Academic Life at Maastricht University

Hi! I’d been here for only about three to four weeks when I wrote my first post, which was therefore largely about my arrival at Maastricht, my orientation experience and about settling in. Now that it’s my eighth week here (time flies!) and given that Period 1 has just ended, I think it would be apt to talk about the academic experience I’ve had here.

 

COURSES AND SEMESTER STRUCTURE

An academic semester here is split into 2 periods of about 8 weeks each, and I’m doing 2 courses in each period (that’s the most I’m allowed) – Globalisation Debate and Thinking Strategically in the first, and Public Economics and Economics and Sociology in the second. I can’t really comment on the second pair since I haven’t started on it, but the former two courses were both really enjoyable. Thinking Strategically was basic game theory, with plenty of math and logic. Globalisation Debate was, as its title suggests, all about thinking about globalisation critically – what globalisation actually entails, whether it’s been good or bad,  how it has affected who in what ways etc – and discussing these views, with (plenty of) readings as primers.

In contrast, at SMU (Singapore Management University, my university back home), we take about 4-5 modules in a semester of about 15 weeks, with a one-week break and mid-term examinations somewhere in between (and final examinations at the end, of course). Each module is about the equivalent of a course in Maastricht, but translates into one three-hour lesson each week rather than the two or three weekly two-hour blocks over here. To be honest, I prefer how it is at SMU  – I find it more efficient (one lesson that covers everything rather than two, the ability to bid for all the courses for the semester in one go etc.) and flexible (the larger timespan and number of modules gives one more flexibility with regards to time allocation). However, Maastricht does have its own set of advantages, one of which is that you are essentially guaranteed to get the courses that you bid for; back in my university, courses have limited vacancies from the offset, and students are given virtual money to bid for them. This bidding exercise is basically a balancing act – everyone looks to bid high enough to secure their vacancies for their courses, while ensuring that they have enough money at the end of it all for future spending – and takes up a lot of students’ time and effort.

 

THE PROBLEM-BASED LEARNING SYSTEM

There was plenty of hype about Maastricht’s Problem-Based Learning (PBL) pedagogy right from the start. Meant to be a deliberate shift away from the traditional teaching model – involving one teacher/professor directly imparting the relevant information to a large number of students, typically in the form of a lecture – PBL tends to involve

  • small classes sizes (15 students at most)
  • case-based learning and discussion amongst students
  • a tutor who facilitates this discussion and deliberately looks to minimise his/her involvement as an authority

At SMU, lessons are typically what I could perhaps best describe as a cross between PBL tutorials and the stereotypical lectures. They’re seminar-style sessions with about 45 students and a professor who dictates the lesson, but with the same element of individual participation – students can be called on at any time to answer questions or to give their opinion, though they usually do so of their own accord (since their participation is graded).

And so, as I was already used to speaking up in class, I didn’t have too much of a culture shock when I started lessons here; there were only a few minor things I needed to get used to, such as being a discussion leader and using everyone’s inputs to steer the discussion in a certain direction, or such as arriving at certain conclusions with the rest of the class only to have the tutor leave the issue open instead of providing any definitive assessment or opinion. However, many of my friends on exchange from other universities who were used to lecture-style classes had a lot of difficulty adjusting. They found it hard to not just regularly express their opinion in front of so many others in such a setting, but also to keep up with the pace and intensity of the discussion being generated by the students in the class.

In my opinion, whether the PBL system works well in all types of courses is very debatable. I think it’s ideal for discussion-based courses like Globalisation Debate – where the coursework largely comprises readings and tackling ambiguous and open-ended (but pressing) questions – and is a lot less effective in more technical courses, such as on game theory, which involve arriving at one definite answer through logical and mathematical thinking.

 

COMPETITION AND PRESSURE

Also, the success of PBL hinges a lot on the amount of preparation students have done for the class. For example, if no one reads the assigned readings or does the assigned exercises for a class, it’d naturally be difficult to have even a passable discussion on the topic or to understand the tutor when he or she elaborates on further details. In this sense, there is greater pressure on students to be prepared for every single lesson and to do consistent work, although I suppose this is a good thing, not least because doing so generally puts them in good stead when exams are around the corner.

