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It is not all that strange, Guus Smeets says, that many of his colleagues drop their teaching duties as soon as they are given the opportunity to do so. “If you wish to have a decent career in academia, you have to publish a lot. When it comes to promotions, there tends to be a complete focus on research performance.”

Universities are first and foremost education institutions, the professor says in his office, a small fish bowl of a room on the thirteenth floor of the Mandeville Building. This means that the quality of a university’s teaching should be at least as important as the quality of its research. “Universities owe it to their students,” he says. “It is odd that doctors are trained to provide patients with proper treatment in line with the latest insights, while lecturers – who could be said to provide a form of treatment, as well – are expected to do a good job of lecturing purely on the basis of their having some expertise on their subject, although we have a good understanding by now of which types of teaching are most effective.”

Guus Smeets is a Professor of Psychology at the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences. He is the Programme Director for the Psychology and Educational Sciences departments, and in 2014 he established the Teaching Quality and Graduation Rates Research Programme (which, under the name of Erasmus Education Research, is part of the Community for Learning and Innovation). He has a PhD in clinical psychology and specialises in teaching assessment, learning behaviour and problem-based learning.

Making the most of a degree

Smeets strongly advocates what he himself describes as evidence-based teaching: rather than just going through the motions, lecturers must try to determine how their students can ‘make the most of their degrees’. This may sound like common sense, but in actual fact, universities often don’t work that way.

“For instance, we have known for quite some time that lectures – which, until fifteen years ago, constituted 90 percent of all our teaching – really aren’t the most effective way to transfer knowledge. Students have limited attention spans, and sometimes lecturers simply aren’t good speakers. Moreover, there are a lot of external stimuli that may distract students from the speaker. But even so, a lot of tertiary education is still like that.”

In his presentations, he will often show a painting of a fourteenth-century lecture room. His goal: to demonstrate that the limited effectiveness of lectures has little to do with the introduction of iPhones, laptops and Facebook. “Students don’t need technology to be distracted from a speaker. They were chatting, or even sleeping, several centuries ago, as well. That’s what happens when you put them in a setting like that.”

Liber Ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia by Laurentius de Voltolina. Image credit: wikimedia commons

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He was twenty by the time he went to uni. He was a ‘slightly older student’ because he had previously attended a school of music for a couple of years. He originally dreamed of becoming an opera singer. Looking back on that time, he says he was a reasonably good baritone, but not good enough for a solo career, be it voice-wise or attitude-wise. “I probably would have ended up being a teacher,” Smeets says with a chuckle. “And I probably would have been very unhappy and a heavy drinker and all that.”

He attributes the fact that he felt right at home at Maastricht University’s Health Sciences department to MU’s use of the method of problem-based learning. At the time it was the only Dutch university to do so. Problem-based learning means small-scale, active teaching, encouraging students to define their learning objectives themselves. “If I’d been forced to attend lectures in a huge lecture theatre, my mind would have wandered all the time. But because I was one of a group of twelve students at most, I was forced to keep paying attention. On the few occasions when I wasn’t properly prepared for a seminar, other people noticed, and I was hugely embarrassed when my work was discussed.”

For a long time, he thought, well, if this works for me, it may work for others, too. Then he discovered there was a whole body of academic literature on the subject that supports the method. He lists the successful aspects: small groups, weekly or two-weekly micro-deadlines, allowing students to compensate for poor marks in one subject with high marks in another subject, sequential assessments and ‘learning in a meaningful context’.

“Students must be made to understand why the stuff they are learning is relevant. At my secondary school, my maths teacher would say, ‘And now we’ll move on to Chapter Five, which is about sine and cosine.’ If I asked him why we were doing that, he would say, ‘You need to know this stuff for your exam.’ In a problem-based learning situation, students will always know what they are doing it for. By starting from a realistic issue rather than the solution – the knowledge you will gain – lecturers can help students understand the relevance of the subject matter.”

Working together


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The problem-based learning methodology was brought to Rotterdam from Maastricht by psychology professor Henk Schmidt, who first served as Dean to the Faculty of Social Sciences (now called the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences), then as EUR’s Rector Magnificus. Guus Smeets, who was once tutored by Schmidt, came to EUR in 2004.

