Educational reform: ‘Not every degree programme has to fit the same mould’

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Studenten werken zelfstandig aan groepsproject 2023

For a long time, studying meant attending lectures and seminars, doing work placements and, to top it off, writing a thesis or doing a final project. But does this approach to education still work? According to an increasing number of universities of applied sciences, lecturers and students, it is not. After all, the world has changed and is calling for different types of education. But how do we create quality higher education that is future-proof and that also meets the needs of the labour market?

By Bart Breman

Annemarie Hannink, a member of the Executive Board of Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen, looks out of her office window, which has a beautiful view of Zernike Campus. ‘Society has become more complex,’ she says. ‘This means future generations will face complex, interdisciplinary problems. It requires us as an educational institution to take a much more focused approach.’

In 2014, Hanze UAS launched its living labs: learning communities in which students of different majors collaborate on projects with researchers and professionals from the field. The idea behind the living labs is to stimulate inquiry-based learning and to provide a direct link with professional practice. ‘We want every Hanze student to experience the combination of education, research and professional practice,’ says Hannink.


Living labs are a form of engaged learning. And it is not just Hanze UAS that is experimenting with this: universities of applied sciences throughout the Netherlands are starting to offer engaged learning. An example is the HILL method (High Impact Learning that Lasts), which hit the national news in the spring of 2023. The idea of this and similar methods is to replace lectures and seminars with assignments from professional practice. Students acquire knowledge and are coached by lecturers in workshops.

The introduction of these kinds of new educational methods does not go without a hitch. Some students feel lost without supervision, and lecturers can find it challenging to see themselves in their new role. Another difficulty that is often mentioned is that the executive boards of universities of applied sciences implement new educational methods without taking the concerns of students or lecturers into account.

Hannink affirms that she is aware of these issues. Hanze UAS, too, is launching new educational methods. For example, a number of degree programmes include assignments from the professional field, and lectures have largely been replaced by workshops. ‘Not every degree programme has to fit the same mould, though,’ she says. ‘Our lecturers know which learning pathway is most suited to their students. A student of Applied Psychology may have completely different learning needs from someone studying Finance. We do think these learning communities are important, as are enquiry-based learning and innovating the environment. We want these elements to be present everywhere.’


Industrial Engineering and Management is one such degree programme that has seen profound changes to its curriculum. In the past academic year, the lectures and seminars have largely been replaced by workshops. Lecturers are called learning coaches, knowledge coaches or project coaches. Rather than teaching classes, they supervise the students, who work in teams on assignments for companies in the region.

‘Officially, you’re not supposed to provide anything,’ says Maryvonne Nieboer, a lecturer and project leader in the new curriculum. ‘You give an assignment and say: “Good luck. If you need us, let us know”.’ The theory behind this is that it triggers students to look for information themselves and to learn to ask relevant questions,’ she explains. After a pause, she observes: ‘I think that this is what much of the criticism of this method focused on. If you take an approach that is this extreme, students wonder what the school is there for in the first place. And if you don’t know anything, you don’t know what to ask. So we believed this format to be excessively hands-off.’

Lecturer Derk Eising agrees. ‘Our students usually come from senior secondary vocational education (MBO) or senior general secondary education (HAVO). They’re used to completely different teaching formats, so we have to introduce the new curriculum gradually. That’s why we take them by the hand during the first year,’ he explains. ‘You can gradually let go of them more, until the last year when you say: “This is what we ask you to deliver. Find a company you like, find an assignment you like and just to go work”.’

A fixed weekly structure has since been introduced in the first year in order to build out this new system. ‘We have a fixed start to the week and workshops on specific days of the week, allowing students to feel more at home in their degree programme,’ says Nieboer. ‘But we also make an immediate start with applying the theory in practical assignments. This lets you remember the theory better and also understand why you’re being asked to do something. Understanding the why and wherefore in turn improves memorisation.’

We’re still marking them, the same as always

Derk Eising was a manager at an international company and went into teaching some years ago. ‘Initially, I was teaching lectures in halls with a capacity of 120 students. I was happy if half that number showed up. Having only 10 percent show up wasn’t unusual, either,’ he says, recalling his first years as a lecturer. ‘Now, I work with groups of students and virtually everyone is present during contact moments.’

He affirms the new curriculum is less dense in content, but it emphasises putting skills into practice. ‘In the old system, students began cramming the study material a few days ahead of an exam. If I asked them a week later what the exam was about, they had forgotten. There’s no doubt in my mind that they learn more from preparing a tender for a company than from doing sums for me for eight weeks and then sitting an exam.’