A major plus here is also the relative lack of competition. In SMU for example, it is common to have students trying to out-speak others to earn higher class participation points, groups trying to  one-up each other in terms of showmanship (think costumes, elaborate skits, music videos etc) for project presentations, and many refusing to share their notes or help their peers with exam preparations. I suppose this is because grading in SMU follows a bell curve – there is a set number of each grade per class (for example, only a maximum of 3 students can score an A+, and only 5 at most can score an A etc), which translates into students competing for the best grades. In Maastricht, the grading appears to be more absolute – in theory, it seems possible that every student in the class could be given a “7” upon 10, and that no one may receive a “9” or more, for example. While this may on the whole pose drawbacks in terms of statistically ranking students, I think it’s largely a good thing – it indicates to students that their success is down to themselves and not others, and encourages them to see their peers as people they should respect and can learn from, rather than as rivals they need to step on to become successful.


 

That’s all for my second blog post! In my next post, I’ll probably talk about the travelling I’ve done since I came here or –  if I feel I haven’t done enough to write about by then – about life in Maastricht in general.

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Study in Maastricht

UM is known as the university with Problem-based learning (PBL) way of study. It’s weird and unusual to me as there is definitely no such thing in Hong Kong, even we have tutorials but the style is utterly different.
I took the course of Culture, Economies and Politics of Contemporary Asia which is jointly held by SBE and UCM in the first period. This cultural course is definitely more alike to the general education stuff instead of business-related, thus quite interesting if you want to explore out of the normal business framework. Talking about the course, be ready to find many Asians around you as at least to my understand, many students from Hong Kong and South Korea take that.
There are one lecture and one tutorial per week, it’s seem the workload is not heavy but the point is the readings you have to go through for each tutorial, around 100 pages per week. The lecture explains some models and concepts in the readings but many people tend to skip lecture and prepare the materials themselves, at most you can skip one lecture and two tutorials for this course. Each PBL session is lead by one student who is either assigned it volunteered to be the Discussion Leader and notes taken by a secretary, as mentioned before, preparation is of utmost importance as the PBL really dig into every single article assigned for the week. At the same time, participation in the discussion is useful in a sense that the misunderstanding can be clarified and build some new concepts from the interaction with course mates.
For the exam, unlike the normal practice in Hong Kong, the exam venue is in MECC which is a expo center near the train station but not inside the university. It takes about 20 minutes to get there by bus or 30 minutes by bike from the Main Guesthouse, so be ready to go there earlier. When you arrive the exam hall, the seat number is still unknown and the way is to ask the examiner in the area of your block (each course has an assigned block which can be found on the board in front of the exam hall). One more interesting thing is that food and drink are allowed during the exam which are prohibited in Hong Kong and there is permit to go to washroom with maximum twice.
The study style in UM is quite different from many places, at least to Hong Kong, which I didn’t get used to at the very beginning but soon kind of like it as it’s more effective to study and exchange ideas in a group.

Enjoy your study in UM and stay stunned for the future blogging!

Robbed and slapped – true or not?

Dear reader,

nice to see you again! As I promised in the previous post, I will tell you how I found my room, about an emergency matter with a printer and some newly gathered experiences from biking.

My hunt after a room has begun in May and lasted for several exhausting weeks. Ok, not that it would be that hard, it’s just that I’ve always done it half asleep after a long day. I’ve been through the lists of all the rooms of all the links to websites from the University’s subpage devoted to housing for incoming exchange students. And if your budget for a room is around 400 to 500 euros, you will definitely find some great looking rooms on fine locations. But if you are like me, you are looking for a room for maximum 350 euros, preferably less. And I can tell you that you can definitely find one that is actually cheap, with good looking furniture, and situated in a clean apartment with friendly housemates. Of course, there is a catch …

I’ve spend a lot of my time and energy scrolling down Facebook pages of groups like Flat hunting Maastricht, Maastricht student rooms – search/offer and Rooms/kamer/zimmer in Maastricht, but in the end I came across a website for Dutch students that had a link to https://kamernet.nl/. Facebook groups are great because they are free to join, but that also means that they are really crowded – those who offer a room get numerous responses and can actually choose who to give their room to. On the other side there are agencies whose best advantage is that whatever you choose you get, as long as you are the first to spot the gorgeous room. But you have to pay the agency a fee. A big fee. Maybe half of a month’s rent, maybe a full one. Kamernet is somewhere in between: you pay 19 euros for a 15 days continuous subscription. Fifteen days is more than enough to write to all of the landlords you are interested in (what you can’t do without the subscription), and you can continue the already started conversation with them even after you cancel the subscription. But you have to cancel it!

