Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes
In 2015, all hell broke loose when professor Jaap Bos changed the first-year subject Finance. Bos even decided it was better to stay away from the faculty for a few weeks to avoid aggressive students. Emotions don't always run so high, but complaining seems to be in the SBE students’ blood. In the latest edition of the Finance test, it happened again.
On the outside of his door, there is a drawing of a man with his hands in the air. Underneath, it says in English: Dunno. “I hope it will dampen students' expectations,” says Bos, professor in Banking and Finance at the School of Business and Economics. However, it did not put off the frustrated students who came to seek redress after the test.
“On one occasion, about ten of them stormed into my room. Even parents got on the bandwagon, calling our dean directly. I remember one couple, both professors, complaining that the questions could not be found literally in the exercise book. Yes, it’s true... In those days, every time I walked to the bicycle shed, I wondered: ‘Will my tires still be inflated today or not?’ Also, because I had received a few threatening e-mails along the lines of ‘deal with our complaints or something will happen’. The things that were being said on Facebook, were simply disgusting.”
In the meantime, the gossip factory was working overtime. “Seven out of ten students were supposed to have failed. I was said to have been fired. And the test was sent to Oxford for an assessment, where they had made mincemeat of it. This nonsense doesn't make things any easier, also because a year later you start off with a disadvantage as a lecturer. Tension was high in the first block, students appeared to be afraid of me.”
Finance – a compulsory subject for first-year students - has the reputation among students as being an obstacle subject. “They find it difficult and many feel great pressure to pass. It is the last subject of the first year, so for some it is their last chance to ward off the negative binding study advice. Others use it as a final attempt to jack up their average grade.”
This explains to some extent the fierceness of the reactions, but there is more going on. Many students “were in utter panic,” says Bos, “because I had completely changed the test, which, by the way, I had announced elaborately beforehand”.
The reason for the change was a chat with a student who was disappointed with the SBE tests, says Bos, who won the UM Education Prize in 2013. “According to the guy, everyone was on study drive, kind of like Dropbox but then for study material, and mainly studied the summaries and former tests, which was often enough to pass. In general, the questions corresponded with the examples in the exercise book. So what did I do then? I scratched the examples and I put the questions – eighty, multiple choice - in a fictitious story. It was about a chain of ice-cream parlours, called IceLovers, which was opening branches in Maastricht. To make things easier for the students, I included fewer mathematical questions, so there wouldn't be a problem with time.”
Many students were in shock; they could no longer place the questions. “Lecturers often adapt the questions slightly, but they remain recognisable. I don't want to say anything bad about my colleagues, but in many cases their questions are former test questions. Some lecturers even feel that if students have learned all six hundred question off by heart, they understand the material.”
The result of the Finance test was that four hundred first-year students out of twelve hundred failed the test. Complaints poured in, a total of a few hundred. However, this number could be traced back to a group of only fifty students. “I then posted a letter on Eleum in which I explained everything.”
Bos felt supported by the faculty and his colleagues. Most of them bucked him up and the board immediately tried to limit the damage. “What struck me was the attention for so-called objective figures. They immediately made a statistic analysis of the test to discover which questions scored well and which questions scored poorly. Nobody looked at the quality of the test as a whole. I asked colleagues to take a close look at it, possibly even do the test themselves, but nobody did that. It seems as if we can't really talk to each other when it comes to test quality. We prefer to limit ourselves to student evaluations, which is, as far as I'm concerned, a major educational blunder. It is ridiculous that you provide a student with a block evaluation immediately after a test. Those who did the exam well, are of course satisfied, and those who fear a fail, vent their spleen in the evaluation.”
In the end, Bos had many positive reactions from students. Even one year later, there are still students who let him know that the test was one of the best. “Maybe the tests that don't cause such a reaction, need to be given closer investigation.”
According to Bos, the gulf of complaints fit in a climate in which students are treated like customers. They think that they have a right to a diploma because they have paid tuition fees. “Compare it to a gym subscription, as a colleague of mine does. It allows you to use the equipment and facilities and you are given instruction. But not the guarantee that you will get fit. That is something you have to do yourself. All too often, students see that as the university's responsibility. As if the institute by definition has done something wrong if the student fails.”
A sign of the present atmosphere is the fact that after the Finance test, the students received an e-mail from a lawyer’s firm that could help them get what they wanted, on a no-cure-no-pay basis. “We also have a few court cases every summer, of students who stick to their guns.”
Whether the number of complaints has increased at SBE, is unclear. Erik de Regt, head of the Examination Board, has heard many different things through the grapevine. Group complaints, such as in the Finance affair, occur five to ten times a year. But I must admit that we don't keep count.
After all, students have the right to complain, says De Regt, and yes, sometimes that gets out of hand. “It seems that very little can be done about it. You can't change test results by adapting the score and as a faculty you cannot ask for money. At the same time, the threshold is low for students.” In other words: if you don't ask, you won't get.
To gain more insight into the number of complaints, the faculty designed a website where students can submit their complaints about exams. However, a discussion has arisen about this ‘tool’, because it has made it easier than ever for students to complain.
Bos demands that students deliver their handwritten complaints to the secretary of Finance on the first floor. At the same time, he shows what the consequences of moaning are. “At the time, a student asked me what the delay was with the test results. So, then I explain that it takes time to send e-mails to all those who have complained. At the same time, I am aware that it should not be at the expense of the hard working, intrinsically motivated, silent majority who doesn't make a fuss.”
It would also help if lecturers discussed their experiences among each other. “As far as I know, that has happened twice in the past six years. How do you set up your subject? What do the exams look like? How do you deal with complaints?”
In Denmark, they have the hawk-eye system, says Bos. “When you start studying, you get a limited number of cards that you can use to submit a complaint. If the complaint is justified, you get your card back. If it isn't, you have one less opportunity to complain.”
There was a lot of to-do last year about the Finance test, although emotions ran less high than in 2015. The reason for some of the complaints was nonetheless shocking. In one question, there was a term that did not come up in the exercise book and some students – we are talking economic students - didn't recognise: Brexit.
Read the news article about complaining at UM here and what students say about complaining here