum and how will we get there? I would also schedule set times to work together with all the course coordinators on the entire cur­ riculum. If, for example, your objective is to help students become self­directed, you can’t do that all by yourself in one stand­alone training or course. Collabora­ tion is like killing two birds with one stone: professionalization (because you learn from and with each other), plus renewal of your curriculum. (Laughs.) But anyway, it’s not up to me. Mind you, this is not a utopia, it’s already happening on a small scale.’

I’m seldom the first in a group to give my opinion, because I already know what’s in my own head. I’m much more curious about what other people think.


‘What particularly typifies my style of working is that I’m goal oriented and there’s “co” in everything that I do. I’m co­programme manager of the TLC’s big learning trajectory project; I was co­founder of the ComeniusNetwerk and there­ after co­chair. I love co­creation, because I’m convinced that you achieve much more when you work with the right team. I’m seldom the first in a group to give my opinion, because I already know what’s in my own head. I’m much more curious about what other people think. By working together, you can make enor­ mous qualitative leaps. I get inspiration from my work at the UvA, but the Come­ niusNetwerk is also an excellent source. The members are all so energetic and completely open for collaboration. I can’t think of any other network that brings together so many people from different educational institutions. It’s a great place to recharge and get new ideas.’


‘I want to develop high­quality educational materials for open source. Right now I’m working on the project Toolbox for Transition Makers for IIS, together with the alliance TU/e, WUR, UU, UMC Utrecht (EWUU). This collaborative project arose from the ComeniusNetwerk. In co­creation with lecturers we’re developing a toolbox for teaching transition, which will supply ready­to­go teaching and as­ sessment formats to lecturers. I would like to eventually link up the toolbox with international developments. Otherwise, I’m studying like crazy to learn about designing transitions. I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to podcasts, read­ ing books on leadership and change management. Also I’m trying to become current on what’s going on in the world today, about geo­politics. I want to keep going along the road that I’ve been travelling on to make education future­proof. And my most sincere wish is that every student will be given access to that high­ quality education.’


Name Ilja Boor


Senior interdisciplinary curriculum developer (60%); Senior Teaching Qualification trainer (20%); co­programme manager of the university­wide educational innovation project Visible Learning Trajectory Programme (20%).
Institution University of Amsterdam
Department Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies (IIS) and Teaching & Learning Centre (TLC)
Work experience in higher education For 10 years with full focus on education (‘when I got my doctorate and was doing my post­doc I was also teaching education, but on a completely different scale’) 100% (‘even though my three roles are intertwined’)
Total appointment 1.0 FTE
Time devoted to teaching 100% (‘even though my three roles are intertwined’)
Other activities Evaluator of teaching grant applications for NRO and regularly invited as a speaker
Relationship with the ComeniusNetwerk In 2018 I received a Senior Fellow grant for the project ‘Towards a self­directed student’, was co­founder of the network and member of the board of directors until February 2022.


This portrait is part of the publication 'Dedication to education - Ten portraits of inspired teachers in higher education‘. You can download the publication in English and Dutch. This publication was created in collaboration with members of the Duurzaam Docentschap circle of the ComeniusNetwerk.




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