Otherwise the subscription goes on forever … So I cancelled the subscription on the 15th day.

And they kept on taking money from my bank account.

And they didn’t respond to my first message. Not to my second email.

Weeks went by, first payment, second, third … the bank said they can’t do anything about it, since I agreed to all of it myself … You can imagine I was getting pretty freaked out! Paying 19 euros instead of 200 or 350 to get a room is okay. Multiplying this number isn’t that fun anymore. The company finally responded and informed me that I have had a double subscription. Great. I guess you have your messages delivered by snails, huh? But I got a room. So I am still recommending the website.

Let’s just move to a happier theme. Like how a printer robbed me. I didn’t know printers had such superpowers. At least not until half an hour before a deadline for my first assignment, which had to be handed in hardcopy (and on the web). I did everything as instructed by the University: logged into RicohmyPrint website (the company is in charge of the printers you can find all around the University’s buildings), purchased printing credit, and uploaded my assignment.

35 minutes till deadline. I am at Tapijn learning spaces, happy to finish writing eeearly and with enough time to get to SBE and hand in the paper. I am walking up to the printer, a bit nervous for my first printing, but, hey, the instructions were clear, any kid could handle them. So I logged into a printer and my assignment was there. But the printer is one of those smart devices, so he knows that my assignment doesn’t have 7 pages, but 26. I don’t want to get into a fight, so I agree with him and press print – all to get my paper, it’s less than 30 minutes left and I am getting anxious. But the printer is not only smart, he is also a really funny guy. Instead of 26 pages, which I hoped would include my 7 ones, he has send me a private message on a single sheet of paper.

ERROR: undefined

You don’t say?!

Long story short, I managed to print the paper at the printing service in the Inner City Library and hand in the paper 5 minutes before the deadline. Then I returned to the Library where a Service desk is located and a nice guy figured the secret out. The printer wanted to print 19 additional pages and charged me almost 3 euros because of my last name. No kidding. One letter in the file name totally unbalanced him. Č. The guy was really surprised when he realised this and even took photos of the printer’s screen because he was sure his co-workers won’t believe him. I’m glad at least someone was having fun.

I promised to mention my palm-size bruise as well, right? As said, I got it from cycling. Or to be more precise, from crashing a few really charismatic street stone cubes. It happened because the floor was wet, my tyres smooth and I was rushing through a more than 90 degree turn. And my mind was busy giving me lessons how I should be more participative in the tutorials and stop sitting there stock-still. I was paying absolutely no attention to the obvious. Please, I encourage you to do the opposite. Participate actively in the tutorials and avoid getting a big slap from Maastricht personally.

Take care till next time,

Monika

P.s.: I got a refund from Kamernet as well as for the printing – the ICTS Servicedesk resolved the issue in less than a day, unlike Kamernet …

Travels & PBL System

The finals induced hibernation period has begun. I write to you as my  notes sit in a corner not being studied.

The update: Life here picks up fast. Because each period is only 7 weeks long classes go really fast, (more on that boring subject under “The PBL system”). Almost every weeknight there is a party hosted by ISN, the school, or a dorm. On the off chance there isn’t an event you can easily find a group to go out to the city center for some bar hopping! On the weekend the dorms are dead as people are usually traveling across Europe. (Maastricht is perfectly situated for travel, a real plus for a student traveling on a small budget)

Travels
So far I have been to Amsterdam, Munich for Oktoberfest, Brussels, and Utrecht. I went with friends to Amsterdam and Brussel, with ISN for Oktoberfest, and visited family in Utrecht. Going with friends is great because, obviously, you aren’t tied to a schedule. You are free to spend hours in a location you find interesting and pass by the ones that don’t really interest you. However, this means planning everything yourself and not getting the deals you would get if you went with a group like ISN. ISN does an excellent job of planning trips for exchange students at a really reasonable rate. Their cost usually includes travel, board, and a breakfast or 2.

