When explaining my academic journey, quite a lot of people get stuck on my undergraduate degree. They just have no clue what it is. And to be fair, explaining Liberal Arts and Sciences is quite difficult. Because telling someone who comes from a traditional education system that you can in fact treat your degree as a “choose your own adventure” game, might be just one step too far.
So in this article I will, once and for all, explain what I did during the three years that made up my undergraduate degree, how it worked, if it worked and what to do with it. Welcome to University College Maastricht. Let’s start choosing courses.
Getting There In the article explaining my academic journey, I have already outlined that UCM has one hell of an application process. It’s quite intense for an undergraduate degree, as you will already go through several stages that are often only seen at master or PhD level. You will hand in all the standard documentation (grades, diploma’s, other qualifications) and your motivational and personal statements. On the basis of all those (mainly the statements) you might be invited for an interview. A face-to-face interview with two academics teaching at UCM. They are likely not in your field (mine were two philosophers). They will go through a variety of questions, specific to you and your topics of interest. In my case, I was asked how I would approach explaining and solving the economic crisis. I was 17 at the time, and generally clueless about macroeconomics. It was a bit too much. I left the interview close to tears, feeling completely defeated. Weeks later I was told that UCM would happily offer me a place to study. I was over the moon, and completely confused.
Choosing your own adventure It might seem as if you can just rock up to a liberal arts and sciences college without a clue as to what to study and it should all be fine. However, that was not really the right approach. From the get-go, you had an academic advisor that was matched to you by field of interest. They helped you choose courses on the basis of your interests, but also making sure the courses you selected were to some extent cohesive. You could study almost everything at UCM, but that didn’t mean you should. The starting point was often a general interest. People often picked from the following introductory courses to figure their starting point out: economics, psychology, biology, chemistry, statistics, history, arts, and philosophy. Those courses were all introductory, meaning 1000-level courses. From 1000-level courses you would be able to progress into 2000-level courses. For psychology (1000), these would entail courses such as Social Psychology, Developmental Psychology and Clinical Psychology. From there you could enter 3000-level courses such as Human Reasoning and Complex Cognition, and Economic Psychology. From the psychology side, that is the trajectory I chose to follow. I got this part from the start, and managed to do most of these courses in year 1 and 2.
Not everyone is so lucky to immediately get there focus and field of interest right. You can change. As your field of interest changed, you could also change your academic advisor, if you wanted to do so.
Getting into the Matrix Support from the academic advisors wasn’t exactly random either. They were within your field, and had to stay within some guidelines themselves. At UCM, most people fall within one out of three profiles: Humanities, Social Sciences or Sciences. As I did psychology and economics, I fell within the Social Sciences profile. This meant that most of courses (of all levels) would be from this profile. This makes intuitive sense.
What made less sense was the fact that exclusively sticking in your own profile was never an option. On top of the courses of your own profile, you had to complete the four “core courses” that were mandatory for everyone. These courses were: Contemporary World History, Political Philosophy, Modelling Nature and Philosophy of Science. These courses made sure every student had at least a fundamental knowledge of most disciplines. But that wasn’t all. To increase interdisciplinarity, students had to pick two more courses from each profile that wasn’t their own. As such, I had taken the four core courses, two courses from Science and two courses from Humanities, on top of studying psychology and economics. Oh, you also had to complete skill courses that taught you practical applications rather than theory. How’s that for overkill?
Tight Schedules Now you might be wondering, where did they fit in all those courses timewise? Good question. Let me explain to you the set-up of UCM.
UCM has 6 periods per year. Four of those are taught, two of those are projects. At the start of each year, you have two taught courses and a skill course. You will have those for 6 weeks. In the 7th week your exams or assignment deadlines take place. Week 8 is a break. Then period 2 is the exact same again. For six weeks, you have two more taught courses and a skill course, exams/deadlines in week 7 and another break, which happens to be the Christmas holidays. Period 3 is a project period, and is 4 weeks of working on only one thing. You tend to only have seminars once a week (sometimes twice) to check for progress. These projects can be writing up research, lab studies, organizing a conference, or having a debate. Often, the two skill courses in period 1 and 2, form the theoretical preparation for the project in period 3.
