A Letter to the students regarding the new academic year

4 October, 2021



Dear students,

The new academic year will open on Sunday, October 10, 2021, and I wish you much success. In what follows, I share with you some aspects of teaching and study formats at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

1. Teaching this year will take place mainly “in person,” in classrooms and laboratories (distance learning will take place for only a few designated courses). In light of our experience during the previous semester, this year we decided not to carry out parallel ("hybrid") instruction, in which it is possible to participate in lessons remotely. In most courses, the lessons will be filmed and will be available for viewing after the lesson, to help those who are unable to attend the lesson for a justifiable reason, and to enable further study for all students.

2. As a rule, students are obligated to attend all classes. Experience shows that the best way to learn is "peer learning" both in and out of class (please watch this fantastic video). The presence of students in a classroom is critical to meaningful learning. It is important to read the assigned texts in advance; to arrive to each lesson on time; and during the lesson, students should engage only with issues relevant to the lesson, and not give in to the temptations offered by your laptop and mobile phone. A student who is unable to attend a lesson should notify the instructor in advance, by email.

We highly recommended that you participate actively in the class (and in the course forum on Moodle), answering the teacher's questions and asking questions of your own, and offering comments and critiques. Assuming a critical position is certainly acceptable, but you must not express your position in an offensive manner. Avoid "naivety" (including accepting any theory discussed in the lesson as necessarily correct), but also avoid "cynicism" (for example, a systematic attribution of malicious intent to researchers). Choose the middle way, which combines a copious dose of skepticism and criticism with the recognition that those who preceded us are at least as intelligent as us and have good intentions. Please refrain from making decisive statements and expressions that can be considered disrespectful to others.

In most cases, we do not enforce these rules of etiquette. Students at the Hebrew University are equal partners in learning, and exercising authority over students may be in conflict with this view. We expect you to act responsibly.

3. According to regulations set by the government, entry to campus, and therefore also to classes, requires a green pass or the presentation of an up-to-date negative COVID-19 test[1]. We encourage you to get vaccinated (as 97% of the students at the Hebrew University have already done!). Anyone who still does not have a green pass and cannot be tested before a lesson is welcome to contact the course instructor and request permission to be absent from the class (not possessing a green pass is not a sufficient reason to be absent from a lesson).

4. In most courses, you will be asked to submit written assignments. We highly recommended that you study in groups, and exchange opinions and ideas (at the same time, one must write the paper independently, or as part of the group set for submission). Be generous! Use learning as an opportunity to get to know students from a different cultural background than your own. The Hebrew University is proud that its student body is very diverse, but it is not enough to look at others from a distance; it is necessary to initiate a conversation, offer help and ask for help. We have a civic duty to promote a framework of coexistence. Set yourself a goal to meet friends from a different cultural background than yours. Also, please engage in public involvement and take part in social activities (a wide range of opportunities is available here).

5. The instructor’s and teaching staff’s take efforts to make sure that you get the most out of the course. Please contact them, and share with them issues that require clarification, as well as questions or comments that are not directly related to the topic being studied. In addition to the teaching staff, there are also many other responsible bodies at the Hebrew University at your disposal to assist you. These include, among others: the secretariat staff for teaching matters in each department and faculty; undergraduate and master’s degree student advisors; the Deputy Dean for Teaching Matters; the Dean of Students; the International Office and the Rector; the various units in the Dean of Students office; and the Student Union. Please share with us any difficulties, if they arise. We are here for you, and we promise to try to help as best we can.

6. The light rail construction continues on all our campuses in Jerusalem, and in about a year or two, we will be entering a new era. Until then, we operate a shuttle system. The details are available here.

7. I would like to share with you our University policy regarding teaching. The following points are written in my letter to the University Faculty sent out for the opening of the academic year.