Amsterdam
Lives up to all the hype. My friends (even the ones form Europe who see this stuff all the time) kept saying that Amsterdam was unlike any other city they had ever seen. It was stunning: the canals, the architecture, the museums, the abundant marijuana, the Red Light District combine to make something really unique. I would suggest going back a few times for day trips during the semester to fully see the city, one visit is not enough.

Oktoberfest
Definitely an experience. We left school at about 10 pm and drove all night to Munich. Once we arrived at about 5 AM we arrived in Munich and at 7 AM we were in line for the famous international tent. From there we spent the day chugging liters of beer, eating delicious German food, visiting the Oktoberfest amusement park, and of course, hanging with friends. The next day everyone woke up at 5 AM and did the whole thing over. A friend and I slept in and then toured Munich. It was beautiful and so nice to have a calm day after the merriment of Oktoberfest.

Brussels
Waffles, chocolate, Belgium beer, and french fries, what’s not to love? Brussels was an interesting city, not incredibly exciting, but worth of a day trip. We saw the European Parliament, Grand-Place, Town Hall, Mannekin Pis, downtown, and few parks.
Utrecht- Some of my mom’s family is in the Netherlands so I got the chance to meet her cousin and aunt. It was really cool to meet the extended relatives and Utrecht was really pretty and had a lot of history. I am amazed how different the north, south, central, east, and west parts of this tiny country are. I would really recommend day trips to each part of the country to get the whole Holland experience.
For photos see the end of this post 🙂

Travel Deals
Cheap Netherlands Tickets- For group train tickets search “NS Group Tickets The Netherlands” on Facebook. This group will match you with 9 other people for a group ticket deal so you can buy tickets for 7 euro. (to give you an idea how expensive train tickets are, Maastricht to Amsterdam Centraal is about 25 euro one way.)
Cheap Belgium Tickets- Look up the Belgian Rail Go Pass to get form Maastricht to anywhere in Belgium for only 7.5 euro.
http://www.belgianrail.be/en/travel-tickets/abroad/maastricht/gopass1-to-maastricht.aspx

The PBL system
Ah, so here’s the boring stuff. The PBL system is something the university really prides itself on. It is very unique and I have been told it is only used by the finest universities. This system is based on student discussion and student taught lessons with very few or no lectures. Because Maas uses the period system (similar to the quarter system) there is a very large amount of reading for each class. It is interesting and very different than anything I have ever had in the states. Back home I have frequent quizzes and homework assignments throughout the semester based on lectures. We also have usually have a few tests or at least a midterm before the final. Here, there are way fewer assessments. In one of my classes I have a paper 80% and participation 20%. In the other the final is worth 50% and the other 50% is participation and a project. The consensus among the exchange student seems to be a few things. One, the PBL system is very different from their home university. Two, it makes it easy to slack off and get behind. And finally, three, it makes you teach yourself from the readings and asking questions about what you don’t understand as opposed to learning form a teacher in lecture. As you can see the system works better/ worse in some classes than others and can differ quite a bit. Be prepared to be flexible!
Also join Study Drive! Students post notes and summaries there that are very helpful!

Amsterdam
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Munich
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Brussels
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Tips, Trips, and Tricks

Dear reader,

What I forgot to touch on last time was probably the most important point. I recently received a letter stating that I could risk deportation if I do not follow through with providing the proper documents. It seemed scary at first but it was all a misunderstanding. I am here to make sure that if that ever happens to you, you can follow suit and find the thought entertaining because you ensured that you are in fact a legal resident in the Netherlands.

I cannot stress enough how important completing all paperwork for your residence permit is in the Netherlands. I know that there are a variety of ways one may stay in the Netherlands legally, of these ways I opted for the Working Holiday Program Scheme (WHPS). The WHPS is offered to people coming from specific countries of origin (Canada was included) and is only valid for a limited amount of time (at least one exchange semester).