The second half of the year, starting in February, looks much the same. Periods 4 and 5 are taught again. And period 6 is another project. As such, in one year, a student will have completed 8 taught courses, 4 skill courses and 2 projects. Over the total degree, each student will complete at least 24 taught courses, 12 skill courses and 6 projects (including the dissertation).
It might be helpful to know what an average week actually looks like at UCM. Assuming the period was taught (1,2,4,5), the student will have two 2-hour seminars per taught course, and one 2-hour seminar for their skill course. These are 14 hours of small-group interactions, that are PBL-based. These hours are strictly mandatory. Often, courses also had lectures, that could add another 4-5 hours to a week, but often those were optional. I often did not attend, as I cannot sit still and listen to learn. I need to actively engage with the material. Which is why UCM’s PBL-system was my saving grace.
Problem-Based Learning There was a reason that most contact hours were done in small groups. UCM only worked with the PBL system. This system presents the group with a problem. In clinical psychology, it could be a case study of a person with strange (non-normal) behaviours. In modelling nature, it could be a phenomenon that needed to be explained systematically (needed to be modelled). The group would discuss the information given, create learning goals (questions that needed to be answered), agree upon it all and leave. In the time between this seminar and the next, all students would do the recommended readings (or exercises), reconvene for the next tutorial and have a 1.5-hour discussion to solve all the learning goals. This was always done with a tutor present, who knew the material, and could guide the discussion if it got too side-tract. They were also around to help if students had questions they could not solve amongst themselves. Assignments and exams were based on what was discussed amongst all of these groups. There were always multiple groups for one course, as one course could take up to 120 students, but each tutorial group could not be bigger than 14 people, and was often already capped at 12. This is to facilitate discussion, rather than starting a shouting match. It also enabled and encouraged everyone to speak, take part, and actively engage with the learning material. After the 1.5-hour discussion, the learning goals had to be answered and a quick break was often taken. After that break, students quickly discussed a new case, made new learning goals and dove into their new readings. This was done twice a week, for each course. So yes, this could become quite intense.
It has to be mentioned that some courses do lend themselves better for this format than others. Game theory (mathematics) is harder to fit this format to compared to philosophy. You can’t really argue against the mathematical expression of a Nash-equilibrium, but you can discuss your own interpretation of Habermas. So most, but not all courses have this PBL-approach. Statistics was one of the courses that was taught in a more traditional manner.
A diverse bunch So UCM was a lot of hard work. You couldn’t really neglect the work for a week, because you would have readings for 4 tutorials to catch up on. And that is quite a lot. Luckily, you could always count on someone else to make notes, and you could probably borrow them too. Whether they were useful, is another question…
I mentioned having taken 2000-level courses in my first year. This was only for psychology however. In my second year, I took the 1000-level economics course and continued on to its 2000-level versions. I did those courses as a second-year student, at the same time that a lot of first-year students took them. But there were some third-year students too. We were a nice diverse bunch.
This is completely normal for UCM. Not only could you be sat in a tutorial group where you were a behavioural economist and your neighbor was a cognitive neuroscientist, you didn’t have to be in the same year either. Especially in the core courses, backgrounds and maturity levels were completely mixed. First-year philosophy & politics-students were arguing against third-year psychology & business students on how to model extinction. It was great. It allowed for different backgrounds, interpretations and motivations when approaching a topic that is quite static when read, but can be brought to life through the discussion of a variety of interpretations. I thought this was the biggest benefit to UCM: exposure.
Conclusion I hope that this article was easy enough to follow and has painted a picture of UCM. The small, beautiful place that allows a maximum of 225 students in one year to ensure everyone is heard and gets the best shot at a great learning experience. But make no mistake, as lovely as it was, UCM had standards to uphold. Inability to deal with workload would lead to expulsion, if you didn’t quit yourself first (the average voluntary drop-out rate being 10%).
With high workloads in mind, I will always remain in love with my undergraduate education. It was engaging, interdisciplinary, stimulating and just overall great. So there’s that.