Learn more by doing

In 1986, after a career in construction and automation, Hans Tragter started working as a teacher for the University of Twente with the Mechanical Engineering (WB) programme. In the first few years the educational programme was traditional, but when WB made the transition to project-led education Hans started to get truly excited. Hans has a clear vision on education and wanted to apply it to IO module 4 'Smart Products' of which he is the module coordinator. In this module, students work in groups of four on an product with 'intelligent behaviour'. There is a different assignment each year and the module allows for a lot of freedom in terms of solutions; in the past year, the students worked on 'moving light'.

The product does not have to be perfect

In terms of designing the module, Hans and his team took all the liberties the educational model offered. The module focuses more on the application of knowledge and the learning process than on the end product. 'Our goal is to make sure that the students gain more knowledge and insights and become better designers through the experience of the project. The product doesn't have to be perfect; it's all about giving the students the opportunity to explore design options.' Hans' aim for this module apart from training designers was to contribute to the students' independence. 'I absolutely don't like to be forced to do something.' Hans feels it is important that students become aware of their competencies and to think about the kind of designer they want to be and what it is they need to get there. 'They have to want something and for that they need to be self propelling.'

The initiative lies with the student

In this module, the students do not have a separate tutor who will guide them step by step. 'We clearly state in advance that independent behaviour is key.' In the execution of the module it sometimes proves difficult for both the students and the teachers to handle this independence. 'We aim to give the students the tools they require to ensure the project is a success.' For example, students are given information on the different roles people take when working in groups. They will first take a test so they know what kind of group person they are and will then divide roles. The teachers in module 4 act as 'help desk' for the study material and ensure that knowledge is offered. Of course they will offer help in case of problems, but the initiative lies with the students. 'We also tell the students this explicitly, but they need to be reminded again halfway through to become truly aware of it,' Hans admits.


Within the module, the seminars are scheduled in the mornings and the students can work on the project on the afternoons, during which time the teachers will walk around to answer any questions. Moreover, students can plan discussion sessions with a teacher and a teacher will join in on project meetings. 'The time for new knowledge and the project is divided 50/50. They'll learn something new in the morning seminars and will apply it in the project in the afternoons. Teachers will also be present, but only in the capacity of experts in their fields who can be consulted. The relationship in this module is a master-apprentice one,' Hans explains. 'Every group keeps a logbook and has to have a weekly project meeting.' The design teachers occasionally join in on these meetings. The students must be able to show how they applied the theory in their project by way of their logbook. 'Due to the absence of tutors and interim exams, it’s important, however, that students use the discussion sessions with the 'experts' to check whether or not they’re on the right track,' Hans elaborates. There is a website on which the students can sign up for a discussion session with teachers. 'It works really well and allows the student to take into account the availability of every teacher.'

Go off course

Hans feels that within the module team it is important to agree with the teachers on the amount of time that is required for a specific component and to stick to that amount of time together. 'Project-led education is very time consuming,' Hans admits, 'which means you will have less time for the traditional 'courses'. This means you have to be able to let go of your course. The students should be stimulated to realise themselves that they need the knowledge.' According to Hans, this approach has a lot of benefits. 'Applying knowledge is better. If you only hear things, then you will remember five times less than when you actually do things. Nevertheless, it is difficult for people to let go of the idea of lectures.' According to Hans a major advantage of this structure is the increased involvement of teachers in the application of the educational material. 'They can see how their knowledge has reached the students and they become more aware of their role in the knowledge creation of students,' Hans explains.

No interim exams

Module 4 has a well-considered examination structure. A conscious decision was made to limit the number of interim exams: ‘Understanding must be allowed to grow, which is a process that requires time. This allows students to learn first while having the freedom to make mistakes and receive feedback.' Students will hand in a report and test models (e.g. pieces of software, pieces of electronics). To give them a sense of whether they are on the right track, the students will only be given a sufficient or insufficient mark (no grade). 'It does not count; it's a diagnostic tool. A grade assessment will be given at the end of the module.' There will be a week with knowledge exams in the final week after the report. Individual knowledge makes up 80% of the grade and the project makes up for the remaining 20%. 'My aim in this module is to look at what they each learned individually; other modules assess more on group work.' Hans feels it is a shame to see that when exam results are not as good, a choice is made to force the student to do more and to chase them with exams. 'I believe strongly in the vision of Erik Mazur, who spoke about his experiences during the inspiration week. In our educational system, students go from exam to exam; a waste of the teacher's time, too,' Hans feels. 'Giving feedback during activities and discussion are much more vital.'

The next battle

All the experiences gathered this year spawn new ideas for next year’s approach. 'In this module, a lot of topics are discussed that need to be integrated into one project assignment by the students. This integration and the freedom of action as a design team is something the students are not entirely used to. The number of topics is also difficult to handle for the students; the work pressure they experience as a result is high, due to the fact that they do not know exactly what to do when. This is a point we need to address more in our communication. Another thing we would like to do more is focus on the students' awareness of their own competencies and their development. It would be good if the students can measure and check up on the progress they make themselves.' Hans is pleased with the large amount of interest in TOM among UT colleagues and the experience gained by teachers at the UT. 'At the same time this is also a learning process that is followed by the next improvement in the education we provide.'