Four years of matching
There is no easy way
Last year, Ydwer Hoekstra decided to study history. She took an online class and read the necessary literature, which made her even more enthusiastic. Receiving the go-ahead from the faculty only confirmed in her mind that she’d made the right choice.
Aske Meijerink’s mind wasn’t made up. She enrolled in both the history programme and the arts, culture, and media programme. She hoped that the faculty’s matching procedure would help her decide.
Unfortunately, the matching day was cancelled. The only matching activity she was asked to do was fill out a questionnaire that was identical for each study programme. ‘It was a complete waste of time and didn’t help me make a decision at all.’
Matching, a non-binding programme recommendation, was introduced in 2015. The education minister hoped it would decrease the drop-out rate. No programmes were exempt, but universities could decide the method of matching themselves.
The RUG came up with several different versions, ranging from extensive psychological tests to professors talking to groups of students about the programme. Now, after four years, most faculties use elaborate testing methods to make recommendations. But the arts faculty has done away with esting altogether and simply has students fill out a questionnaire.
The new method generally comes up with the same matching recommendation, which is almost always positive. But does the type of matching activity itself make a difference?
The best way
It turns out that it does. Educational psychologist Susan Niessen researched different types of matching methods and compared their results. She concludes that the best method is curriculum sampling, which focuses on the actual study programme.
This involves students taking an exam that uses material from the first year. The results from these tests are a much better predictor of how students will do in a particular programme than any information students provide about themselves, in a motivation letter for example.
Niessen: ‘In the psychology programme, prospective students have to study material from the first year, take a class, and finally, an exam. It gives them a complete overview of what to expect.’
The social sciences, economy, business, and law programmes all use this matching method. ‘It’s a good way to perform an extra check, because these are the programmes that undecided people tend to choose’, matching coordinator Anique Lubben explains.
But the arts faculty has done away with the extensive matching procedure. The faculty has students fill out a general questionnaire, asking about their final school project and motivation, without providing any information about the actual study programme. It’s all too easy to figure out the most desirable answers to the questions and afterwards students only receive a positive or negative recommendation, and no feedback whatsoever.
‘We only really added the online questionnaire because the matching procedure is mandatory’, arts study adviser Bob van der Borg explains.
We only really added the online questionnaire because the matching procedure is mandatory
The education minister may have made matching obligatory, but he sees it as more of a right. Students have the right to proper information, but the faculty doesn’t want to force them to gather it. Van der Borg: ‘We do offer the means to get properly oriented. Whether or not people are interested is their own responsibility.’ The means he refers to are informational activities throughout the year, such as ‘student for a day’ or trial classes.
But Aske was disappointed to find out how plain the matching procedure was. ‘I’d attended all the orientation days and talked to people from the programme. I was pretty sure what I wanted, but I would have liked some extra matching as a final check.’
The Intercity Student Consultation (ISO) is critical of these simple matching procedures. In an interview for Trouw, ISO president Linde de Nie called it ‘a reason for politicians to set minimum requirements for the obligatory matching track’. De Nie feels an one-time questionnaire is much too informal.
That’s a shame, because when applied properly, matching works. A study by ResearchNed last year concluded that the study choice test correlates to a lower drop-out rate. Most drop-outs occur because first-year students realise that they made the wrong choice. Matching is a way to prevent those mistakes.
Researcher Anja van der Broek points to the additional importance of a more personal touch when it comes to matching students to study programmes: ‘It creates a connection, and students who feel connected to their programmes pass the first year more often.’
According to Van der Borg, however, the costs of an elaborate matching procedure outweigh the benefits. He explains how his faculty organised a more extensive and programme-specific matching procedure last year. But the arts faculty has twenty-one programmes, which means they had to organise twenty-one separate matching exams. ‘It was just such an administrative and organisational fuss, so we stopped doing it as of this year.’
But even if they had the extra manpower to organise everything, Van der Borg still wouldn’t be interested in an elaborate matching procedure. ‘You can’t give a complete overview of a programme in a single day. It’s like teaching someone to swim on dry land. That’s why we offer orientation options throughout the year.’
You can’t give a complete overview of a programme in a single day
Students can find more information through several channels, such as student ambassadors and online classes, and there are days where prospective students can sit in on classes. Van der Borg: ‘We offer so many opportunities for orientation that the drop-out rate cannot be blamed on the lack of matching.’
Niessen agrees that providing a complete overview of a study programme in a day is impossible. She also has her doubts about the timing of the matching procedure: it usually takes place around May. ‘I don’t think the timing is conducive to a change of heart if the recommendation resulting from the matching is negative. It’s fairly late in the enrolment process, and prospective students aren’t always clear about their options.’
First-year student European languages and culture Leona Boomsma agrees thinks Van der Borg is right: prospective students are ultimately responsible for making choices about what is best for them. The simple matching procedure she used last year didn’t help her make that choice. All the same, she has her doubts about extensive matching testing: ‘I’ve taken so many different tests and no matter how elaborate they are, they still don’t give a complete overview of the study programme.’
Nevertheless, the benefits of matching are documented, and many students appreciate having their decision reinforced before finally committing. Aske: ‘It won’t help you figure out what to choose, but it can serve as a final confirmation. Universities should continue with their matching procedures, but they do need improving.’