Education

Students complain bitterly and often

Rude emails and angry texts

Lecturers have noticed a change in their students since the pandemic. They complain more, make more demands, and write angry emails. ‘Mean emails stay with you for a really long time. They hurt.’
5 April om 10:09 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 5 April 2022
om 10:10 uur.
April 5 at 10:09 AM.
Last modified on April 5, 2022
at 10:10 AM.

Door Tim van de Vendel

5 April om 10:09 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 5 April 2022
om 10:10 uur.

By Tim van de Vendel

April 5 at 10:09 AM.
Last modified on April 5, 2022
at 10:10 AM.

Tim van de Vendel

Astronomy lecturer Jake Noel-Storr was astounded when dozens of angry messages appeared in the group chat he’d created for his students. ‘It’s not our fault the exams were marked so poorly’, one student told him bluntly. 

‘This whole course is a sham’, another one said. 

Was it useful? ‘That depends on whether the lecturer will do his best’, a third one wrote. ‘We have a right to be upset.’

All the messages blamed him or accused him of something. All because he hadn’t published all the answers of an interim exam.

Explanation

It’s become a recurring problem over the past year. For the first time in the three years since he’s started teaching the course, Noel-Storr is seeing students complaining en masse. Before the exam took place, he’d elaborated on why he wouldn’t be publishing all the answers. ‘Some questions are based on concepts or skills. Studying the factual information in their answers would be pointless.’ 

He did want to discuss the questions with his students, so he organised a few online sessions. ‘But hardly anyone showed up to those.’

Instead of listening to my explanation, they just kept complaining

Apparently, his explanation didn’t satisfy the students. ‘They had decided it was a bad idea, so instead of actually listening to me or trusting my expertise, they decided to just keep complaining.’ It got even worse when they realised they wouldn’t be able to inspect the exam, either.

‘They’d just announced a really strict lockdown. The exams were in a safe on campus and I had no access to them’, Noel-Storr explains.

Students weren’t sympathetic to this issue, either. ‘We explained the situation so many times, but they just kept copying text from the student handbook that said they had a right to inspect their exams.’ 

Obviously, he was aware of this. As soon as he was able, he scheduled office hours to discuss the exam. ‘One whole student showed up’, he says. ‘It’s like they’re more interested in the discussion for the discussion’s sake rather than the actual result.’

Hybrid education

Noel-Storr blames hybrid education. Before the Covid pandemic, he’d create an actual bond with his students in the classroom. During the first year of the pandemic, students were taking online classes, accepting that things were different. But this year, the hybrid form led to confusion. 

‘They had on-campus seminars with their TAs that I wasn’t a part of. But at the same time, lectures were online’, he says. ‘Students never approached me there to have a talk, so the only form of communication was the group chat.’

He felt it was important to create the group chat as a platform where his students could study together and discuss the material in front of him. But the complaining students forced him to encourage the others to contact him and each other elsewhere. ‘It can be really disruptive if one group of students is making a lot of noise.’

He says it’s incredibly frustrating. ‘But I have to keep trying to get my message across.’ The group chat’s goal was to have a proper discussion, but it became a place for students to dump their grievances. ‘You can’t have a conversation under those circumstances.’

Normal studying

Statistics lecturer Edith van Krimpen was also inundated with complaints the past year. Even before the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences announced the faculty-wide rule, she decided to make her classes available online to a limited extent. Immediately after announcing the decision, her inbox was flooded with angry emails. Students refused to listen to her explanation. ‘It’s not that I hated teaching in front of an empty classroom; I was worried about the students’ well-being.’

She believes that on-campus lectures make students feel more connected and motivated, and enables them to focus better. According to Van Krimpen, students who started two years ago don’t know what ‘normal’ studying entails. ‘Getting up early, biking to class against the wind, being surrounded by your fellow students’, she says. ‘They depend too much on recorded classes, but courses like statistics also take practice.’

It’s different when you can look each other in the eye

The pandemic has caused a shift, she says. Before, students would come to her in person if they had a problem. ‘It’s different when you can look each other in the eye. These past two years, it was so easy to just write an email and forget about civility.’

Van Krimpen puts her psychology students in two broad categories. The first and biggest group are the students who work hard even under the current circumstances. The other group consists of people who want to work hard but feel disadvantaged by the current situation. The latter is the loudest. ‘The quiet group doesn’t say anything.’

All the complaints are making her enjoy her work less. ‘It’s like the students think I’m trying to make life as difficult as I can for them, but I’m not.’ Even the positive messages she gets are overshadowed by the negative ones. ‘I get these really nasty emails sometimes that just stay with me because they hurt so much’, she says. ‘I also get really nice, sweet messages, and I really appreciate them. But that good feeling never lasts very long.’

Resit

Professor of computer science Georgi Gaydadjiev doesn’t get nasty emails from students. He doesn’t hear anything from them at all. When sixty-two of his 164 students didn’t show up to an exam, he decided not to publish the answers. He suspected people were trying to ‘strategically’ pass the class. ‘They don’t come to the first exam, wait for the computations to be published, and then take the resit.’

But Gaydadjiev says this is pointless. ‘Students shouldn’t expect the same questions with different numbers on the resit’, he says. ‘Plus, I don’t think it’s fair on the people who did study for the first exam.’

Gaydadjiev also thinks some students abused the opportunity for a second resit. Until a few hours before the first resit, he was still getting emails from students trying to cancel because of ‘Covid’. ‘But students always get the benefit of the doubt.’

Disappointed

His main goal will always be to have his students learn from his course. He tried his best to coach his students, organising extra study sessions and office hours. But students didn’t turn up. ‘I’m not frustrated, I’m disappointed’, he says. ‘It’s a great course, and I think it’s a shame that students aren’t taking this opportunity to understand it, because it will help them so much later in life.’

Aren’t we all a little selfish sometimes, disregarding the price that others pay?

He just wants to do what’s best for his students, he says. That’s also the experience of maths student Krzys Pudowski, when he failed Gaydadjiev’s course for the third time. ‘I asked if I could see the exam and he was available the next day. He went through the entire exam with me. On a Saturday, no less.’ He passed the course the next time around. 

However, Krzys understands not everyone would remain as motivated as he was. ‘At some point, you just want to get a course over with.’ He thinks students don’t consider the fact that their behaviour has an impact on their lecturer as well. Or they simply don’t care. ‘Aren’t we all a little selfish sometimes, disregarding the consequences or the price that others pay?’

Different approach

Gaydadjiev’s colleagues have also been talking about how students have changed during the pandemic. ‘They make different demands, complain about too much work stress, or not being able to give enough feedback.’ He’ll need to come up with a different approach next year. ‘We’ll have to find a way to make students more enthusiastic.’

He can only hope that things will get better. ‘We don’t teach or administer exams just to fail students. We really want them to learn something.’ 

Have you ever sent a lecturer an angry email or text message, and would you like to tell your side of the story? Email us at ukrant@rug.nl

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