Dutch lessons

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In early July 2013 I did my first spot of external examining. For the uninitiated this practice is embedded in Higher Education: someone from outside the institution is invited to cast judgement on the methods and standards employed in the assessment of students. At Edinburgh Napier we ask our external examiners (who generally all work at other universities) to look at the module packs which underpin our modules (weekly topics, assessments, etc.), then to review a sample of the work which is produced by the students. All being well they will offer some comments and suggestions on the former, and agree the marks given to the latter. My inaugural experience of being the external was somewhat different however, with a variety of points worth picking up in case they have merit for others embedded in the UK system.

NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences is an institution with whom I’ve built up links over the past few years, as reported on this blog. They asked me to play a part in their end of programme assessments and flew me out to Breda for a couple of blissfully warm summer days to do so. I was involved in the assessment of four students who were at the end of their four year programmes. The closing assessment, worth 10 ECTS credits (one sixth of a year) worked like this…

  • The focus of the assessment was a one hour interview session, featuring the student, their thesis supervisor, the marker of their thesis and perhaps an external.
  • In advance of the session the student was asked to prepare four documents:
    • A short paper (perhaps 1,500 words) based on their thesis
    • A recent vacancy for a graduate level job that they feel capable of getting
    • A covering letter for their application to that job
    • A cv to go with the application
  • These documents are submitted well in advance of the interview and distributed to the panel.
  • At the start of the session the panel chair asks the student to get themselves set up, then to leave the room for a few minutes while the panel has a quick chat about the format of the session.
  • The student returns and gives a five minute presentation covering a wide variety of topics: their development over the course and some key ideas from their thesis predominate.
  • The student leaves again, there is a short discussion and often a provisional mark is awarded for what’s been seen thus far.
  • The student returns and a 30-40 minute interview-discussion is carried out, with different members of the panel having particular interests and perspectives. Themes from the written work and the presentation are developed further and the student is asked to develop a range of points.
  • The student departs again and the panel spends a few minutes reviewing the session and finalising the mark that’s to be awarded.
  • The student returns, reflects on how it went and is given their mark. If they passed then there are handshakes all round and the student has successfully completed their degree – they can only reach this stage if everything else is already under their belt.

The Dutch system has a ‘competencies’ based approach, with module through the course of the programme designed to develop different competencies from this list of ten. The closing session is therefore the student’s opportunity to demonstrate and argue that they are ready to enter the professional workforce, that they have identified their strongest competencies and can convey that information to others. From an industry perspective they therefore have a number of strings to their bow when presenting themselves for jobs and vacancies. They are also driven to contextualise the learning that they are doing within industries with which they are interested and familiar, and this applies across all four years of the programme.

Within the context of recent developments at Edinburgh Napier this has relevance to the more ‘programme focused’ approach that is being advocated from the university’s senior executive (and others). The students are encouraged to see all parts of their course as ultimately leading towards their employability, links are drawn between different modules, students are required to reflect upon their own development and they can see a final point towards which their degree is headed. That this whole process is credit bearing and a requirement for the successful completion of the degree is very important: their efforts are rewarded.

I enjoyed my time at Breda and I hope they ask me back next summer to do it again! The staff are engaged with the progress of the students and have a clear idea of where their strengths and weaknesses lie. I think it has benefits for the students, staff and the institution itself – maybe some of these strengths could be exported to Edinburgh in due course.

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Another nice touch that I picked up from Breda related to dissertation supervision: as at Edinburgh Napier they have a system that in theory allocates a limited number of hours to each student for supervision, so why not put the onus on the student to decide how those hours are to be spent? How many meetings and of what duration; how many drafts and what level of detailed comments?

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The images are from the NHTV campus, showing some of the spaces in which both students and staff work. The exterior shot is of some expensive Dutch apartments nearby!

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