Boudewijn van Dongen

UR | The (non)sense of choice


About five years ago, our university recognized students’ hunger for choice and made this a fundamental part of its design. Through coaching, we help the students to make the right choices for majors, elective packages and courses and if, inadvertently, students make the wrong choice, they are offered many possibilities to correct them. This model for the Bachelor College has proven successful given the increase in student numbers over time. But does it also work for the Graduate School?

The Graduate School tried to introduce this model in the Master programs as well, but, in contrast to the Bachelor College, wherein the space for choice is limited to 60 out of 180 ECTS (including USE), the Graduate School sets a maximum of 30 ECTS of core courses in each student’s program and a maximum of 30 ECTS for specialization electives. This has led to an enormous variety in the specializations offered to students.

Consider the masters Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) and Operations Management and Logistics OML). CSE offers a total of 1225 specializations [i] with the special track Data Science in Engineering offering another 490. OML offers 1610 of such specializations [ii], where each specialization consists of 50 ECTS [iii]. The remaining ECTS are free electives (40 ECTS including international experience) and the master thesis (30 ECTS). In contrast, the masters Business Information Systems, which is similar in size to CSE, offers three specializations.

Interestingly, with 30 students starting CSE each year, it would take over 40 years before any two students are required to choose the same set of courses as their specialization. Furthermore, the four master programs together offer more specializations (3328) than there are Master students at the TU/e (3238) and there are 28 other master programs offered by TU/e.

The problem with too much choice is the fact that each student gets a diploma for which the university guarantees that that student has certain knowledge and skills. This is documented in an assessment plan for each diploma. How can you guarantee that each student satisfies the learning outcomes of a program if no single course is shared between all students? What does a diploma mean if there are thousands of variations of that diploma?

Life is all about making choices, doing your best to make the right ones and learning from the wrong ones. In my opinion, our graduate programs should offer less choice and should focus on their specializations. As an added bonus, scheduling of courses becomes easier as does prediction of student numbers in each course in coming years. Fewer courses implies less overhead and this frees up time for the other important task of a university: Research.

[i] CSE has a core of 5 ECTS and there are four specializations one of which is the special track Data Science in Engineering. Each specialization has 4 core courses they require 4 out of 7 or 8 courses plus 1 out of 7 seminars. This leads to a total of 1225 unique variants of 50 ECTS.[ii] OML has a core of 15 ECTS and there are five specializations. Each specialization has between 1 and 4 core variants of 4 courses and they require 3 out of a set of 9 to 13 courses. This leads to a total of 3582 basic variants, of which 2314 are unique combinations of courses, only 1610 of which contain 50 ECTS in total.[iii] Source code for computing all unique specializations of 50 ECTS is available on request.

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