First, the University needs to be informed that you will be completing the WHPS. Next, upon arrival an appointment must be made with the immigration office (one person can book for multiple people if you’re going as a group). Thirdly, ensure that when you go to your appointment you have your passport, proof of insurance, proof of residence, proof of enrolment, completed the required document and that you brought exact change. After, a visit to the Visa office at Maastricht will need to be made so that a photo copy of your residence permit sticker can be made. Lastly, after a month you will be contacted to pick up your WHPS card. Yes, it can be at times tedious but planning and time management are key to ensuring a smooth exchange with minimal stress.

The second month of your exchange will fly by. Maastricht will start to feel like your second home, your bike will become your car, navigating through the streets will come with ease, and you will have developed a routine. In the second month, take the opportunity to visit Amsterdam, Brussels, Bruges, and one of the biggest festivals in the world, Oktoberfest. In addition, as an exchange student IESN has trips that are pre-planned, if you want a simple solution to explore Europe. These are just suggestions as I do know of friends who went to Norway, France, Italy, and Germany. While starting to feel like a student rather than a tourist, take any opportunity you can to get out of your comfort zone. Go on spontaneous trips, if you get a last minute invite, say yes. These are some tips that will help you maximize each day of your exchange.

Finally, the reason why we all came on exchange, the international educational experience. At Maastricht you will learn to use the PBL system to maximize your learning. Moreover, you will know the floorplan of SBE like the back of your hand and before you know it, exams will be right around the corner. Everyone has their own way of studying for exams but if I were to give one piece of advice, do your readings. Readings are a big part of the PBL system and therefore become a large focus for the exams. I have learned that PBL is a marathon and not a sprint. All in all, it is university and we all have taken exams before so it will be no different, just know what works for you.

To end on a happy note, remember to bring your traditions on exchange. For example, all the Canadians got together to celebrate Thanksgiving. This was a way to bring people together, make exchange feel more like home, and to have an excuse to eat good food, drink good wine, and have a great time.

Keep smiling,
Erik Sultmanis

5 Places You Must Visit (Brussels)

Hey! 🙂

You’ve probably heard the expression that travel broadens the mind. One of the reasons why Maastricht is such a popular choice for exchange students is that it’s an excellent base for travel. Without further ado, I present the first of five places you must visit.

Brussels

Loving this Tintin wall
Loving this Tintin wall

Waffles! Fries! With the delicious food that Brussels has to offer, you can almost smell Brussels before you can see it. However, the attraction of Brussels doesn’t end there. Brussels is home to many beautiful examples of architecture as well as many of the famous comics that we’ve grown up with (shoutout to Tintin and the Smurfs).

How to get there

Brussels is easily accessible via bus or train. I travelled by bus, and having the company of three others made it a pleasant 2-hour journey. We travelled with Flixbus, one of the many bus companies operating throughout Europe. One of the advantages of Flixbus is that it departs from Maastricht, making it convenient for early morning departures. It also offers routes to cities as far as Paris and Geneva. I recommend travelling by bus as a cheaper, more scenic alternative to the train.

Things to do

Commonly described as “the famous peeing boy”, Manneken Pis is where you’ll find most of the tourists in Brussels posing for shameless selfies. I am admittedly guilty of said act but I can justify this by pointing to the entertaining legends behind the creation of the statue. My favourite one involves Brussels under siege in the early 14th century, when foreign forces had placed explosive charges around the city walls. Legend has it that a young boy caught them preparing and urinated on the burning fuse, thus saving the city.

The Royal Palace of Brussels was our next stop. Although it wasn’t as extravagant as other royal palaces (Schönbrunn and Versailles), it’s still quite remarkable for a residence located within the city centre. As an Australian, I am continually amazed by the grandeur of European castles and palaces and this was no exception. Entrance was free – another plus.

Atomium at Night
Atomium at Night

The Atomium is probably the most famous attraction in Brussels. As the name suggests, the Atomium is designed like a magnified atom. Built for the 1958 World Fair and standing at 102m tall, there’s nothing quite like it in Europe. As we went at night, we weren’t able to go inside but saw an Atomium illuminated with lights. If you have the chance to go inside, the Atomium hosts exhibitions and has a beautiful panoramic view of Brussels.

No trip to Brussels would be complete without waffles, fries and chocolate!

