DUB panel reacts: what about students who are absent often? 'They've become so quiet'

Photo: DUB

Please don’t let this be the new normal, sighed Social Sciences teacher Jaap Bos in an op-ed recently published on DUB. He complains that students are often giving excuses for their absence, copying assignments from other students, and relinquishing direct contact with teachers and peers. In Bos' opinion, this constitutes the death of higher education.

But he is not the only one feeling this way. A university of applied sciences in Amsterdam is now calling students personally to inquire about their absence. In Nijmegen, rector Han van Krieken sounded concerned in a conversation with journalists about how motivated the students who joined the university amidst the pandemic are. “Basically, they are still high school students", said van Krieken. "They still play football in the same club and hang out with the same friends they had in high school.”

Even the talk show host Arjen Lubach, of "America first, Netherlands second" fame, made fun of the situation with an infomercial praising the advantages of having classes face to face.  

Does Utrecht University also have students refraining from attending classes in person? Do Utrecht-based students and staff recognise themselves in this scenario? To find it out, we asked the members of the DUB panel. Five of them replied.

Loes van der Woerdt, Social Geography & Planning student:
“A few weeks ago, I was astonished to learn that only 70 of the 170 first-year students in our programme actually attend the lectures and study groups. When classes on campus were reinstated, I was so eager to go back to the university. It is true that being among large groups costs a lot of energy and I was suddenly spending a lot of time travelling, catching up, and so on. But the pleasure I get from seeing other students again is much greater.”

“The difference between the first-year and second-year students I know is remarkable. Some of the reasons they mention for not being very engaged with the university include lack of energy, how easy it is not to show up, and the lack of connection with the rest of the group. Besides, they don't seem to know what they like, so they basically picked a major at random."

"Before the pandemic hit, things were very different in the "normal" world. I believe it will be a long time before this kink in the chain is straightened out again.”

City Geographer Irina van Aalst:
“A lot of things changed after two years of pandemic and all the regulations that came with it. The problem isn't so much the number of students attending classes in person: the lecture halls in our programme, Social Geography and Planning, are quite full. I am rather struck by how few students are actually engaged with their studies. They have become so quiet… Barely anyone asks questions anymore, working together does not go very well, and there are few reactions to my statements.

“After two years of seeing the world through a screen, it looks like Bachelor's students barely know each other and the teachers. They are also unaccustomed to speaking in public or sharing a room with many other people. However, they are extremely excited about the first field trip in a long time. I really hope things will gradually go back to the 'old’ normal.”

Law student Stefan Verhulst:
“I've definitely noticed that students have not been attending lecturers as much, but they are also quitting courses much earlier. My previous study group started with 22 students and ended with 10. Of those, about four followed the classes online. The fact that some students are following the classes online makes the whole experience messy because of all the technical issues, which in turn contributes to students getting less interested." 

“But there are two other reasons why students are less interested. First, there are not enough teachers, which means that the workload is unprecedentedly high. Then they get burnt out and there are even fewer teachers. As a result, there are even fewer contact hours, even less feedback, and we deepen ourselves in the material a lot less, compared to the period before corona. In addition, the pandemic took a significant toll on students' mental health. Lifting the restrictive measures does not solve that problem right away.

“If the university wants to render students interested, it should hire many teachers and reduce stress factors such as exams. But maybe we just have to accept that Covid has reduced students' motivation and it might take a few years before that motivation is restored.”

Innovation scientist Frank van Rijsoever:
“My colleagues told me that students tend to show up a lot less for lectures and tutorials when they have the option to follow them online. When it comes down to it, many students apparently prefer to stay at home. It looks like their great wish to attend classes on campus was actually a wish to have the possibility to do so.

“Meanwhile, our department is discouraging teachers from offering online alternatives simultaneously with on-campus education because that affects students' attendance negatively. Students know that they need quick access to the content when they have an exam or assignment, for example. It is, of course, completely fine if they can watch a lecture again shortly before an exam.”

Marte Vroom, Master's student in Urban & Economic Geography:
“I don’t think it's a matter of reduced interest. Students have gone through tough times and are still recovering from that. What I see around me, and that also goes for myself, is less resilience. We used up all our resilience to cope with the setbacks caused by the pandemic and that resilience doesn’t come back just like that."

“We can compare it to a wound, which takes time to recover and sometimes forms a scar. It is important not to reopen the scar. Students will have to live with that scar — life goes on, after all. But let's give them the time, space and support they need to reclaim their footing.”

Medicine student Thomas Visser is the only one with a different experience:
“In my experience, students are actually very eager to return to campus and do their group assignments in person. That way, they can interact with the teacher better and grab a cup of coffee with their classmates at the end of the day. I, too, was relieved that I didn't have to follow the lessons at home alone anymore.

“But we do have the option to participate online now. Well, in my own programme, that is actually not possible. However, if students have a long commute or are sick, it is tempting to stay at home. I don’t really mind that. Hybrid classes seem ideal to me.”

Part of student life
The responses given by our panel members prompted us to ask whether UU's management has addressed the issue already. According to the Head of Education, Renée Filius, the vice-deans of education of several faculties did brush on the subject in one of their meetings. It is not clear, however, how many students are lacking in motivation.

Filius: “Programmes are trying to do something about it in various ways. They're trying to motivate students and address those that prefer to stay at home by emphasising that coming to the lectures is part of student life, not to mention it is expected of them.”