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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