University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


Education researcher: »Learning and critical thinking presuppose uncertainty«

Research — Assistant Professor Marie Larsen Ryberg has observed courses where students were completely overwhelmed. But she found that this was precisely where the students learned the most. Here she offers up her advice on how teaching can open up a space for uncertainty.

You get nervous and perplexed, and a red rash appears on your neck. Maybe you share your thoughts with others, maybe you keep them to yourself. You suffer discomfort and paralysis.

You are, in other words, in a state of doubt or uncertainty.


Assistant professor at the Department of Science Education at the Faculty of Science

Head of the project Research-based Education at the University of Copenhagen and has in this connection published the article The Benefit of the Doubt: Rethinking critique in/of scientific knowledge

Anthropologist from UCPH and a PhD from Copenhagen Business School with a focus on interdisciplinarity and education.

But it’s not as dangerous as it feels, says Marie Larsen Ryberg, who has observed most of the shades of uncertainty in a new study on research-based teaching. The study is partly based on her fieldwork on seven of the more than 50 courses that were included in the University of Copenhagen’s (UCPH) strategic initiative to rethink research-based knowledge towards 2023.

Marie Larsen Ryberg finds one result particularly thought-provoking:

»The courses that were the most exciting for both students and teaching staff were also the courses where the students were the most uncertain. This set up an inspiring and fun atmosphere, because they had to investigate and explore things that science had not yet fully uncovered.«

One course in particular stood out. Never before had students been in such a state of uncertainty as on this course. They were completely overwhelmed. And they had never learned so much, according to Marie Larsen Ryberg. The students subsequently said that they remembered the material better.

The University Post met up with Marie Larsen Ryberg in her office in the new Niels Bohr Building, where she is employed as an assistant professor at the Department of Science Education.

»I could see from my work that it is a real eye-opener for students who take the type of research-based courses that are more about scientific investigation and methodological skills than on rote learning. It’s a new way for them to learn.«

Uncertainties have societal relevance

There are probably several reasons why uncertainty is out of vogue. But the education researcher points to one particular trend:

»Asking questions and being open towards knowledge does not thrive in a performance-focused culture,« says Marie Larsen Ryberg and continues.

»Many students have become accustomed to a very strategic approach to class. They check out the learning objectives and make a plan for how they can best live up to them so that they can get high grades in the exam. They think, now I have to learn this because I have to be able to do it for the exam. Not because they have to be able to do it in life afterwards, or because they have to learn something new.«

Marie Larsen Ryberg concedes that it is necessary to safeguard the quality of teaching through exams and learning objectives. But it has its drawbacks, she reckons.

The students engage in a way in which they feel confident of achieving a high grade.

Assistant professor Marie Larsen Ryberg

The students engage in a way in which they feel confident of achieving a high grade. They do not take as many chances as they otherwise would. And this doesn’t benefit anyone, and it does not benefit science either.«

Nowadays you can hardly say performance pressure without also saying challenges to student well-being. But here Marie Larsen Ryberg also observes a connection to the rejection of uncertainty.

»We can lower the expectation that we have to perform and what performing even means. I can see in my research that the real rewards are in the process along the way and not in the final endpoint. It can be comforting to know that it is natural to experience frustration, uncertainties, and doubts in a learning process. This is not the same as defeat. The cultivation of uncertainty can hopefully be a means to loosen up the performance culture, and the specific doubts associated to wanting a high grade.«

Another well-known, and topical, phenomenon is artificial intelligence and its entry into study programmes. According to the education researcher, this is just another reason to defend uncertainty:

»Now that we have something like ChatGPT, we are forced to think about what the university can offer. We need to nurture investigative skills and teach students to critically evaluate knowledge. We are living in an age where we need to be able to ask new questions and come up with new answers. We need to maintain that we can also find answers in a world that seems uncertain and distressing.«

Support the uncertainty in teaching

The course with the overwhelmed students is a good example of how to set up a good uncertainty setting:

»It was a course in biochemistry and molecular biomedicine, where the students had to work with a type of protein that is not very well known. In one experiment, one of the groups could suddenly not see what they expected to find, which set off real uncertainty. One of them was completely overwhelmed. Another one said that he had never been so nervous. There was really something at stake, because it was about something no one else knew anything about,« Marie Larsen Ryberg enthusiastically recounts.

The teaching staff have a responsibility to support students so that their doubts do not turn into despair and paralysis
Assistant professor Marie Larsen Ryberg

The teaching staff have a responsibility to support students so that their doubts do not turn into despair and paralysis.

»Then the professor came along and said: This is research. Your uncertainty is part of it. Let’s try to see what’s going on here. What may have happened? Her role was actually to help raise questions for further investigation.«

The education researcher recommends that teachers tell the students that uncertainty is an ordinary, fundamental aspect of learning something new.

»It just means that you can think critically, and that you are open to things turning out differently. And then, together with the students, you can ask new questions and find the next steps to find answers and move forward in the process. The instructor can help foster questions and make sure that the students find the answers themselves.«

Another thing that worked well on the above-mentioned course was the teaching environment itself. It opened up a space for doubts and for questions, according to Marie Larsen Ryberg.

When our own Nobel laureate is in the laboratory, and his PhD students have completely lost their balance, and have no idea what is at stake, then they have actually discovered something new.

Assistant professor Marie Larsen Ryberg

»You have to make sure that there is a sense of community in the teaching, where everyone can sense that those on the other side of the room are also uncertain. In this way, students can reflect themselves in each other. And then it has something to do with the material you are working with. It can become more research-based by throwing in small cases and things that have not been decided scientifically. Just like with the protein, where they got the students to try to ask the questions and find the answers.«

And then there’s the exam.

»You can work on creating exam formats that allow for investigative teaching. Or you can just opt out of having an exam, or change it so that it supports the learning objectives associated with doing something resembling a research process. The exam can be structured so that there is more space for risk-taking: More space for taking chances, exploring, and taking a more investigative approach, so that you are not penalised for making mistakes or being delayed.«

»Specifically, you could do a portfolio exam and discuss what you have done along the way. Or you could make a presentation for the others and show your results so far. Maybe some kind of log book and reflections on what we did then, and what questions did it lead to?« the education researcher suggests.

Supporting research-based learning can be resource-intensive when there needs to be space for errors, delays, and summaries. And when funding is already limited. But Marie Larsen Ryberg believes that small parts of it can be done during the education programmes.

»It is our job to communicate that it is through uncertainties that you learn. This is also how scientists discover new things. That is the whole premise of a university. When our own Nobel laureate [Morten Meldal, ed.] is in the laboratory, and his PhD students have completely lost their balance, and have no idea what is at stake, then they have actually discovered something new. Doubting is completely central to scientific breakthroughs.«

Read more about the course in Biochemistry and Molecular Biomedicine in this article, which Marie Larsen Ryberg co-authored. More publications about the project are soon to be released. You can also find her guide [in Danish] on how teaching and research can be integrated here.