As one will discover once enrolled, the first, second, and third year in ATLAS can each be very different. In short, this can be summarized using the semester function. Semester one is focused on orientation and adaptation, semester two on broadening and direction, and together they make up your first year at UCT.
Orientation and Adaptation
How students learn in ATLAS is quite different from other Bachelor programmes. Work is self-directed, communication based on initiative, and the small scale honours aspect means high expectations but simultaneously a strong and supportive community. It can be quite different from what students are used to in high-school but the programme recognises and accounts for this. Rather than throwing students into the deep end, the first semester includes set courses, allowing time to adjust to the new surroundings, people and approach to academics. Students are briefed in self-directed learning, exposed to the type of assignments expected by professors and receive guidance on how to approach group work which is key to the programme.
Broadening and direction
The second semester assumes that students have almost adjusted and begin to seek the freedom the programme promised. Thus there is elective space offered, in order for students to broaden their academic interests and begin finding their own direction. What most students seem to find out during their second semester is not necessarily what their key focus is and the path they want to follow, but actually what does not interest them as much. At this point, it is great to figure out if all the endless possibilities one enters ATLAS with actually are as interesting as they sound. If they are, then great, future electives can be chosen with a clear purpose and justification. If not, that is why most students chose ATLAS in the first place, there is still more than enough time to discover your passion and follow appropriate courses. So, the majority of the time, semester 2 will give students an approximate direction. From this point onwards electives are chosen based on previous academic choices, and whether one wants to broaden and discover new possibilities or deepen and dive into the details of a field of interest. This justification for choices will be discussed in the next article of this series.
One of our teachers, Pascal Wilhelm, has been teaching at ATLAS for many years already and is the semester 1 coordinator. He kindly took the time to provide some insights into how he has experienced the first semester and year since the start of the programme, and what major changes have occurred.
How to ATLAS?
Whilst selecting and applying to Universities, students come up with a mental model of what to expect, how to learn, exams, etc. Since ATLAS can be quite different from what one might expect from a univeristy bachelor programme, it can take a year to adjust to this way of learning. That is why the first year is used to prepare students, teaching them all the skills they need to become fully self-directed, which is necessary in later years. Since the structure is primarily provided, and the programme begins less personal than what it will become, it offers a safe environment through which to gain skills needed once the programme broadens and individualises. A point Pascal mentioned (which I (the writer) now understand and can vouch for as a second-year) is the how the programme is experienced really takes shape in later years, but at that point you are prepared, having already learnt the skills only then called upon.
How do you structure a self-structured programme?
ATLAS began very broad, open and unstructured, as an idea and vision of a group of teachers who managed to turn it into a University Degree Programme. Pascal went on to discuss how in its short lifetime it has undergone transformations and changes supported by the high value placed on feedback, both to and from the students. Over the years the programme has indeed become more structured. This is in part due to our growth. A growing programme with more students requires streamlined measures that allow for individuality but assure consistency. Some of these changes could not be foreseen when the programme was small, but are all part of active adaptation. So long as we stick to the principles we work towards making it more professional. An example of a change noticeable to students was the introduction of feedback rubrics which aim at providing equally constructive feedback to all students on their assignments. What has remained is the student’s voice and their ability to adapt a course should the teaching not match their desired learning. That is the nice thing about ATLAS, a communally shared openness to change. Key to which is an aspect Pascal says has not changed since the start, namely that the foundation of the programme is trust.
An ever-evolving programme
An important adjustment, Pascal mentioned, concerns the PDP and SER structure. These are the Personal Development Plan and Self-Evaluation Report student write at the beginning and end of their semester, respectively. They have become more formal before and since the accreditation (the assessment by the Dutch government that guarantees our Bachelor Degrees are credible), with recent updates aimed at re-introducing the individual development side by emphasizing the academic profile. Whilst the programme prides itself in its adaptability we must still adhere to certain assessment guidelines of traditional programs. This makes sure students are eligible for traditional masters after they graduate, and after several successful graduating cohorts we have seen this become a reality. As the programme evolves, so do the teachers! There is more awareness of what can be improved but also how best to do that. The first courses are being introduced taught by multiple teachers with different backgrounds, in order to provide a truly interdisciplinary education. Details can now be ironed out since the accreditation provided the framework with the stamp of approval. So change is a constant, invoked by students and teachers on the programme but also vice versa. As ever-evolving as ATLAS might be, there is one more constant; the students take on the responsibility in recreating the sense of community each year. This is part of what makes ATLAS so special.
I will leave you with something Pascal wishes students knew going into their first semester:
University College Twente offers a unique bachelor’s programme, Technology, Liberal, Arts and Sciences, to top students. Visit the University College Twente website for more information about the college and Technology, Liberal, Arts and Sciences website for more information about the bachelor program. Or visit us during the open day, a student-for-a-day or an insight-day.