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It’s been a hard day’s night

It’s been a hard day’s night

Photographer:Fotograaf: ThinkStock

International students on workload at Maastricht University

MAASTRICHT. “A social life?!?” Snorting, laughter and amazement follow the suggestion that students have plenty of leisure time. There might not be too many contact hours, but the workload at Maastricht University is much higher than at other universities, claim exchange students and other internationals. “Excellent”, says Erik Driessen, professor of Medical Education and chair of the Department of Educational Development and Research at the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences. “That’s exactly what we want.”

The number of contact hours may be lower, but students are expected to do many more hours of independent study. This conclusion from Observant’s small-scale survey of international students in Maastricht is in line with an earlier study of Erasmus students published in 2002. Of the students who found their studies abroad to be more intense – around 22 percent – almost all were studying in the Netherlands or Denmark. The rest of the respondents saw their studies abroad as having an equal or lighter workload that at their home university.

When asked whether she was prepared for the workload at UM, first-year European Law School student Hannah Y (who preferred not to give her full last name) said, “No, I was not. No. I don’t know how you’re going to cancel out the crying noise I just made, but no!” Having been previously enrolled at the University of Melbourne and Leiden University College, she compares her current study programme to a full-time job. “I didn’t anticipate how rigorous those 40 hours would be.”

Fellow law student Alechia Dawson, who holds a degree in dental nursing from Trinity College Dublin, makes a similar comparison, but faces an additional challenge when it comes to managing her workload: “I think not coming straight from high school, or even straight from my first degree, makes it hard to achieve that work/life balance.” When asked whether the hours are longer at UM or at her alma mater, Dawson snorts: “Here.”

70 pages a night

The amount of reading is the greatest burden, says French exchange student Etienne Bertin from Sciences Po Grenoble. In his first block at FASoS, he had less work to do than he was used to. In the second block, he says, things changed: “I think they gave us a little time to adjust to PBL. The reading takes up a lot of my time. On the other hand, I guess it’s useful.”

Master’s student Victoria Kerr is frantically highlighting passages in a large law textbook; you can see the stress in her eyes. “Back when I did my bachelor’s at the University of Edinburgh, I thought I had a lot of reading to do. That all changed when I came to Maastricht. I have 70 pages or so to read every night. It’s exhausting.” Then she smiles and adds, “It’s a good thing though. I really feel like I’m learning a lot. In Edinburgh I used to cram as much information into my head as possible right before an exam – that’s something you just can’t do here. I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time.”

“That’s exactly the idea”, says Erik Driessen, clearly enthused by the findings of the Observant survey. Driessen is professor of Medical Education and chair of the Department of Educational Development and Research at FHML. “Most Maastricht faculties want no more than twelve contact hours, because students learn best through independent study. We want them to work harder and we encourage that by giving fewer lessons than most other countries. There students’ schedules are jam-packed with contact hours: every department has a professor or an associate professor who wants to talk about their own field. But spending a lot of time listening makes students more passive. In those countries they gain knowledge through their teachers. Here they acquire it independently of the tutor.”

More balanced

First-year European Law student Mischa Boddenberg, who spent last year at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, finds studying independently to be less stressful than the lectures in Pretoria. “I had five lectures every day, all 45 minutes long. The PBL system forces me to be much more disciplined. You have to come up with a system to guide your study planning, which I found very difficult at first. But it’s really started to focus my life in a specific direction.”

Former University of Bologna student Claudia Ungarelli, now studying at FASoS, agrees. “It’s much easier for people like me to not lose their way and to stay on track with their work. I also constantly see the results of my work in tutorials.” Though she admits to feeling stressed, she believes life is “more balanced” when you have seven-week blocks instead of just two semesters per academic year.

The PBL system has other perks as well. Erdem Topcu, who spent the past three years at the University of Istanbul, compares the system here to that in Turkey. “I like the broader aspects of the law course here. In Turkey it was much more specific and focused on very distinct areas. Here I feel like I’m learning a lot about many different institutions. It’s hard work, but I’m enjoying it. I think PBL really helps to direct us in a necessary direction. It’s fun learning from other students and not just a professor.”