Les Frites

We ate ‘les frites’ at Les Friteries du Café Georgette, a small establishment near the city centre. I had been patiently waiting, keeping my stomach empty so that I could savour the first meal of the day. It lived up to the promise! The fries were made fresh from potato (not frozen) and the sauces complemented the flavour of the fries very well.

Delicious waffle
Delicious waffle

On the same street as Manneken Pis, many of the waffle shops sell plain waffles for €1, with toppings such as Nutella and cream costing extra. We ate at The Waffle Factory, where they created the waffles fresh in front of you. The waffles were the fluffiest I’d ever tried but I don’t think that you can go wrong with any of the stores along that street.

Mussels in Brussels!
Mussels in Brussels!

Continuing with the culinary theme, we ate mussels in Brussels! Yes, you read that right. Mussels are a popular delicacy in Brussels and it was only right that we saved the best meal for last. On a crowded tourist strip, we chose one of the many restaurants offering mussels as part of a ‘menu’ (3 course meal). After a long day, I can definitely say it was worth it. The serving size was huge! Our mussels were presented in a large bowl and were full of flavour.

Brussels is the perfect city to explore your cultural and culinary passions. I recommend it to any exchange student looking to visit a nearby city.

If you have any suggestions on what you’d like to me to write about, please comment below.

Thank you for reading!

Andrew

Transportation in Europe 

Transport – Train, Flight and Bus 
OV-chip Card

In The Netherlands, traveling is definitely an easy task to better understand the cities. The most convenient way is to get an OV-chip card at the train station, which is similar to Octopus Card in Hong Kong and simply speaking a transport card. It’s €7.5 for the anonymous one and for the personal one which is more complicated has to contact the student office in the university but there is some travel discounts you can enjoy with the card.
Train

It’s normal to travel by train. In Netherlands, NS train and Veolia are two most common trains. For NS train, it’s highly recommended to buy group ticket by asking and joining the group on Facebook – NS Group Ticket. This definitely saves a lot as the return group ticket for 10 people is just €70 altogether.

Forget to check out 

If you forget to check out when traveling just easily go to the OV card website to trace your transaction record and ask for refund which will be transferred to your bank account. But it’s just invalid for NS train, in this case you can just directly chat with the NS officer on Facebook.
Budget Airline


To cross the broader, budget airline is definitely the fastest but cheap way. Here I recommend some of the airlines:

1. Ryan Air 

Most of the time, there is cheap ticket starting from €5. The ticket is cheap not because it’s unsafe but in fact they earn from the checkin and luggage requirement. Online check in between 30 days and 2 hours prior to departure is a must. Also, brooding pass has to be printed out and ask for stamping at the check in counter when arrive. Otherwise, additional charge of €90 will be charged which raised the price of your cheap ticket!

Also, do check the size of your bag as oversized hand carry bag is punished for €45.

2. Easy jet 

Another budget airline but much more professional in a sense that it’s just like the normal airline. Can either check in online or at the airport, if check in online, just print the broading pass and go directly to the gate, no stamping is needed.
Bus


Bus is always the cheapest way to get around the countries.

1. Flixbus 

I took Flixbus the most as it departs directly from Maastricht train station to Liege, Brussels and Paris. At the same time, mobile check in is possible and you can always can €3 discount voucher from the ISN office. If you have to cancel the ticket, simply do it online and you can get a voucher for the same amount you paid with one year validity.
2. Megabus 

If you book the ticket at least 3 months earlier, it’s possible to get a €1 ticket (my friend got one from Brussels to Munich for the Oktoberfest). But the space is a bit narrower than Flixbus and you have to print hard copy for the ticket.
3. Eurolines 

Online booking involves a one-time €3 reservation fee so try to group your booking to save more. Check in must be done with the driver with hard copy ticket and if there is an office nearby, have to check in with the counter staff and get a access pass to get in the bus. There’s socket in the bus so no worry if your phone has no battery.

I took Euroline from Brussels Nord to Lille at €12 one way, excluding the reservation fee but my friend said OuiBus is way cheaper at €9 one way from Brussels as well do try to search for more bus line of possible.
Stay tuned and more information about my exchange journey will be shared!!