However different the new curriculum may be, some things stay the same. From behind her desk, Maryvonne Nieboer points to a tall stack of paper. ‘I was marking assignments just now. Some students didn’t hand in anything, or show up for their criterion-based interview (a talk during which students present the results of their assignment).’ She shrugs. ‘That’s a fail.’ Smiling, she adds: ‘We’re still marking them, the same as always.’

Half-hearted explanations

Vera Heidekamp is one of two female students taking the Industrial Engineering and Management degree programme. She transferred from senior secondary vocational education (MBO), and found the first year wasn’t plain sailing. At the start of the academic year, she didn’t experience the fixed weekly structure as being all that fixed. ‘To me it felt like you were just given an assignment and were supposed to work it all out for yourself.’ She for one was able to draw on the experiences of her previous course, but she saw a lot of fellow students struggling with the new curriculum. ‘If you’re fresh out of secondary education, you’re used to listening to your teachers. Without clear instructions you’re really not sure where to start.’

Things went wrong when she was looking for a company to do a practical assignment, Heidekamp recalls. Failing to find a company, she and three fellow students ended up at the company where her father works. ‘We were given half a page of instructions. We were at a loss.’ Her father, too, was unclear on what the assignment was about. She laughs. ‘It’s a fun degree programme, my father and I said to each other, but the explanations are pretty half-hearted. I let the programme know that this wasn’t working.’ There were conversations, and over the course of the year that clear structure began to materialise, with students receiving more supervision. ‘Now there are two or three workshops a week during which you can ask questions,’ Heidekamp explains. ‘The project coaches look at your progress and provide feedback. At the end of the week, you hand in the assignments. It’s a structure everyone is pleased with.’

The programme asked Heidekamp and other first-year students about their experiences with the new curriculum. She smiles: ‘I immediately wrote a few pages’ worth of comments.’ In addition to giving feedback on the structure and supervision, she had a few observations to contribute about the assessment criteria. ‘For example, one lecturer will be far stricter than the next when marking the same assignment.’ It can also be tricky to be assessed individually on the basis of group assignments. ‘But,’ says Heidekamp, ‘if you require students to keep a portfolio up to date you can see how they develop. It gives you a clear idea not just of the group but also of the individual.’

More exams, after all

Lars van der Meer’s first year studying Industrial Engineering and Management went quite smoothly, he tells me with visible pride. He passed all subjects and has practically completed the first year phase. It wasn’t inevitable, however. He had made a previous start on the same degree programme when the old curriculum was still in place. ‘It was exams and more exams,’ he sighs. He terminated his enrolment after half a year. When he heard the educational system was being overhauled, he decided to try again. ‘The course materials and area of expertise were right for me, but all those exams were not.’

The new curriculum is far more centred on professional practice, Van der Meer points out. ‘For example, the workshops teach you to provide feedback, to hold meetings and to have debates.’ Van der Meer is very positive about the group assignments. Whereas they used to be put together by a lecturer, students now set to work on an assignment for a real company. ‘You research all sorts of things, you write a plan suggesting changes and you give recommendations. You instantly understand why you’re learning something specific and what use it will be to you after the degree programme.’

You learn the most by starting work at a company straightaway, Van der Veer believes. However, the degree programme has to provide an insight into that knowledge. ‘We only sat two exams this year. If there were a few more, it would be easier to demonstrate your own knowledge. This, combined with the professional products and the criterion-based interviews, gives a good insight into your personal development.’

Of course, Van der Veer doesn’t believe a slew of exams are what’s needed. ‘Students at universities of applied sciences are simply more practice-oriented,’ he observes. ‘University students, on the other hand, are more into studying, the traditional cramming, you could say.’

Back to hitting the books?

The end of the academic year is a time to take stock. The key lesson seems to be that new types of education can work very well, as long as you remember to listen to the concerns of students and lecturers and are willing to make adjustments – in the course of the academic year, if need be. ‘We made a pretty extreme switch to this new educational system,’ Dirk Eising says. ‘You then discover problems. While you can offer all of the course material in workshop format, sometimes it’s more efficient to offer the material in a lecture. A few exams don’t hurt, either.’ As for the individual portfolio proposed by Vera Heidekamp, it’s on its way in. ‘The individual portfolios will also be included in the assessments,’ Eising says.

Educational reform is a matter of trial and error, Annemarie Hannink confirms, leaning across the conference table. ‘What else should we do? Go back to having students hit the books in the traditional way?’ She looks at the campus terrain, which is brimming with walking and cycling students. ‘I don’t think so.'