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How research became part of a bachelor’s programme

How research became part of a bachelor’s programme


Book about MaRBLe

MAASTRICHT. How do you give students the chance to do research during their bachelor’s degree? This was the question Maastricht University asked in 2008. The answer: the Maastricht Research-Based Learning programme for Excellence (MaRBLe). If there were initial doubts – should it really be only for excellent students? Will researchers be willing to supervise bachelor’s students? – they have since been replaced with enthusiasm. Ellen Bastiaens, Jonathan van Tilburg and Jeroen van Merriënboer have written the book on the programme, literally: Research-Based Learning: Case Studies from Maastricht University.

The MaRBLe subsidy expired in 2014, but for the faculties it was clear: they would take over the funding and the programme would continue. “That’s when I thought, maybe we should do something more with this”, says Ellen Bastiaens, project leader for excellence at EDLAB. “The way we combine problem-based learning here with research-based learning, the fact that students from all faculties can gain long-term research experience – as far as I’m aware that’s unique.”

In MaRBLe, students work independently on a research question. At some faculties, such as Psychology and Neuroscience, they write their own research proposal which is then assessed by an ethics committee. Others, like the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences set up projects in which students can work on a narrower sub-question.

The book, intended for readers interested in educational innovation, comprises a general part, which addresses different models of research-based learning, and chapters in which the respective coordinators explain how MaRBLe is organised in their own faculties. Finally, the authors investigate the effects of MaRBLe. “We could only draw tentative conclusions, as the number of students per year was too small to really do proper research.”

The individual experiences of the students, however, were generally positive. “Participating in MaRBLe gave me a big advantage when I was applying for a PhD position, because I had experience with empirical research and had even published an article”, one writes. “It gives students the opportunity to find out whether research is for them”, Bastiaens says. “That’s also useful when it comes to choosing a master’s programme. And those who want to pursue research can already start building up a network. The first batch of MaRBLe graduates have now already finished their PhDs.”

Researchers from the faculties also have praise for the programme. “Arie van der Lugt, programme coordinator at psychology, said to me: ‘Initially I had to beg supervisors to take part; they were sceptical about whether bachelor’s students really had the knowledge and skills to do independent academic research. Now I keep on getting requests from researchers who have a nice project for someone to work on.’ They’ve realised the students are smart, curious and motivated.”

All this praise raises the question whether MaRBLe should be open to all students. Currently, participants are selected on their marks and motivation. This issue was also discussed at the launch of the programme, especially at FASoS. “Pieter Caljé, the coordinator there, played around with what counts as ‘excellence’. Eventually he concluded that students with lower grades did get a bit stuck when it came to doing independent research.”

So far it hasn’t proven possible to make the programme interfaculty, as was the intention. “Only Law and FASoS have managed it; it turned out to be too complicated for the others. In a practical sense, in that the schedules were too different and not all programmes award the same number of study credits. But also in terms of content. You’re dealing with different research methods, and that’s asking too much of students who still have everything to learn.”

Bastiaens thinks MaRBLe will be around for a long time. “Though of course we’ll always be looking for ways to improve it. For instance, we now give MaRBLe grants that students can use to cover the costs of a conference or additional lab hours.”

Excellence at UM

MaRBLe is not the only excellence programme at Maastricht University. Another is PREMIUM, in which students work on a question for an external client. “That programme is interfaculty; because it’s extracurricular you don’t have to take schedules into account, which makes it easier to organise. Students learn to collaborate and deal with the demands and expectations of a client.” The university would like to attract more students to the programme. “We’re thinking about selecting students more on motivation rather than grades.”

There is also Honours+, in which students from different disciplines explore a particular theoretical problem: what is authenticity, say, or what are the potential consequences if robots continue to displace employees?

Research-Based Learning: Case Studies from Maastricht University, can be purchased via



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