This fall six ‘outstanding’ students will receive their certificates after two years on what was in effect Wageningen’s first excellence programme. The project was the pilot for a university-wide Honours Programme which will be launched officially later this academic year. ‘We were really thrown in at the deep end’
Amanda Bresser, Bart Driessen and Thomas Janssen are no ordinary students. They get top grades, study at a fast rate and are not just interested in their own subject areas but also in those of others. That made them, along with three others, perfect candidates for the pilot for the Honours Programme, which started in 2011 for students of Environmental Sciences. Wageningen University is bringing up the rear when it comes to honours programmes, the idea of which began to take root in the Netherlands in 2002. A wide range of variations on the theme appeared around the country. At one university it is all about interdisciplinarity, while another offers its honours students greater depth in their own subject. Some universities opted to establish a University College as a wayof separating outstanding
students from the rest.
At the deep end
In Wageningen it was the Environmental Sciences Group (ESG) that took the initiative in 2011 to establish an ‘excellence programme’ for its best students. The special feature of this pilot was that the students had a big say in their programme, says Ellis Hoffland, personal professor of Soil Fertility at the ESG and one of the designers of the pilot. ‘The idea was that the students should take control of their own studies.’ For the students themselves it felt as though they had been thrown in at the deep end, says Bart. ‘At the first meeting for the joint project our supervisors said, “Go and work out together what you want to do.” That set the trend for the rest of the programme.’ And that was exactly what made it difficult. Amanda: ‘I think you need to know a bit about something if you are to do something interesting with it. In class it is easy because the material comes to you, but now we had to do that ourselves. That was difficult because where do you begin?’ Thomas adds: ‘We were really thrown in at the deep end’.
Pieter Zuidema was closely involved in the project too, as associate professor of Forest and Nature Management. In retrospect he acknowledges that the students could have done with more guidance and structure. ‘But in the quest for freedom, it’s fine for students to swim a bit.’ Hoffland too acknowledges that the students were left to struggle for a long time. ‘We were finding our way in it too.’ Eventually the students’ quest did produce results, though: they chose to do a study among students and staff of how they felt about the campus. The choice was spot on because this was a hot topic in the Wageningen community. ‘Perhaps the autonomy it required of us was actually really good,’ says Bart now. ‘If we had been given more guidance we would never have discovered how difficult it is to think up for yourself what you want to research.’ Amanda would not have missed the Honours Programme for the world. ‘Doors opened for us that stay closed to other students. And this was only the pilot; from now on the Honours Programme will just get better and better.’
All three students opted for the Honours Programme because they thought it would be nice to take their studies beyond their courses. But it was the third component of the programme, talent development, that benefitted them the most. Amanda: ‘You get feedback on exactly how the process works and what your role is in it. In the regular BSc programme you just hand in your report, you get a grade and that’s the last you hear about it.’ Thomas: ‘Without giving it much thought you make a lot of choices during your studies. The Honours Programme made me more aware of the choices I make. What do I want, actually, and how do I make sure it happens?’ This element of the pilot will certainly be a feature of the university-wide Honours Programme due to start up later this academic year. ‘It was very good for the students to reflect on how they function,’ says Zuidema. ‘It made them aware of their natural role in the group and they learned that you can also take on another role.’
Wageningen is the last university to introduce an Honours Programme, but the only one in which talent development plays such a major role alongside additional depth and breadth. Thomas, who worked on the plans for the Honours Programme, paid a visit to the University of Leiden. ‘When we explained that reflection was such a big component of our programme, they were enthusiastic. They had never given any thought to that, whereas they have been running an Honours Programme for years. I think that’s a big compliment to our supervisors.’