Halt! Are you sure you’ve chosen the right study programme? Harry Heuts

Halt! Are you sure you’ve chosen the right study programme?

Written by  Livia Smits Tuesday, 23 October 2012 00:00
As indicated in its proposed performance agreements (‘Voorstel prestatieafspraken 2013-2016’), Maastricht University (UM) aims to be able to give targeted advice to all prospective students by 2015. This is because choosing a study programme that suits you and meets your expectations is not always easy, but it is important – not just for you but also for the faculty. Already, the faculties of Law and Arts & Social Sciences are using a ‘traffic light’ system for prospective students. A questionnaire on their study skills and motivation indicates whether their choice of programme is a sensible one, and issues a greenlight (go ahead!), or a yellow or red one (needs attention!). The advice is not binding. The two faculties each have their own approach to the ‘Matching & Binding’ programme, but are in complete agreement on the preliminary results. 
   
Matching & Binding is not selective admission in disguise; instead, it is intended as a service for students that can save them disappointment. At the same time, if study dropout decreases, the faculty’s success rates increase – making it a win-win situation. The different initiatives were put to the test by Rina Vaatstra, education researcher and adviser at the Faculty of Law (FL), and Amanda Kluveld and Miranda van den Boorn, programme director and study adviser, respectively, at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS). All three, each with their different areas of expertise, are enthusiastic about helping prospective students make the right study choice.
Matching & Binding started in 2011 as part of the university-wide Leading in Learning programme, which promotes educational innovation projects. Vaatstra and Sylvia Haerkens, a fellow FASoS policy adviser, are its spiritual founders. Their question – a deceptively simple but highly relevant one – was “Do students really know exactly what study programme they are choosing?” Prospective students of both the FL and FASoS have been asked this question each year since.


Clear signals 

It is still too early to say whether Matching & Binding actually reduces dropout. What is clear is that questionnaires from both faculties, despite their differences, do serve well to identify potential dropouts. Experience has shown that students generally answer questions about their intended study efforts honestly and have reasonable insight into their own study skills (for example, how well they can study, plan and work independently and in groups).

The questionnaires appear to be reliable indicators of the student’s future performance, and of any potential mismatch between their expectations and the study programme. They also give valuable information on factors that seem to predict study success: attitude to studying, previous studies and results, additional activities that students plan to get involved in, and the programme selection process. Eventually, students who started study programmes despite receiving a negative recommendation tended to drop out.

“Are you sure?”

The two faculties not only use different questionnaires, but also have different concepts of guidance. “If it were up to me I’d bring each and every one of them in for a chat”, laughs Kluveld. The interviews she and Van den Boorn conduct with prospective students who are given red or yellow traffic lights are usually frank and informative, and sometimes quite touching: “They often can’t believe that a programme director is interested in their choice of programme. They’re always asking me, ‘Are you sure?’” As a study adviser, Kluveld says, Van den Boorn has developed a special antenna for interviews with students: “She knows exactly when to keep pressing, and always manages to find the sore spot.” Van den Boorn agrees: “We usually have a good sense of when an interview is needed.”
Vaatstra is not in favour of interviews with all applicants. Since this academic year, prospective FL students who have been given a yellow light receive an email urging them to seriously reconsider their choice. Student who show poor motivation, or who were issued a red light, are sometimes also invited for an interview, thoughthis is happening less and less. Interviews are “very time consuming and not overly effective”, says Vaatstra. “Students with a negative recommendation often start the programme anyway and don’t always adapt their efforts as they should.”
 

Student monitoring system

But there can be no Matching without Binding: at both faculties, mentors continue to track students’ progress for different periods of time. On the basis of the questionnaires, interviews and study results, they refer students to study skills training, student psychologists, UM Career Services or other UM services whenever necessary. But in this area, too, the faculties each have their own policies. At FASoS all bachelor’s students are assigned a mentor and are required to maintain a portfolio of their study results and experiences. Van den Boorn: “The communication lines between student and mentor are short, which means we can intervene quickly if things go awry.” At the FL, all students with insufficient marks are presently assigned a mentor. Starting next year, this will be reduced to a mentoring service which will be offered to students only on request. “Students have to take the initiative themselves”, says Vaatstra. “In our experience, only then does mentoring make sense.”


Promising

Though their views on interviewing procedures and the importance of mentoring differ, both faculties are in agreement on the importance of the questionnaires. Given the good results achieved so far, the FL will make the questionnaire one of its selection instruments next year, when the numerus fixus is implemented.

The questionnaires have another bonus, too: they also draw attention to the very good students. The FL aims to offer a pre-honours programme for this group of students. “After two courses we’ll evaluate whether they should continue with the programme”, says Vaatstra. “It would be a shame not to use this instrument for these students too!” After almost two rounds of Matching & Binding, then, the first fruits have been harvested and new applications are in the pipeline.”
 
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