Wageningen University’s Honours Programme, which is starting next academic year, will be a laboratory for new teaching methods, say Elllis Hoffland, the academic director, and Ingrid Hijman, the programme director for the new programme for top-class students. ‘We want to have an impact on regular teaching; the programme will not be an island.’
Wageningen is the last university to set up an honours programme. Many other universities have had special programmes for years that offer outstanding students extra courses. Sometimes the programmes are aimed at broadening their outlook with introductions to different subjects, while others go into greater depth in the student’s own subject. Until recently, Wageningen University was not interested as it claimed teaching here was already small-scale and focused on excellence. But increasing demand from the students themselves and rising student numbers have caused the university to change its position.
After a year of preparations, the first group will be starting in August. As many as 114 first-years registered for the Honours Programme in January, of whom 49 were admitted to the following step in the selection process: the introduction course. According to Hoffland and Hijman, the course participants were mercilessly thrown in at the deep end. For instance, they had to decide for themselves what the final product of their research should be. ‘The students found this very difficult at first,’ says Hijman. ‘They kept saying: What should we do? What are we aiming for?’ But as the introduction course progressed, the students started showing more initiative. This was a dream come true for Hoffland, who wants to see an end to ‘students as education consumers’.
A few of the 49 participants dropped out during the course, while others decided to call it a day when the course finished. In the end, 34 students applied for a place on the Honours Programme, with 31 being admitted. They face an additional workload of 30 credits on top of the second and third years of their Bachelor’s degree. The programme will start for the participants with a week in Texel. But they will not be relaxing in deckchairs as they will have to prepare for the research (for nine credits) that they will be undertaking in the next two years. They will also be going on six excursions that they have to prepare themselves. However, Hijman assures us that of course there are also some ‘lighter’ activities on the agenda. For example, the participants will be practicing theatresport (‘for improvization and creativity’).
Nearly 50 lecturers are involved in the Honours Programme. The costs for the programme total 300,000 euros, which is about 10,000 euros per student. Funding that was released by the ministry for improving education, following a performance agreement with the university. However Hoffland and Hijman emphasize that this money does not just benefit the small group of participants. ‘We actually want to use the Honours Programme as input for the regular teaching activities, making lecturers reflect on how they teach and encouraging students to be creative.’ Reforms in teaching are needed because student numbers are growing so fast, says Hoffland: ‘That means lecturers will need to rely more on students taking responsibility themselves for their studies.’ Her colleague Hijman adds that rapid technological developments in teaching are another reason why they need to reflect on ‘how’ and ‘why’. ‘We have no idea what the world will look like in ten years’ time. These days, you can’t educate someone to do a particular job because who knows whether that job will still exist when you graduate.’ According to the Honours Programme organizers, the question is no longer how you should prepare someone for a certain kind of work. Rather, says Hoffland, it is ‘How do you create a researcher who shows intellectual flexibility?’ In their opinion, the Honours Programme is the ideal laboratory.
Merijn Kerstens, Biology first-year
‘The introduction course was built around the book 1493, which considers what happened to the world after Columbus travelled to America. We didn’t get a clear-cut assignment as I’d expected — a lot was left up to us. So it’s your own responsibility to do something. During the course, you are in a group with people doing all kinds of subjects. It was interesting to see how much you learn from one another. For example, we were discussing the fact that so many Native Americans died from malaria because they had no resistance. Someone asked how that works. That was obvious to me as a biologist but not to my group. You might think all the participants would be swots or geniuses but it wasn’t too bad. It was actually pretty chill, which I hadn’t expected at all.’
Anouk Mulder, International Development Studies first-year
‘The introduction course was really fun. You develop new skills; there was a debating competition, for instance, and workshops about entrepreneurship. So you find out more about what’s going on in the world. But I didn’t find it particularly challenging. You don’t have to do much, just turn up to a lecture on Monday evenings, read a book and that’s it. In the programme, we’ll be defining our own assignments, centred on a theme, with the lecturers. I’ve chosen meat production in the future. That’s something I’d like to know more about and it’s not in my degree programme. I hope we get lots of other opportunities, such as collaborating with businesses and the chance to go on summer schools.’
Marijke Zonnenberg, Food Technology first-year
‘Although I deliberately chose Food Technology, my interests are much more diverse. That’s why I want to get a broader grounding alongside my degree subject, and the Honours Programme is the best way of doing this. ‘The introduction was really fun. You work in a group of four to five people doing very different degrees. They knew completely different things to me and could tell me more about subjects I thought I knew inside out. I don’t yet know what to expect from next year. I’ll see how it goes and everything I learn will be a bonus. I’ll be in a group thinking about ‘meat production in the future’ and I’m really curious to see what we do. I don’t feel we’ve been privileged as everyone was able to apply. There was a good selection procedure so there must have been a good reason if some people weren’t included.’