How many hours?

So there’s certainly plenty of work going on – but how many hours should students ideally be studying? There’s no definitive answer to this question, says Driessen. “Thirty-five to forty hours? I don’t know. I have a colleague in Utrecht who talks about the didactics of the pinball machine: you have to have the ball in play if you want to score. The more hours spent studying, the better. I don’t think it really matters: one student can do the work in ten hours, another can’t get it done in fifty. What we notice in medicine is that students start putting in much longer hours in their third year, when they come into contact with real patients. The moment they see what they’re doing it for, they really step up the pace.”

The existence of a common room like that at the University College also promotes studiousness, says Driessen. “Having a common area where you get together with other students and talk about your studies and other things increases engagement in the programme and the curriculum, which in turn boosts motivation.”

Charlotte Lockwood, on a year-long exchange from Leeds University, sees UCM as “a great choice socially. The large common room at the centre of the building does make it easy for students to catch up.” Dina Amro, a UCM student who spent a semester in Tokyo, noticed some major social differences there. For one thing, “it was impossible to partake in Japanese student life without being able to understand the language.” This stands in stark contrast to UM, where English is not most people’s first language, but many can and do speak it.

Having a mentor also helps, says Driessen, as in most FHML programmes and now again at UCM. “You can talk with a mentor about what’s going well in your studies, and what’s going less well. This too increases engagement and gives students the feeling that they can handle the programme. That self-confidence helps students to develop a positive attitude towards their studies – much more so than do assessments, exams, mandatory attendance or binding study advice.” Those sorts of measures, according to Driessen, lead to exam-focused behaviour. “Studying for a pass, when what you really want is for students to dive into their books because they want to know more about the subject.”

Amira Eid, Cleo Freriks, Alicia Hansen, Riki Janssen, Yanitsa Maksimova, Jordan Mullins and Sophie Silverstein

Longer opening hours at the library?

All that reading and studying – UM students love to do it at the University Library. For this reason, the library’s opening hours have long been a hot topic. This is especially true for exchange students, for whom pulling occasional all-nighters in libraries that are open 24/7 is a longstanding tradition.

The library manager Yvette Froeling (responsible for the front offices of both library locations) remains open to the idea, but also recognises the difficulty of running such an operation. The main issue is funding. “Previous managers looked into the idea of keeping the libraries open 24/7, but the financial burden was too much to bear, and it’s gone up even more since then. It’s just not an option.” With many new study spaces added over the past five years, particularly at the Tapijn site and the new sports hall. “To accommodate the early birds, both locations open at 7 am, whereas the libraries open at 8.30 am.”

Froeling also points out that the library management runs pilots every two years or so to analyse the usage of the libraries and fine-tune their opening hours. The last of these pilots was in the academic year 2012/13, when the inner city library stayed open until midnight all year round. Unfortunately for the students, the headcount around midnight proved to be very low. After 10 pm there were next to no students around. “It was financially unviable”, says Froeling. “We have to keep the facilities fully staffed in order to meet our security and quality standards, and with the amount of interest we observed, it was impossible to balance the costs with the benefits.”

Moreover, says Froeling, “Most of the study facilities are in central, residential neighbourhoods where keeping them open into the small hours of the morning causes significant noise pollution and disturbance. Besides, the key to a productive study session is a good nights’ sleep.”

Despite the small chance of the libraries staying open 24/7, Froeling suggests that extended opening hours are not off the table. The next pilot is planned for block 5 this year, and if the late-night headcounts give cause, the opening hours may be revised upwards. In the meantime, students can raise their concerns in one of the biannual focus groups for library users in April, or run for a spot on the faculty library committees to get involved in the development of library policy.

Dates Library Users groups: Tuesday 26 April from 15.30 – 17hrs at the inner city library, Thursday 28 April from 15.30 – 17hrs at the Randwyck library

Ege Yücel

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