The main operational model of modern universities is the classic German model, which is attributed to Humboldt and the University of Berlin. This model has four main characteristics: (1) The academic institution combines teaching and research (hence its name "university," which derives from the fact that it is an institution that is a common, "universal" community of researchers and students); (2) Researchers (and the institution as a whole) enjoy academic freedom in choosing the areas of teaching and research, according to their assessment of what is interesting and important to research and teach, while denying the power of the State (despite being the University's main funder), to dictate research and teaching areas; (3) Academic training includes the systematic acquisition of skills of rational scientific thinking and of liberal moral conceptions (Bildung), alongside training in the relevant fields of knowledge; (4) The curriculum includes a significant component of elective courses, in a manner that respects the academic freedom of students. This was the model according to which the universities in Germany operated in the late 19th century and in the first part of the 20th century, the golden age of these institutions.

After the Second World War, democratization in Western Europe, the exemption from tuition fees and the lowering of admission thresholds, along with the expansion of the middle class, led to the welcome result of a significant increase in the proportion of students among the relevant age group (a jump from 5% to almost 50%). However, there was a price to pay, manifested mainly in the quality of academic training. Undergraduate teaching in classrooms where hundreds of students study, disconnecting the teacher from the students, meant that the important characteristics of the German model no longer existed in German universities and parallel institutions in Western Europe. Perhaps one of the reasons for the dizzying success of American universities, which have overtaken the German universities in recent decades, is the successful adoption in the United States of the classic German model in terms of the status of teaching in academic activity. Anyone who has taught at an American University is aware of the great importance attached to classroom teaching there.   Beginning already in undergraduate courses, and certainly in master’s degree and doctoral degree courses, teachers are required to assign students reading material that is at least twice or three times the amount that is customarily assigned at our universities in Israel. Classes are not carried out as lectures. Rather, they are conducted with the active participation of students. In American academic culture, the status of teaching is the same, or almost identical, to that of research.

The conditions at leading American universities are different from those in Israel in many respects. Despite this, the Hebrew University recognizes that alongside our focus on excellence in research (in various indices, we are ranked first in Israel and among the 100 leading institutions in the world), we must take teaching seriously. Teaching at the Hebrew University is the best in Israel, and our situation in this area, compared to the leading institutions in the United States, is good. This is reflected in the continuous improvement in the degree of student satisfaction with teaching at the Hebrew University, which emerges from the polls that we conduct. It is also reflected in the continuing increase in demand to study at the Hebrew University; in the great success of Hebrew University graduates in being admitted to graduate study abroad; and in the huge demand for Hebrew University graduates in the labor market. But the situation is not excellent. We intend to work intensively to further improve our condition in this area.

We recognize that you, the students of the Hebrew University, expect us to offer you high-level instruction, and demanding requirements that will challenge you and satisfy you intellectually. You expect fair exams, which do not merely test your ability to identify “trick answer choices” and outwit sophisticated formulations. You expect coordination among courses, so that there will be no overlap among different courses and there will be no errors in assumptions about the skills already acquired in previous courses. You expect to get to know the faculty members and you expect that faculty members will get to know you. The coming academic year will be dedicated to intensive activities to promote the quality of teaching at the University. Among other things, the university administration will work to further increase the use of formative assessment, in which students study in teams and submit papers that receive detailed feedback; we will apply the method of measuring credit points in courses according to "learning load," and not according to the number of lessons in the class; we will strive to completely avoid conducting courses attended by more than 150 students per class; we will consider measures to prevent the use of multiple-choice tests; we will expand the participation of faculty members in the student advising program, and more. We will work to strive to meet your high expectations.

I wish you a successful and enjoyable academic year. Remember that the Hebrew University is yours – or rather, the Hebrew University is you, the students – just as it is its academic and administrative staff.

Good Luck!

Sincerely, Barak Medina, Rector


[1] A person who does not possess a green pass may enter campus by presenting “proof of a negative result on an immediate COVID-19 text.” This is defined as a PCR test performed up to 72 hours before it is presented (or immediate test, valid for 24 hours), and the certification must include a means to verify it (QR code).