“We were working with all these young people,” says Smeets, reminiscing. “The atmosphere was great. We all worked together, which is uncommon at most faculties. Everyone loved the problem-based learning method. We were all in it together and felt that we were responsible for providing high-quality teaching as a team.”

The results were great. EUR’s psychology degree programme was voted the best psychology degree in the Netherlands for over ten consecutive years. Both the Choosing Your University Guide (Keuzegids) and Elsevier’s Best Degree Courses gave it the top ranking between 2003 and 2015. Since then, EUR has lost the top spot, which Smeets says is partially due to the fact that the department is no longer allowed to curb its number of students. This has resulted in the degree now attracting nearly 600 new students per year, up from 200 per year in the numerus clausus days.


Image credit: Geertje van Achterberg

Small-group teaching has since spread to other departments and faculties. The method gained momentum when, following a pilot study conducted at the Faculty of Social Sciences, the ‘nominal is normal’ system (all 60 ECTS in the first year) was introduced university-wide, meaning that students now had to obtain their degrees within a set timeframe.

Smeets, who was partially responsible for the introduction of the new system, says he isn’t happy with the name ‘nominal is normal’, which roughly translates as ‘published time is normal’. “The name suggests that our objective was to rush students into getting their degrees as fast as possible. Rutger Bregman called it ‘degree inflation’ in De Volkskrant, even though our intention was to ensure that students can make the most of the time they are given to get a degree. We wanted them to stop wasting time by procrastinating, and to encourage them to learn as much as possible.”

The introduction of ‘nominal is normal’ was fraught with obstacles. Of course, a pilot study had been conducted, but, said the critics, the new system was rolled out EUR-wide before the pilot study had even been evaluated. “People felt that something was being imposed on them. Perhaps the system really was rolled out a bit too quickly, but our graduation rates were really calling for action. Fewer than half of our students were obtaining their Bachelor’s degree within four years.”

Lovely chats


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The university badly needed an intervention, says Smeets. If he had had to give EUR a mark out of ten a decade ago, he would have given it a 4 or a 5. That’s how poorly EUR was performing. He would now give the university a 7+. What, in his opinion, needs to be done to make it a 9 out of 10? He says the university must continue to follow its current course, and lecturers must become a little more willing to analyse their own methods. “Just like pretty much everyone else, professors have a tendency towards external attribution. If something is not working, it’s everyone else’s fault, but definitely not theirs. If their students fail to get a degree, they weren’t paying attention or they weren’t motivated enough. But it has been demonstrated that their teaching methods may be at fault, as well. Which means the lecturer may indirectly be to blame, too.”

He does not believe problem-based learning is the holy grail, but many studies have demonstrated that the elements that characterise problem-based learning make students more likely to get a degree. “There are still people who say, ‘We have lovely chats in those tutorial groups, but at the end of the day, I’m the one who knows the subject, so [the students] should be listening to me.’”

“Allowing students to discuss the things they have read in their literature with each other helps them increase their knowledge,” Smeets explains. “After all, the acquisition of knowledge requires some effort, so we must activate our students. Just being a specialist in your own discipline does not necessarily make you a good lecturer.” Therefore, he recommends that university lecturers receive teaching training. “Getting one-off basic teaching qualifications does not suffice. We should want our lecturers to keep updating their teaching skills through refresher courses. The healthcare industry has a re-registration system for people working in healthcare professions. The education industry would benefit from something like that, as well.”

An arm and a leg

He would give ‘and arm and a leg’ to see Erasmus University seriously engage in teaching experiments over the next few years. Once again, he presents the healthcare industry as an example. In the healthcare industry, new drugs and treatments are assessed by means of randomised trials. He suggests educators do the same with education methods and compare several methods with each other within a cohort of students.

He has some unsolicited advice for EUR’s new Rector, who will commence employment on 15 June, too: “Continue to invest in research on teaching methods. Show people that you think this is an important issue by granting them the time and money to conduct this research. Show your appreciation for people who are trying to bring about education reform.”

And yes, do also allow people to move up the ranks if they are mainly engaged in teaching, which is currently nearly impossible, with the exception of a handful of full professors appointed specifically to teach. Should there be a tenure track for such professors? “I think that would be a very good idea.”

Image credit: Geertje van Achterberg