Students

Low grades, few ECTS

The struggle
first-years face

First- and second-year students are getting lower grades and fewer ECTS than they used to. It’s no wonder, after two years of Covid. ‘What am I even doing here?’
11 May om 11:29 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 11 May 2022
om 11:43 uur.
May 11 at 11:29 AM.
Last modified on May 11, 2022
at 11:43 AM.

Door Bente Strijbosch

11 May om 11:29 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 11 May 2022
om 11:43 uur.

By Bente Strijbosch

May 11 at 11:29 AM.
Last modified on May 11, 2022
at 11:43 AM.

Bente Strijbosch

‘I actually just failed another test’, says Maud Koenders. The first-year law student smiles wryly while looking at her grades for the past block. Her latest failing grade is just another in a long line.

Her first year is nearly over, but she’s only managed to earn fifteen ECTS. What happened? 

‘I don’t like sitting at home’, she says. ‘I end up not doing anything.’

Maud struggled with the fact that a large part of her classes was online due to the pandemic: she had a hard time staying motivated in her small student room.

Making the switch from secondary school to university was also harder than she’d anticipated. Maud knew she’d have to motivate herself to work, but it turned out to be incredibly difficult. She’s starting to get increasingly worried, even with the binding study advice limit lowered to 35 ECTS. ‘I’m not sure I’m going to make it at all.’

Steep decline

Just like Maud, there are hundreds of first- and second-year students who’ve been having a hard time finding their feet at university. These students spent most of their final year in secondary school online, graduated while requirements were lowered, and were then once again confronted with online education at university. ‘Students just seem kind of lost right now’, says educational adviser Jan Folkert Deinum. 

When the Covid outbreak started, people were worried that students’ grades would suffer immensely. To their relief, this didn’t happen. In fact, students were earning more ECTS than ever.

Students seem kind of lost right now

Two years later, however, everything went sideways anyway. Both first-year and senior students’ performances are waning, but the university is mainly worried about the first-years. The UG has been monitoring educational outcomes since the start of the pandemic, putting out a biannual report. ‘The analysis shows a steep decline’, says Deinum. 

The latest report showed that first-year students earned two fewer ECTS than in previous years. The average grade has also dropped by nearly a full point. ‘We can see the result declining, but we’re not sure why’, says Deinum. 

Focus

It’s obvious that the switch to online education has something to do with it. But what aspects of online classes are the issue here? Was it the quality of classes?

Second-year law student Demi Meenhuijs says it wasn’t that. ‘Online classes were all I knew. It was just something I had to deal with’, she says. 

But actually concentrating on online classes was difficult. ‘I simply can’t focus’, says astronomy student Maureen Berendsen. Online classes were tedious and boring. ‘Most of the time it was just the same thing over and over for two hours.’ She, too, finished out her first year with very little to show for it: just five ECTS. 

Religious sciences student Kara Schotanus understands the issue. Almost all of her classes were online, too. ‘It’s really easy to just switch on a class and only half pay attention’, she says. ‘It just doesn’t work as well as being in the actual classroom.’

Low turnout

Then there’s the lack of motivation among students: turnout to lectures and seminars has been extremely low. 

‘I’ve only been to a single on-campus class so far’, Demi admits. ‘I did extra assignments in seminars for bonus points, but if I didn’t have any other obligations I never went.’

I’ve only been to a single on-campus class so far

Eva Nijbroek, a second-year law student, has the exact same experiences. She’d watch her lectures online, and never showed up to seminars. 

And that’s a serious problem, says Miranda Trippenzee. She studies the well-being of students. Senior students at least understand the importance of on-site classes, but first-years don’t. ‘Students are missing out on an important part of student life by not coming to class.’ She doesn’t just mean that they’re missing out on education, but they’re also missing out on social contacts. 

Hati van Kleef-Ruigrok, lecturer at the law faculty, also thinks first-years haven’t properly learned how to focus. ‘These students have missed out on the practice of focused listening and studying.’

High-risk

A recent study into student well-being after Covid by Trippenzee in collaboration with PhD candidate Lisa Kiltz, revealed first-year students in particular as a high-risk group. ‘First-year and international students both said they had few social contacts and that they didn’t go to class’, says Trippenzee. This affects both their performance and their well-being. 

Kara understands this. Slowly, each of her fellow students disappeared behind a black, anonymous little square on her screen. ‘It’s all too easy to just forget about studying if you don’t have any contact with other students’, she says. 

Eva had the same experience. ‘I don’t really know any of my fellow students’, she says. This creates a vicious cycle: ‘Because I don’t know anyone, I might as well watch all my classes online.’

This makes students feel like they’re not actually studying at all. ‘While I did feel like a student, I didn’t feel like I was studying’, says Eva. She’s not the only one. ‘It kind of felt like I was taking an online course’, says Kara. 

Lecturers find the empty rooms ‘terribly frustrating’, says Deinum. ‘They say they don’t know their students at all.’ This means the connection between students and lecturers is lost, as well as the connection between students and the university as a whole. ‘It’s like we’ve become estranged’, says Deinum. 

Changes

But the fact that rules and guidelines were changing all the time, often only late in the block, was also catastrophic. Exams had to be sat in person, then online, and then in person again, which is what happened at the astronomy department. ‘What am I even doing here?’ Eva thought regularly.

Three-hour exams would be shortened to two hours without explanation. ‘Even the schedule still says the exams are three hours’, says Demi.

It felt like I was taking an online course

Lecturers, it seemed, hardly knew what was and wasn’t permitted. Were students allowed to use the bathroom during exams? Did they have to wear a face mask while sitting down? Who was in charge of these things? 

Even law lecturer Van Kleef-Ruigrok didn’t understand what was going on half the time. And that’s had its repercussions, she thinks. ‘People were more stressed out by exams, the fact that they suddenly had less time, and the changes to the types of exams were also confusing to students’, she says. With the latter, she means the sudden switch to open-book exams with essay questions, a type of exam that’s usually only for senior students and that first-years aren’t trained in. 

The students themselves had a hard time with them, too. ‘There weren’t any practice exams’, says Demi. ‘We had no idea what to expect.’  

Normal

And now the reverse is happening: the first- and second-year students suddenly have to adjust to a new situation. ‘I realise I’m having a hard time concentrating in a room with hundreds of others’, says Eva. ‘I’m just not used to it.’

So now what? 

‘It’s been a strange time, and we’re slowly returning to normal. But so many students don’t even know what normal is’, says Trippenzee.

So many students don’t even know what normal is

Nevertheless, she has faith that things will get better pretty much by themselves. ‘Universities should welcome back students and the students should rediscover how useful and fun classes really are’, she says. The new academic year ‘is a new opportunity for everyone’. 

Deinum agrees with her. ‘We need to band together and make sure studying becomes fun again’, he says. ‘We need to show students that we’d genuinely like to see them come back.’ 

But, both emphasise, the first-years and internationals need to be watched extra closely. ‘We need to realise that some groups have fallen to the wayside more than others’, says Trippenzee. ‘We need to work just that little bit harder for them’, adds Deinum. 

That doesn’t have to be difficult at all. Lecturers could just greet everyone when they walk in the room or ask students how they’re doing. Small efforts like these could really help, Deinum thinks. ‘We see you, we know who you are, and we’re glad you’re back.’

Nederlands