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Visionary surprise


This method is used during the introduction day before the actual start of an MSc programme (last week of August, the semester starts on the first Monday in September). The aim is to enable  students to get to know each other and to learn about the new institution and its way of working academically. The first day is devoted to group work and  plenary sessions, all related to projects the students do during the first semester,  and social events. The first half of the second day focuses on the discussions between the stakeholder of a project and the related student groups. 


Name: Visionary surprise

Partner organization: University of Amsterdam (UvA)

Authors: Frank Nack, Natasa Brouwers


The aim of the method is to overcome separation issues in a programme that addresses two tracks within the same domain. This introduction method aims to realise  the similarities and stimulate differences of views within a given project in a pleasant a playful way so that the students can: 

  • match their own interpretation of the project aims and goals with the group peers, and then with the stakeholder
  • compare their individual worldview biases with other students biases
  • compare their own academic culture with the academic culture of the institution

Time: This method is designed for a population of around 290 students, divided over  9 projects (minimum 20 and maximum 35 students per project) and typically takes 1.5 days under non-pandemic circumstances. (The pandemic duration requires 2 hours per project.)

Original Context: This method was designed for the MSc Information Studies, situated in UvA’s Informatics Institute. Within this programme, the method enables students to understand that they study in essentially the same way, namely  Information Studies, with a focus on either Data Science (DS) or Information Systems (IS). Both tracks address similar issues with respect to Information Studies but in different forms. This method is used during the introduction week before the start of the actual programme.

Group: This method is validated every year with the participating students during the first project meeting. This is a group face-to face session where students are asked to consider the pros and cons of the introduction day (roughly a week after the event had happened). 

Resources needed:

External stakeholders provide the project theme.

For each project one dedicated staff member supervises the groups within the project.

A room is required for each project in the same location so that the students can collaboratively explore the project problem space. 

A plenary room that can hold all of the participating students. Ideally, it should also be available for the poster session, the coffee breaks and the lunch (we provide a buffet).


Ethical: initially, students are informed that they should attend the sessions of the project they have chosen in August. They are allowed to swap projects but they have to investigate if there is space available for their new selection. If it is fully booked they can negotiate with project members to find someone willing to swap with them. Within their own project the student also has to make clear that they intend to swap so that peers are aware of this during the group forming process. Should this not work out on the day there will be a publicly available list where students can indicate their wish to swap by providing their name, original project, and the project(s) they would like to participate in. It is made clear at the outset that a swap cannot be guaranteed. In this way students already begin to learn that study is based on their own initiative and behaving responsibly toward others.

Health: a mixed lunch is provided (i.e. meat, vegetarian, vegan). Coffee breaks are designed so that there is a variety of food and that coffee/tea/Juices/Milk/Water is provided.

Potential application/ adaptation: This method can be useful for any educational environment, where a mixed student population could work together in an interdisciplinary context. 

Case Study:

This method stretches over 1.5 days and is connected in the second day with the general introduction of the faculty, institute and the programme. The aim is to make students with diverse educational and domain backgrounds aware of their similarities and differences with respect to expertise in approaches and skills from diverse disciplinary backgrounds. This diversity is particularly crucial, as the students are also taught in 2 distinct tracks (Data Science Track (DS); Information Systems Track (IS)) each focusing on different approaches to data gathering, information generation, maintenance and knowledge generation. Moreover, they only partially work together, mainly in one course, and from this course projects are taken to be used with this method.

The event is organised in three parts.

Day 1 is project work where the participants get to know each other.

Day 2: the first half of the day includes comparisons of project views of students and the stakeholder, with the second half focusing on an introduction to the educational environment. The method described here covers the first two parts.

The first day is structured so that there is an equilibrium between getting to know the peers and at the same time gaining an initial understanding of the educational environment the students will work in during the year to come. Socialising during coffee breaks and lunch are designed in length and form so that students can meet each other in a cross-track fashion. 

We start with a short plenary session where the aims and goals of the day are explained, including an outline of the schedule for the two days. The end of the session is used to already provide the first social element – an extended coffee – breakfast break

The work sessions are designed for discussion so that the students can provide their own view on the goal and direction of the project and compare this with other views. This is done first in a project plenary session which further strengthens students getting to know each other through speed-dating like information exchanges. Then students form groups and further discuss their ideas, proposals and potential research questions. This group finding process helps students better understand with whom they would like to work over the coming first semester and also gain an idea about what they collaboratively might try to achieve. However, at this phase group forming is still considered fluid. At the end of the day the newly formed groups manifest their approaches as posters, which they first share with the other project groups. After half of the time the poster session is open so that students can investigate the work of other projects. This often yields the most interesting responses as each project group is confronted with different interpretations and approaches to the problem they were addressing. During the plenary part of the poster session students compare problem spaces and strategies between projects, which usually further broadens the view of interpretational strategies and directions of approach.

The first half of Day 2 is used to help students and stakeholders find common ground. This is the second part of the method that yields surprising outcomes, as both sides learn to recognise similarities and differences in the interpretation of the problem space and potential solutions. This experience forms the basis for the actual development of the project during the ideation phase.

The second half of Day 2 is understood as a way to further grasp the educational environment (the actual space on campus, the staff and program procedures).

Covid Context:

During COVID we could only provide a slot of 2 hours per project. However, we kept the essential order of the method design. We  provided the students with one hour of socialising encouraging them to talk about their backgrounds and describe briefly why they chose this project and what they think the most relevant aspects are. We then let the stakeholder and the students meet, with the stakeholder having 15 minutes to outline their view of the project. The remaining time was a question and answer type of session. At the end of the 2 hours, students were asked to form groups and then to use the time before the first real project meeting to come up with a list of still open questions that they could address to the stakeholder. 

Test Process:

The supervising staff member for each project talks with the students at the beginning of the initial project meeting about their experience of the introduction day. Students had previously been asked to reflect about this within their group and prepare statements. This session is designed to be open and comparison/discussion based. 

The pre-pandemic evaluations revealed that students in general appreciated the setup although they wished to have more information about the event beforehand. In particular, they liked the idea that they have time to learn more about their peers over two days so that they could form groups on an informed basis. The evaluations of the pandemic-driven events showed that the students still found the event useful but thought it essentially too short.  


Overall it seems that the method works, as the outcomes were achieved:

  1. ‘Aha’ moment 1: the students see that other students can have a rather different view of the same project
  2. ‘Aha’ moment 2:  the students and the stakeholder see matching and differences in the interpretation of the project
  3. Bonding with the other students across track, with staff and the institution.

The problem for the years to come is that the numbers of students opting for each track diverges drastically. There are currently ⅔ of all students in the DS track, which means that the interdisciplinary approach taken so far is eroding.

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