Part of the 4TU.Federation
4TU.
Centre for
Engineering Education

Project introduction and background information

In 2010, a nationwide discussion took place about the profiling of universities in the Netherlands. The discussion was instigated by the report from the committee ‘Toekomstbestendig Hoger Onderwijs Stelsel’ (Veerman, 2010). Around the same time, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OC&W) was developing plans for making performance agreements with all institutions of Higher Education in the Netherlands, aiming to improve retention, success rates and educational quality. While it is the Mission of the Dutch universities of technology to provide a sufficient amount of highly qualified engineers, up until 2011 they did not succeed in accomplishing this goal. In this context, the three universities of technology in the Netherlands initiated a redesign of the bachelor curricula. It is thought that the output of high-quality graduates in engineering is enhanced by increasing the attractiveness of engineering education and by eliminating obstacles for successful completion of these programmes. Raised attractiveness would result in increased time spent on tasks. Removing obstacles would result in students spending their time more efficient. In addition, the aim was to modernise common basic subjects in engineering courses (mathematics, mechanics, physical transport phenomena) (3TU, 2011). The Dutch universities of technology all redesigned their bachelor curricula in the period from 2012 until 2014 in their own way. It appears the three universities have the same goals and commitment in redesigning their curricula, but nevertheless substantial differences exist in focus and scope of the bachelor redesign, as well as in the process of implementation. In 2014, the 3TU (three Dutch technical universities) Centre for Engineering Education (CEE) was founded as a vehicle to enable the comparison and evaluation of the efforts of each of the universities. The main mission for 3TU.CEE is to jointly inspire, stimulate, support and disseminate effective and high-quality engineering education through research and application of evidence-based innovations. To be able to do this, the first step is to get better insights into the various curricular innovations.

Objective and expected outcomes

In this preliminary research, we studied the characteristics of the 3TU innovations from the perspective of the intended curriculum (Van den Akker, 2003). It is a comparative study that is aimed at getting more insight into the similarities and differences in the curricula of the three technical universities. The present research is part of a larger bachelor curriculum innovation comparison, initiated by 3TU.CEE. Follow-up research will focus on the implemented and the attained curriculum. The main goal of this follow up research is to gain more understanding of innovation in technical higher education, specifically whether the innovations have contributed to learning outcomes that strengthen the engineering profile. 

In an international study on curricular change and its successes and failures to realise sustainable change, Graham (2012) points out that several key factors of sustainable change are essential in the design process. These are (1) the context of the change (drivers for change), (2) leadership and faculty engagement (both leadership and faculty espouse the benefits of the change), (3) educational design and implementation (vision and commitment, change at the core of the curriculum, unique educational approach, high faculty involvement) and (4) sustained change (Graham, 2012, p. 61). To investigate the intended phase of curricular change we chose to use these key factors to formulate the following main and sub-research questions:

  • In what way did the three technical universities address the bachelor curriculum innovation objectives?
  • What were the main drivers for the innovation process at each technical university?
  • In what way is the leadership of the innovation process and implementation structure organised?
  • What are the key design characteristics of the intended curriculum?
  • What is the effect of the key characteristics on elements within the curricular programmes?

Results and learnings

There is no clear ‘right or wrong’ here. Along different lines of reasoning, the three universities have chosen different ways to implement their curriculum change and to structure their modules. For further research, a recommendation is to find out from the literature in combination with evaluation of experiences what combination of measures works well and what doesn’t, thus allowing the transfer of successful models to each other.

It becomes clear that study success and measures focusing on formative and summative assessment have a common interest at the 3TUs. Local initiatives have already started. The TU/e started with several projects on feedback within the CEE programme and TU Delft is starting an initiative around adaptive digital testing. Besides this, it might be worthwhile to sit together and formulate a joint project around assessment based on the common questions and issues . Focusing at formative and summative assessment is one way to stimulate active study behaviour. A different approach to activate students is focussing on intrinsic motivation and stimulation of self-directed study behaviour. In Twente, a small-scale research project will start on this topic. On an international level, there is increasing interest in student engagement, for example at Olin College, where teaching staff conduct research on student engagement and apply their findings within their own courses (Stolk & Martello, 2014). As mentioned before within 3TU, all bachelor innovation plans mention commitment and active study behaviour as being important. For the nearby future, this might be a topic to consider for a joint 3TU initiative. A third theme of interest is interdisciplinary education to prepare the future engineer who has deep knowledge of the discipline but can also be broad and flexible (the T-shaped professional, Harris, 2009). TU/e and Twente have explicitly mentioned this type of engineer as the intended outcome for their bachelor innovation. TU Delft has not, but is setting up an ‘Education Think Tank’ that will develop a vision on engineering education in 2030. Together, the 3TUs have formulated and started a joint research project on interdisciplinary engineering education to compare examples from educational practices and make suggestions for improvement. A fourth theme is the integration of math and other basic subjects (e.g. physics, design) into the curriculum. Twente made a choice to have a collective math learning line for the first year of the bachelor curriculum, whereas the TU/e included all basic subjects in a 30 EC collective basic programme. TU Delft used to have collective math education, but currently offers students programme-specific math courses. Efficiency is one of the main reasons for common basic courses. What would be interesting to know is what would be most effective; educating all engineering programmes together sharing the same basic knowledge or offering this generic content within the context of the discipline? Both the University of Twente and TU Delft offer thematic and coherent modules in which multiple skills are combined. At the same time “one size fits all” learning is offered for Mathematics to offer students a firm engineering basis. There seems to be a tension between the thematic coherent modules and the ‘one size fits all’ learning theme. Is it possible to create thematic and coherent modules and at the same time offer students a shared basis? And if so, what would be the best way to do this? This could be an interesting topic to investigate together in collaboration with AMI, a 3TU cooperation of the math departments of the three universities20. International partner universities with an engineering profile can be consulted as well. Finally, it will be interesting to look at ownership, support and sustainability of the bachelor innovations. As mentioned above, participation of staff and students in the initial design and sense of urgency at staff level were rather low. In later stages of the innovation process, staff (and sometimes students) were involved in working out the design at the programme level and the implementation of the new programmes. Ruth Graham (2012) presents several conditions for successful and sustainable change, e.g. the understanding of the critical need for change by staff members and the engagement of staff members in the design process. Evaluating to what extent these conditions are met at the three universities and where improvements can be made can strengthen the bachelor innovations and improve their sustainability. Looking back, it has been a worthwhile exercise to compare the bachelor innovations of the 3TUs and look for contrasts and common interests. The comparison (appendix 5) gives us a clear overview of the different paths the three universities have taken towards improvement of their educational quality. Besides this, several themes were identified that can be used for further research or cooperation projects. Some of these topics like student engagement and interdisciplinary education are already addressed in 3TU.CEE research projects. Other themes like study success and sustainability of the bachelor innovations can be input for the next phases of this research that will look at the implemented and attained curricula.