Flexibility and Rigidity: Comparing Systems of Higher Ed, Part I

I’ve recently had the opportunity to talk to several folks at universities outside the United States about teaching. It’s been eye-opening to see some big differences with how we do things at Yale. Just two weeks ago, a fact-finding contingent visited from the University of Amsterdam (UvA), an institution that has a much more top down approach to education.

From our wide-ranging discussion, I learned that UvA seems to pay much more attention to learning goals at the degree level. That is, the departments have a very clearly articulated and detailed vision for the skills they want their students to have when they graduate. The curriculum is (in theory) designed backwards to accomplish these goals. We all know reality is messier than this, but I still think it can be a valuable exercise to step back and think hard about how all the classes in a program fit together. In fact, this sort of stepping back should be done at regular intervals, especially in fields that are changing quickly.

Another difference between Yale and UvA is that faculty at UvA seem to have far less freedom in the design of their classes. Because the learning goals for each class are written ahead of time, instructors must make sure their class meets those goals. In many cases, I suspect this works very well and sets a quality bar below which courses cannot fall. On the other hand, I think it can also restrict a scholar from sharing their unique vision of a subject in a creative way.

Perhaps the biggest difference between UvA and Yale is actually a difference between the US system and the European system: Students apply to particular degree programs and it is fairly difficult for them to change course midstream. In other words students choose their major before they arrive on campus. That seems totally crazy to me. Most freshmen have no idea what economics is unless they take an introductory course, but four years later, more them are graduating as economics majors at Yale than anything else. I’ve seen figures for other schools showing similarly massive amounts of mind-changing during those first years of college.

I get it that it’s easier to run an institution when you know up front how many students will be in each degree program, but the costs to students are high. College students learn about possibilities they couldn’t imagine when in high school, and we shouldn’t force them to stay committed to plans they made in high school.