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What Is Excellence in Teaching?

The Berninghausen Prize honors top teaching staff members at the University of Bremen

Teaching & Studies

Every year in December, the “Berninghausen Prize for Excellence in Teaching” is awarded at the University of Bremen. The award honors teaching staff members who have done a particularly good job in their seminars and lectures. But what does this mean exactly, and who decides on the award? We talked about this with Professor Sabine Doff, who was a member of the jury from 2018 to 2023.

Ms. Doff, why does the Berninghausen Prize for Excellence in Teaching exist?

The University of Bremen and the unifreunde (association of “Friends of the University of Bremen and the Constructor University Bremen”) have awarded the prize since 1991. The award, which is now considered one of the longest-standing teaching prizes in Germany, was initiated by a private person: The entrepreneur and amateur biologist Friedo Berninghausen, who was a strong advocate for the university. Memorial Service for Friedo Berninghausen – University of Bremen (in German only). He was deeply committed to science and the transfer of knowledge. With the award, he wanted to honor exceptional engagement in teaching and draw attention to it. After his death, the Berninghausen family continued to donate the prize money, and Friedo’s son Carl now hands out the award.

What does “excellence in teaching” mean?

In the awarding of the prize, the jury considers certain criteria in its discussion of the nominated courses. These include, for example, an interdisciplinary approach, innovative methods, and positive student feedback. Excellent teaching must resonate well with students. It is designed to provide learning opportunities and to be meaningful to students – sometimes only in hindsight. It creates new spaces for thinking, might also be courageous and willing to take risks.

The focus of the award categories might change if circumstances change. During the pandemic, for example, the jury placed a focus on digital teaching. However, the Student Prize has remained unchanged. Only students can nominate someone for this category.

Who is on the jury?

All status groups involved in teaching are represented on the jury: Students, mid-level academic staff, and professors – all from the various faculties. Jury members are nominated and officially appointed by the Academic Senate.

How does the jury make its decisions?

After all nominations have been submitted, the jury members review all documents and come up with a shortlist based on the known criteria. The nominees, the deans, and the student representatives of a faculty – these are usually the so-called “StugA’s” student bodies – then issue a statement concerning the course in question. On this basis, the jury discusses all submitted nominations and then makes the final decision on the winners. It is also possible to nominate more than one person if, for example, a group of people has taught a course as a team. In the Student Prize category, the vote of the students is decisive. Here, however, the jury puts the number of nominations in relation to the absolute number of students in the particular course. Because a seminar with ten participants can be just as successful as a lecture with 300 students, even if there will be fewer nominations in total.

What was your time on the jury like?

I always experienced the work on the jury as being hugely rewarding. The work offers numerous ways to engage with teaching across disciplines and status groups, and thus to significantly broaden one’s own horizon. In 2022, I received the award myself. Of course, as soon as the nomination was revealed, I stood down on the jury team during the selection process. In such cases, a substitute steps in.

What does the award mean for teaching staff?

For me, it was one of the best awards I have ever received. It is a great honor to receive the Berninghausen Prize. I was particularly pleased that I won the Student Prize category. The award-winning course took place in the winter semester of 2021/22, during the pandemic. At that time, it was not yet clear whether the event would take place face-to-face or digitally. In general, teaching at that time was severely affected by all the constraints and uncertainties. For me, the award was also a special tribute to overcoming these challenges. After all, in my opinion, knowledge is particularly valuable when we share it with others; the prerequisite for this is that it is conveyed well. To receive an award like this now after more than 20 years of teaching at the university was a wonderful endorsement of the position.

How does the award benefit teaching?

The award has motivated me personally to venture into new projects. I invested the cash prize I won – which, by the way, amounts to 3,000 euros per category – in advanced training and initiated two major teaching projects the following year. In the process, I explored entirely new formats. I wonder if I would have dared to do this without winning the award. The Berninghausen Prize has definitely inspired me to rethink teaching. It also increased my confidence in discussions about teaching. The award ceremony at the Chamber of Commerce with its great laudation, and which many colleagues and students attended, was also a beautiful recognition. Therefore, I would like to encourage everyone: Nominate your teaching staff, nominate your fellow faculty members! This is not only a great recognition, but also an incentive for the constant development of excellent teaching.

About the Berninghausen Prize for Excellence in Teaching

Since 1991, the University of Bremen and the unifreunde (association of “Friends of the University of Bremen and the Constructor University Bremen”) have awarded the prize donated by the Berninghausen family annually to honor outstanding performance and creativity in university teaching. The award is endowed with a total of 6,000 euros and is often split among several categories. Students or colleagues can nominate a teaching staff member. Nominating oneself is also possible. You can find the current call for nominations, which will be open until July 21, 2023, on the website Nominate your favorites, now!

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