Myth or truth: UCU students experience more stress

Foto: DUB

A pressure cooker, people sometimes call the selective honours programme University College Utrecht. No wonder, when you compare the study programme with those of other UU programmes. Because while the average UU student wraps up his first semester in late January, UCU students finish theirs before Christmas. And while UU students are expected to work on their studies for around 40 hours a week, UCUers are expected to spend around 56 hours a week either in class or with their heads in their study books. In other words: UCU students have a lot of work to do in very little time.

According to dean James Kennedy, UCU students feel they experience more stress than other students. Jeanette van Rees, team coordinator of the Student Psychologists, is unable to say whether that perceived stress leads to UCU students asking for help more often, however. She doesn’t have data to make a proper comparison. But it’s true that the UCU students she sees are dealing with issues caused by stress and high demands more often. “As UCU students have been accepted into a selective study programme, they sometimes feel as if they’ve been chosen and so they have to perform well. They tell themselves they need to get straight A grades (somewhere between an 8 and a 10). I’m also seeing that UCU students tend to be very competitive with each other. Comparing grades, for example, is more prevalent than amongst other students.”

Overachievers, pressure to perform, and falling short
Due in part to that possible stress amongst students, some are calling for longer semesters. But are those high stress levels amongst UCU students a myth or is there actually some truth to it? DUB asked UCU student Jamie March (20) and Liberal Arts & Sciences student Lana Hoekstra (23) to visit each other’s classes – as both are students at a liberal arts honours programme, but the programmes are shaped differently. The classes at UCU are smaller, and at LAS, the focus is more on interdisciplinary education. The options for majors are also different at each programme. What followed was a conversation about overachievers, the pressure to perform, and a permanent feeling of falling short. And, according to them, that’s not something that’s limited to University College.

UCU versus LAS

University College Utrecht has a ‘traditional’ Liberal Arts & Sciences curriculum. That means student can shape their own study programmes, as long as it adheres to a few regulations. UU also has a separate programme called Liberal Arts & Sciences. The two programmes are not connected, and are set up differently.

– At University College Utrecht, you and your fellow students (usually) live on campus from August to June. In July and August, the campus is closed to students.
– At UCU, the maximum group size during classes is 28 students. At Liberal Arts & Sciences, there’s a maximum of 120 students for seminars, and no more than 20-25 students in work groups.
– At UCU, the main language used is English. At LAS, all classes are 100 percent Dutch. Literature, however, is in English around 80% of the time.
– UCU’s academic year is split in two semesters. Each student takes four classes per semester, making it a total of eight classes a year. LAS students also take eight classes each year, but these are spread over four ‘blocks’.
– This year, UCU’s fall semester runs from August 27 to December 14 (16 weeks). At Liberal Arts & Sciences, half the academic year amounts to 22 weeks. Students start Block 1 on September 1st and start Block 3 on February 4.
– According to the Education & Exam Regulations, a UCU student has to obtain at least 60 ECTs in his or her first year. LAS students have to obtain at least 45 ECTs. Everyone who fails to do so, receives a binding negative recommendation on continuation of studies (BSA), an exclusion from the programme.
– UCU students are expected to have a grade average of at least a C at the end of their studies, which equates to around a 6 – 6.5 on a scale of 1 to 10. Additionally, students are only allowed to get a D grade (4.5 to 5.5) on a maximum of two classes. “That implies that if a student gets a D on a third course, he/she has to take an additional course,” the regulations stipulate.

We find out just how full Jamie and Lana’s schedules are when we try to find a date to meet up. When Jamie has time, Lana can’t make it, and vice versa. Third-year UCU student Jamie (20) has four classes this semester, which means at least one two-hour class a day. As a student ambassador, he also acts as a tour guide of the campus. Fourth-year student Lana (23) is writing her thesis, taking one course, is a board member of the student organisation Academics for Development, and works ‘a lot’.

