Mirjam oude Egbrink and Ton de Goeij Mirjam oude Egbrink and Ton de Goeij Sacha Ruland

The science of education

Written by  Jolien Linssen Wednesday, 20 February 2013 15:47
Thirty-seven years after its founding, the marriage between Maastricht University and Problem-Based Learning (PBL) has proven to be a happy one. In fact, without this education system there would have been no university at all. The launch of the medical faculty in 1974 depended on the ability to create something new and unprecedented in the Dutch academic world. Although PBL was initially deemed 'soft' and even 'alternative' by academics elsewhere, learning in small groups is now becoming a widespread phenomenon in universities all over the world. Maastricht, however, remains the forerunner: here, PBL is part of the university's genetic structure.

"PBL originated from the United States and Canada, where it was first used in medical curricula", explainsTon de Goeij,extraordinary professor of Curriculum Development. "It focuses on problem scenarios, based on which students need to gather relevant learning materials. As it is relatively easy to describe a medical patient’s problem and the symptoms and complaints, that seems a logical development."

"Patients’ problems are indeed often multifactorial and hence multidisciplinary", adds Mirjam oude Egbrink, extraordinary professor of Implementation of Educational Innovations. "This fits perfectly with the multidisciplinary approach that lies at the heart of the PBL system. But I’d like to emphasise that other fields of study, like the biomedical and health sciences, also have this multidisciplinary character. PBL can really be applied in a wide variety of ways."

Leading in Learning

And this is exactly what has happened at Maastricht University, where PBL is practiced in each of the six faculties. Oude Egbrink and De Goeij both work at the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences (FHML), where they were appointed as extraordinary professors in the field of education last year. Their professorships demonstrate that Maastricht University's slogan 'Leading in Learning' is more than just a catchphrase.

Oude Egbrink: "At our faculty, we’re very lucky with the research performed in the Department of Educational Development and Research, which is highly esteemed internationally. Our task is to further increase the interaction with educators in other departments and in the Maastricht University Medical Centre.We hope to bring about better implementation of this research."

This task is demonstrative of a wider trend, according to De Goeij. "From the outset, the university's reputation has largely been based on its focus on education and the innovation and quality of the educational programmes. Yet if staff members wanted to build an academic career, educational activities were not going to get you any further – neither here, nor elsewhere. Nowadays, choosing an educational path has become a serious career option."
"But a career in education shouldn’t be an escape route for those who can’t make it in the research field", Oude Egbrink continues. "On the contrary, we encourage those who opt for this type of career to continue their research activities. In order to be  good teacher, you have to be aware of the developments in your field of study." 

Problem-Based Learning

To this end, Oude Egbrink and De Goeij themselves set the perfect example, both still being involved in scientific research. Their joint research efforts revolve around the selection procedure for the Physician–Clinical Investigator programme. "For a selection method to be effective, it needs to have predictive value”, says Oude Egbrink. “The question then is: are the students who meet our selection criteria indeed going to perform well during their studies? That’s what we’ll need to find out."

De Goeij is also concerned with improving the FHML’s assessment procedures. "Instead of just one comprehensive exam at the end of a course, we propose to implement a series of smaller tests focused on the main issues and understanding, rather than on reproduction of knowledge", he says. "The goal is not to judge the students’ amount of knowledge, but rather to show them in which areas there is still work to be done. In this manner, quantitative grades will gradually be substituted by feedback." 
Both developments touch upon the essence of PBL. Decentralised selection offers a tool for identifying highly motivated students who deliberately choose in favour of PBL. "This is important," Oude Egbrink explains, "since students at our university have to actively work to gain knowledge and skills. They themselves are responsible for their academic education." Seen in this light, the need for an examination method based on feedback would seem to be self-evident.

"I believe that our academic training produces individuals who will excel in their professional lives", says De Goeij. "A good physician, for instance, should not only have sufficient knowledge to treat patients. You also need non-cognitive skills, such as good communication with patients, collaboration with colleagues and self-reflection. Within PBL, these competences are trained from the outset because students need to engage in group work and cooperate with their peers."


The high ambitions of Oude Egbrink and De Goeij are unlikely to be tempered by the recent financial cutbacks. "Of course I do worry every now and then", De Goeij admits. "The challenge is to maintain and potentially even improve the quality of our education with decreasing financial means."

Nevertheless, in their view the way to combat the crisis is clear: "We should be making use of our educational knowledge more than ever", says Oude Egbrink. "Teachers are our capital. It’s up to us not only to effectively train them but also to get them to share their ideas on how to improve our education system. In addition, we need to promote cooperation between different departments. At FHML, for example, courses in the various bachelor’s programmes tend to overlap. I’m sure we can work more efficiently by bringing both the teachers and the students of the individual programmes together."

According to De Goeij, the same holds for the cooperation between different faculties. "Why can’t a medical student enrol in a course at, let's say, the Faculty of Law? I sense that this is where the future is going to take us. For in the field of education, there’s a lot of willingness to learn from one another."

Mirjam oude Egbrink (1960) studied biology in Groningen and joined the Maastricht Department of Physiology in 1985. She has always combined biomedical research with various educational roles at the FHML. In 2008 she was appointed programme director of the medical curricula, and in 2011 scientific director of the FHML Institute for Education. She has been working as extraordinary professor of Implementation of Educational Innovations since last year.
Ton de Goeij (1947) studied biochemistry and obtained his PhD in Leiden before joining the Maastricht Department of Pathology as an associate professor in 1982. In addition to conducting research in the field of pathology, he has been involved in educational activities throughout his career, including as chair of the Committee for Education and the University Council. He also developed the FHML research master’s Physician–Clinical Investigator and directed it from 2007 to 2011. Since 2011 he has been the director of the medical programmes at the FHML, where he currently works as extraordinary professor of Curriculum Development.

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