Fabian van den Berg

How do we Learn Number Symbols?
Maastricht University
Fabian van den Berg_Profile
Tell us a bit about yourself – what stage of your PhD are you in and what’s your project about?

At the moment, I am in my fourth and final year of my PhD at Maastricht University. My project is about how humans learn numbers and how hands might help that process. When you think about it, the symbol “3” is pretty strange. There’s nothing “three” about it, it doesn’t have anything that can help you figure out how many it means, yet we’ve all connected this squiggly line to what we know of as “three”.

Kids do this really fast, but not everyone does this equally fast or equally well. Those small differences in early childhood can compound over time, making math more challenging. Figuring out how we learn the very basics can teach us a lot about how we might be able to help those kids that struggle in this are.

Of particular interest to me are our hands, they’re very intuitive and right there. Kids tend to use them automatically, and even before they know what the words for all the numbers are. Hands can help young learners as an external tool that’s always available.

What does a typical day or week look like for you?

Since I am in my last year, and at the time of writing this we are still going through a global pandemic, my days are not very exciting. I was fortunate to have collected all my data before the lock-down started, so all I focus on is writing to finish my dissertation. I get out of bed, do my daily workout, and head to the office where I sit alone and continue writing. When I’m done I go home, cook, and unwind. I try to stick to a 9-17 schedule, routine is good for the brain and helps to separate work from home.

When I wasn’t writing I was also teaching, the last period from home and before that in person. We have a problem-based learning system here, which means I guide small groups (about 14 students) in their studies. I’ve taught the courses Developmental Psychology and Statistics, and also taught Excel and had the pleasure of mentoring a Research practical twice.

Days when data was being collected I was in the EEG-labs supervising the students, teaching them how to correctly apply electrodes and conduct the experiment. Everything else that needed to be done (such as data processing) was done by script I had running on my computer, allowing me and the students to focus completely on data collection.

What’s one thing that you’ve enjoyed the most during your PhD?

I’ve done many enjoyable things, from learning new skills to teaching my colleagues new statistical techniques.

The best thing about the PhD, by far, were the friends I’ve made. There are a lot of stories out there about PhDs being alone and isolated, I wasn’t having any of that. We had a small lunch-group that would meet every day and just have lunch together. Over the last four years we adopted more and more of the PhDs in the department and we are now 20-30 people strong.

Having a group of peers who understand the struggles is priceless.

What’s been the most challenging part of it?

For me the most challenging part was the writing, I wasn’t (and still aren’t) used to the academic style. There are many rules and stylistic traditions you need to adhere to, not to mention the hoops we must go through for journals. It’s never been my style of writing, my style of explaining.

Finishing my PhD during the pandemic isn’t easy either. I am allowed to be in my office, since working from home wasn’t going so well, but it’s very quiet nonetheless. Most of the time I was alone on my floor, nobody to interact with, making the writing especially monotonous.

Where do you see yourself 5 years after completing your PhD?
Currently I am looking for job opportunities since my contract is ending in a few months. I am looking at post-docs but I just might step out of academia and find research jobs elsewhere. I truly enjoy doing research and that’s possible in other areas than just academia. As PhDs we learn and master a lot of skills that we barely get credit for, skills that are very valuable in industries.

What’s one piece of advice that you’d offer students that are thinking of doing a PhD?
A PhD is difficult, it’s years dedicated to a single topic, so make that topic something you enjoy! If you care little about the topic it is going to be a drag. Find something you like with a team that you like, the title and the institution don’t matter that much. Secondly, make friends when you get there. Set up your own lunch group where you can talk about other things, complain about supervisors, and laugh together. Work-life balance is important, it protects from burnout. Friends are essential for a good balance.

What makes your university a good place to study?

Studying at Maastricht University gets you problem-based learning. You will be very actively engaged with the material and there is a very low threshold to talk to experts since they’ll be there with you, in the room, making sure you understand it all. I’ve taught statistics for many years and I made sure that none of my students left that meeting feeling confused about anything, that’s what you can expect.

As a PhD here, well there is no studying. At least, not mandatory studying. PhDs are considered staff here, not students. We have a graduate school and you are encouraged to go learn new skills, but you don’t have to keep up a GPA and don’t have to pay tuition.

Also, the city is really nice. It’s not a big city, nice and quiet with plenty of green.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Work-Life balance is important to me, so my evenings and weekends are always free from work. In that time I enjoy fitness, either home-workouts or going to the gym for boxing classes. Aside from that I watch plenty of movies, TV shows, and play video-games as well (mostly single-player story games). I also really enjoy cooking, usually every day. It’s very easy to get fresh produce here, and with all the different cultures around there’s always something new to try.

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