“When I want to meet other students or friends, they’re always saying they’re busy because they have to study,” Jamie says. “I’ve stopped asking them if they want to do something fun together, but instead, I ask them to come study with me. That way, I manage my time efficiently. I feel like I have to do this. Other students talk about being busy a lot. Perhaps they’re exaggerating, but at the same time, the norm of 56 hours of studying a week is unreasonable. That’s eight hours a day, every day of the week. If studying was the only thing I’d have to do, it wouldn’t be a problem. But if you have to work, or you’re involved in extracurricular activities, it becomes a challenge to keep up. Whenever I plan some time off I feel guilty, because I could always spend more time on my studies.”

‘Fuck, I should’ve done more yesterday’

Lana nods in agreement. “I also feel like I don’t have a lot of spare time. Maybe once every two, three weeks. I always feel like I could be spending more time on my studies. Such as yesterday, when I came home from the library at half past ten at night. I watched some TV for a bit and felt guilty the entire time. That feeling still haunts me today as well. So I’m thinking: Fuck, I should’ve done more yesterday. I’ve noticed I’m giving up a lot of things for my studies. Usually, I try to work out three or four times a week, but ever since I’ve started my thesis, I haven’t done that. How much you give up depends on your personality, of course. There are students who give up all extracurricular activities for their studies, but that’s not me. Studying isn’t everything.” Plus, Jamie adds, you can’t just give up all your activities. “Some people need a job to be able to continue their studies.”

“It would be unreasonable to expect yourself to only study all day, every day,” the UCU student continues. “However, there’s definitely that feeling that tells you you should really be doing more. I think it’s because the standards are very high here. Teachers sometimes say we should take notes by hand instead of on our laptops. They don’t say that it’s mandatory, but they do say research shows it’s the best thing to do. In the first week of the semester, I follow everyone’s advice, but the rest of the semester I can never manage to get to the level of that first week again. I’ll only read parts of articles, or I’ll take notes on my computer. That makes me feel bad, because I know that’s not the best way. And then I’ll constantly think: If I had more time, I could do this the right way.”

It’s a feeling Lana recognises. “Before every block, I’ll read the articles for the first week. But then when it’s the second week and you’re busy so you skip reading one article, you start falling behind and you can never catch up, that back log gets bigger and bigger. Until you reach the point where you’re not even sure how to go about things at all anymore.”

‘The stress makes me miss out on delving deeper’

Both students feel it’s a shame they experience those time constraints. Jamie: “When you’re stressed out all the time, you reach the point where you’re only doing what’s absolutely vital. And those are the things you need to do for your grades. So I’ll focus on an essay I have to write, and I’ll skip the recommended articles for a class. That’s a shame, because I’m missing out on delving deeper into the material. Especially if the subject’s interesting. But there’s just not enough time to read all the articles and write a good essay. So if you have to choose, you choose to get a good grade, and not the extra work.”

Lana responds: “UCU students are overachievers, I think. I feel like they’re not satisfied with anything less than an eight.” Jamie: “Yes, UCU students are overachievers. Not just in their studies, I think, but in everything they do. When they’re playing hockey, they’re not happy with anything less than perfect either, but isn’t that a reasonable goal to set for yourself?” Lana laughs. “I don’t think so. That idea puts so much pressure on students. It’s really hard to be happy with a seven if everyone around you is aiming higher than that. It wouldn’t make me happy.” Jamie: “I understand what you’re saying, but I want my grades to reflect what I can do. That’s hard, but I don’t think it’s impossible.”

Whether that means he experiences more stress than Lana, Jamie can’t say. “How can I compare?” he wonders out loud. In a way, he thinks Lana may have it worse than he does, because she has exams after Christmas break, and he doesn’t. “I think that’s the biggest difference. We have to work hard up to Christmas, but then we’re done and can really enjoy our break.”

Why did UCU Dean and guest editor-in-chief James Kennedy suggest this article?
 “At University College, the way the academic year is set up is quite special. We’ve got shorter periods of classes, and they’re more intensive. That means working harder throughout the year, but with more breaks. And we demand a lot from our students. There’s a perception that this causes our students to experience higher levels of stress. The question is whether that’s true or not. I’d like to see that put in perspective. There are so many other factors that contribute to stress among students.”

Read all the articles that were written on the advice of James Kennedy here.