How everything seems to revolve around grades

The uni tests and you must pass...

Cartoon: De strenge universiteit
Cartoon: Niels Bongers

“Before I even start taking an exam, I’m already thinking about what the consequences would be if I failed it.” To Nina Pušić, a second-year student in Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, exam weeks are extremely stressful. "I can already picture my schedule becoming a nightmare because of a resit in the next block or because I have to retake an entire course next year, so I’ll have to follow three instead of two courses.”

Shortly before the summer break, DUB asked its readers to answer a quick stress test. Out of the 275 respondents, three-quarters feel stress often or always. More than 70 percent of them say that the expectations and obligations derived from their studies are their main source of stress. Resits, mandatory attendance, and the need to retake courses are some of the stressful situations mentioned. Out of all the respondents, 45 percent call Utrecht University "strict" or "very strict". Although the survey is not representative, the results roughly resemble national figures from Statistics Netherlands (data in Dutch only, Ed), which shows that the majority of university students feel significantly pressured to perform by their study programme. Getting high grades is the most frequently (70 percent) mentioned cause of study-related stress.

"I don't feel pressured to excel but rather pressured to perform"

The feeling that success or failure depends on the all-determining moment of an exam is something sixth-year Law student Stephan Verhulst recognises all too well. “Although I don’t feel the pressure to excel, I do feel pressured to perform,” he tells us. “I must pass the exams, otherwise I'll have a huge problem: I will take longer to graduate, which has financial consequences.”

The emphasis on results influences how students experience their college years, says Stephan, a former member of the University Council. “Students spent their college years completely preoccupied with grades, which is an extrinsic motivation. No wonder the question 'will this be part of the exam?' is frequently heard in the lecture halls. Then, after the exam, the teacher is bombarded by e-mails from students trying to rack up some extra points.

“Without the pressure to perform, I would handle the material very differently,” says Stephan. “The things I study are not necessarily what I personally find interesting or want to understand better. Instead, I skip the chapters about topics that are not going to be in the exam as I don’t have to read them. It bothers me that I’m studying this way and it stresses me out to only focus on what I'm being assessed on."

"Students go from one exam to another"

Jeroen Janssen, Education Director at Educational Sciences, has seen many students who do focus a lot on exams. According to him, UU has too much of an "assessment culture” going on. “Each course ends with an exam, so students go from one exam to another. If they fail the exam, they need to take an additional one in the next block. I completely understand that students only feel more and more pressured that way.”

Janssen is an advocate of alternative forms of assessment, such as "programmatic testing." A number of study programmes at UU, including Veterinary Medicine and the Charm-EU Master's programme, are already using it. In this form of assessment, students work on a file and get assessed by means of different forms of tests, like a multiple-choice test, an observation, and a reflection report.

"This way, students don’t have to worry that much if they perform badly on occasion,” Janssen explains. “The teacher analyses the student from a broader perspective. How have them developed themselves? Are the classes going fast enough? Are they broad enough? Based on this, it is decided whether the student can proceed with the programme.”

An advantage of programmatic testing is that students can be assessed on various aspects. “Academic education is about so much more than just passing an exam,” Janssen ponders. “As a university, we want to teach students how to think critically, how to properly express themselves, and how they can develop other skills. A simple test cannot assess all that. By sticking to tests, we’re giving students the idea that it’s all about the knowledge at hand.”

"I actually have to demonstrate that I'm an exemplary student"

It should be noted that a significant number of the respondents in our Quick Stress Test (65.3 percent) think that the stress they experience is "just part of studying at university level". A small majority also believes that UU is not "too" strict.

But Nina Pušić thinks she would benefit from a different testing culture. She is a perfectionist and sets the bar high, which ends up affecting her mental health. Those psychological complaints worsened after she started college. "Before, I would be satisfied with a six. Now I don't have that anymore. So much more value is attached to grades at university. A six or an eight can make a huge difference later."

Nina has her eyes set on a Research Master's Programme that has strict entrance requirements. Without good grades, she won't get in. She also has to get extracurricular activities on her resume to increase her chances of getting in. "It's pretty tough mentally," she says. "I actually have to demonstrate that I'm an exemplary student. The university first looks at the grade average. There's a certain logic behind that but it does give the impression that it's all about grades."

Banner DUB Magazine 2022 cover

An entire magazine on students' mental health!

This article was originally published in our print magazine Vallen en Opstaan ("Falling and getting back up again", Ed) which you can get for free at several places in the entire university from October 19 onwards.

This special edition talks about why UU students often struggle with mental health issues. They have to deal with high expectations coming from others and themselves, not to mention they live in a time where there are many options to choose from, which can be overwhelming. Most of the articles were written by four UU students.

You can take a quiz to see how you fare in the "perfection meter", learn how students overcame obstacles, reflect on the suggestions made by wellbeing experts, and recognise yourself in the photo comic ThirdFloor.  

The magazine is in Dutch but all articles are available in English online. Just click here to read them all!