‘Curriculum-sampling gives the Faculty the greatest assurance of selecting the best students.’ These are the words of Susan Niessen
, a PhD student at the Department of Psychometrics and Statistics of the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences (BSS). Susan is the winner of the first Science for Society Award of the BSS Faculty. Her PhD research is into forms of selection in Higher Education
Susan: ‘The best students for a university are those who complete their degree programme, earn high marks and are least likely to switch programmes during their studies.’
Curriculum-sampling was studied among applicants for the Psychology program of the faculty. With curriculum sampling, prospective students follow a selection or matching procedure which gives them a realistic idea of what the study programme has to offer and what it expects of them. The procedure includes activities such as studying representative learning materials, and watching a video lecture. The prospective students take a test about the material afterwards, at the university. In the psychology programme, this procedure is used to select students. Other programmes use similar procedures for selection or matching. Participating in matching is compulsory; once the prospective students have completed the matching activities, filled in and returned a questionnaire and attended the matching-day itself, they receive an e-mail with advice on whether the programme will suit them.
Susan: ‘‘There are indications that prospective students who have attended the matching day feel more confident about their choice of programme, and the Faculty can collect objective data that will help it select the best students. The results determine which students the Faculty admits.’
The new selection and matching approach may be a better alternative to the former fixed quota system, says Susan Niessen. ‘If you draw lots, you don’t know exactly who you’re admitting, and the students don’t know exactly which skills a programme requires of them. Matching and selection obviates such a random strategy. We want to challenge prospective students to show us what they’re capable of. This gives us the best indication of how they will perform in the longer term. However, although as accurate as possible, you can’t give a one-hundred percent guarantee. But that’s not possible with any form of selection.
Susan: ‘Our research showed that the curriculum-sampling test predicted first-year performance well, and that the prediction is still good when we look at performance after three years. The curriculum-sampling procedure will be used for actual selection for the first time this year. We’ve received more applications for our programme than the 600 places that Psychology has available. We follow the students during their studies, so the results of this research can help us determine whether this selection and matching method is successful and whether it needs any fine-tuning or more significant changes.’
In January, Susan Niessen was awarded BSS’s first Science for Society Award for her research into forms of selection in higher education. The award has been initiated by Camilla Schaafsma, BSS Faculty Funding Officer. Susan grins, ‘It was a huge surprise! And a great honour, but I’ve noticed lately that interest in our research into selection and matching methods has been on the increase, both from within the University and outside’.
Within the University, a Matching and Selection expert group was recently set up. ‘My supervisor Rob Meijer represents BSS in the group. Through that group, other faculties also use our research results.’
Outside the University, the young career researcher has not escaped the attention of the national media either. Last year an article was published in the NRC newspaper in which she and Meijer joined the national debate on the validity of the CITO test as a selection method for 12-year olds. Research with an impact on society? Susan: ‘Yes, but it’s not entirely unexpected. Our academic vision on selection and matching – “show us what you are capable of” – is also applicable to other hot topics in society such as policy on top sports or talent, or how to select the right candidate for a job.’
Susan Niessen is regularly invited to speak at conferences and trade fairs about her vision of selection and matching. People ask her for advice, but sometimes they are critical too. Susan : ‘It’s understandable, because above all assessment and selection methods hangs the question of: what are you selecting people on? Skills, drive, knowledge, emotion...? Such criteria are extremely difficult to capture into fixed frameworks. What is most important in selection processes is to try to switch off the head, the subjectivity of the (first) impression, and instead to be guided by objective information such as a student’s school results.’
The United States is an important source of information for Niessen’s comparative research. Susan: ‘The discussion about the best selection and matching method started years ago in the United States. In the American education system, students are first confronted with the decision of what to study once they have finished high school at the age of 18, a decision that will thus have a huge impact on the rest of their lives. In the Netherlands, there is more or less a preselection at the age of 12, with the CITO test. This selection and personality development continues at secondary school, which means that much more objective information is available after the secondary school leaving exam on which to base the decision of which programme to study.’
Susan: ‘It would be nice if we could also study if our matching and selection method predicts how successful graduates will be after leaving university, but we’re not there yet. What we can predict is which students are best suited to a programme, which thus gives the best possible guarantee that they will complete the programme. And a university degree should provide graduate’s with tools to reach success in the further course of their lives.’
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