Education
Photo montage by Pepijn van den Broeke

Empty classrooms and frustrated lecturers

Why won’t students come back?

Photo montage by Pepijn van den Broeke
Everything at the university has opened back up again, but the classrooms are still empty. Lecturers are worried about how this will affect the quality of education. ‘There’s an echo when I teach now.’
16 March om 11:33 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 16 March 2022
om 11:33 uur.
March 16 at 11:33 AM.
Last modified on March 16, 2022
at 11:33 AM.

Door Bente Strijbosch

16 March om 11:33 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 16 March 2022
om 11:33 uur.

By Bente Strijbosch

March 16 at 11:33 AM.
Last modified on March 16, 2022
at 11:33 AM.

Bente Strijbosch

Almost a thousand students had registered for the course on civil law. The law faculty rented a theatre at Pathé in order to fit them all in. In the end, only around twenty people showed up. 

Seventy-five students said they’d physically attend the legal aspects of business course. They did so because a total of six hundred students are registered for the course. But during the first lecture, there were only twenty-five people in the room. By the second one, there were only thirteen left.

Physical connection

For two years, student representatives on faculty councils and student unions kept saying that students wanted to go back to class. The lack of personal connections was causing mental problems, and the quality of education suffered. They demanded a rebate on their tuition fees, which they got, because this wasn’t what they’d signed up for.

Students say one thing but do another 

But while seminars and lectures are back on campus, students haven’t returned. Lecturers, thoroughly sick of teaching online, remain frustrated. The whole thing is stressful for them, as well. They also miss the connection with students, who often don’t even turn on their camera, leaving lecturers to look at nothing but a black screen. 

‘It’s embarrassing’, says lecturer Winand Grooten, who teaches the business course. ‘Students say one thing but do another. There’s basically an echo when I’m teaching these days.’

Assistant professor of marketing Marijke Leliveld is also sick of teaching rows of empty chairs. ‘It’s frustrating that students are using Covid as an excuse to do other things. It’s not like us lecturers are happy about the situation.’  

More efficient

So why haven’t students come back to class? Do they no longer want to? Or is it something else?

Psychology student Remo Blauw never goes to class. ‘It’s just a rehash of the material I already read in my textbook, with some added remarks here and there’, he says. ‘Where’s the added value in that?’

Besides, he says, online classes are much more efficient and quicker. ‘I can just stay where I am and continue studying.’ 

‘Online classes are just so convenient’, says business administration student Dyone Poppe. ‘If you’ve managed to snag a table at the university library, you might as well stay there and watch your class online.’ She does actually regularly attend class, but only to score bonus points. 

Far away

‘Students simply don’t want to go to the trouble of coming to campus if they can watch a class online’, says student assessor Didi Ubels with the Faculty of Science and Engineering. She’s basing her assessment on a survey that life sciences study association GLV Idun held among first-year students. ‘Some students live far away and don’t want to come to class because of that.’

Classes are just a rehash of the material in textbooks 

On top of that, there is now an entire generation of students that has never known what it’s like to attend normal, on-campus classes. They’ve never even met any of their fellow students. ‘That also impacts their motivation to come back to class’, says Ubels. 

‘When I was a student, you’d just get sucked up in the rigamarole of it, which created structure’, says Leliveld. But today’s students have simply never known the benefits of coming to class.  

Attendance

There is more to it, though. The way education is organised makes it easier for students to stay away. Many courses did away with mandatory attendance due to the pandemic. After all, you can’t punish students because the government is telling them to quarantine. 

But now, students are abusing the privilege, refusing to show up to class because they’re hungover, don’t want to bike through the rain, have something else to do, or simply don’t want to. Their lecturers are frustrated: ‘Not coming to class because you’ve got something else going on is just not okay by me’, says Leliveld. 

Then there’s the fact that there are no consequences for students who decide to watch class online. But Derk-Jan Heslinga, lecturer at the Faculty of Economics and Business, has a point to make: ‘We shouldn’t think that students aren’t doing anything just because they’re not coming to class.’

Feedback Fruits

Heslinga is part of the programme Feedback Fruits, where he publishes recorded fragments of lectures. It enables students to quickly find specific recordings they need. The programme also tracks how many students do so. ‘The number is higher than you might think’, he says. 

I’m often still in bed when I’m watching a class online 

During the first week, almost 68 percent of registered students watched the class online. And even though this number declined in the weeks after, it was still at 44 percent by the third week. 

He sees this as a good thing. ‘We should incorporate the recording into the learning process. It’s not like students aren’t willing to learn anymore.’ 

But that doesn’t mean that everything’s fine and dandy. ‘I’m often still in bed when I’m watching a class online and I don’t always catch everything that’s being said’, Poppe admits. 

Netflix

The word ‘present’ has suddenly taken on new meaning. ‘It takes just a few mouse-clicks to be present for a class, but you’re really just fooling yourself’, says Leliveld.

Grooten tests his students sometimes, asking a random student marked as ‘present’ a specific question. ‘Guess what?’ he says. ‘I never get a response.’

And that’s the problem: making online classes available for whenever it suits students ‘turns the learning environment into Netflix’, he says. However, this isn’t in the best interest of students, who can easily fall behind. ‘They’ll just end up never watching their classes’, says Grooten. 

I’m not going to campaign to get students to come to class

In the meantime, the university is trying to figure out how to get students to come back to class. Ubels and the study associations tried to lure them back with free coffee. That worked a little bit, and students said they appreciated the gesture, but it wasn’t a ground-breaking solution.

It’s hoped that campaigns like these will make students appreciate how important their physical attendance is, not just for their education, but also for their social life. 

Consequences

Lecturers are also trying to convince their students that coming to class is important, warning them about the risks of staying away. ‘But I’m not going to campaign to get students to come to class’, says Grooten. 

Heslinga thinks reinstating mandatory attendance would be a good strategy. ‘You need to encourage students. When there are consequences, people try harder.’

At various faculties, lecturers decided to no longer make their recorded classes permanently available. Students can only watch online classes live, and recordings won’t be made available until a week before exams start. ‘Recordings should be additional, a rerun’, says Grooten. 

However, students don’t appreciate these measures. Several lecturers talk about the multitude of angry emails they received after taking actions that were in their students’ best interests. 

And what about the students themselves? ‘I think both sides should give and take’, says Remo. ‘Next year, I do want to attend more classes in person. New year, new me.’

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