For years now, ESL has used the problem-based learning method in its degree programmes, because the faculty feels that it activates students and gets them to really think about issues. In seminars featuring the problem-based learning method, students tackle a case study under a tutor’s supervision. However, the method will be modified starting from next academic year. Groups will become bigger, with fourteen rather than ten students per group in Years 1 and 2, and up to twenty students per group in Year 3.
Group size is not the only thing that will undergo some change, though. Several courses will be overhauled as well. “For instance, in the bachelor’s degree in Law we have merged three courses: trade law, corporate law and labour law. From now on, they will be one new subject, called Law & Company, in which students will visit companies and solve real-life legal issues,” says ESL’s Dean of Education for bachelor’s degree programmes, Harriët Schelhaas.
Working towards ‘regular’ seminars
During Years 2 and 3, the faculty will be less focused on problem-based learning, which is to say that students will no longer work in small groups, in classes based on the problem-based learning principle. “In Year 2, the focus is on applying theoretical knowledge. We will allow our students to get ready for ‘regular’ seminars,” Schelhaas explains. “So we’ll start with small groups and problem-based learning in Year 1, and then gradually, students will be exposed to less structured methods.” This is to ensure that students are properly prepared for a master’s degree, adds Maarten Verbrugh, the Dean of Education for ESL’s master’s degrees. “They must be able to plan and study independently when doing the master’s. For instance, in the Research Practical course, the percentage of students successfully completing the course is determined by assignments the students have to complete independently.”
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Schelhaas and Verbrugh admit that to some extent, the upcoming changes are due to cuts to both the university’s and faculty’s budgets. “But we’d already begun trying to improve our problem-based learning method when the budget cuts were announced,” says Schelhaas. For his part, Verbrugh adds: “We mainly listened to our students’ input. They wanted slightly less structured, more independent teaching methods.”
However, the cuts did prompt ESL to take a more commercial approach to the degree programmes. “We hope to generate additional income by increasing our student intake for our master’s degree,” says Verbrugh, who admits that high-quality degree programmes may suffer from financially motivated decisions. “This year we’ve had to cancel a master’s degree programme because it didn’t attract enough students and so wasn’t financially viable. But we did incorporate some of its great courses into other degree programmes, where many more students will be able to enjoy them.”
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Since group sizes will be increased, the number of tutors needed by the faculty will decrease by some 20 percent. So will the larger group size have a negative impact on the quality of the degree programmes? “Definitely not,” Schelhaas says, fully convinced. “The changes will be made in accordance with scientific insights, with the educational concept being modified and brought in line with today’s needs, and the increase in group size is only one aspect of that. We know from the literature on the subject and our own experience that small groups in problem-based learning methods can be increased up to a particular size. The groups we are currently forming will be under that limit.”