A cup of water in his face; that is what he got. Michael Capalbo, assistant professor at the Faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences, remembers the incident during one of his exam reviews like it was yesterday: “The guy had a complaint about his exam, but the complaint wasn’t substantiated. He walked away angry, then returned with a glass of water and threw it over me. He started provoking me, tapping my shoulder, shouting: ‘Yeh, now what? What are you going to do now?’ I said nothing.”
Capalbo reported the incident to the dean, “I felt it was serious”. The student never apologised; it apparently all happened in a moment of madness, was his defence. Moment of madness or not: the student was suspended for three months. Yes, this was an exceptional case, and no, fortunately most students don’t go that far when they are angry, Capalbo winks.
These days, students complain about everything: the tutorial group that doesn’t suit them, the tutor’s accent, difficult exam questions, typing errors in the exams, the level of the English, “think of anything you like and they complain about it,” says Jaap Bos, professor of Finance at the School of Business and Economics (SBE). And if the lecturer doesn’t agree with them? Then they go to the Examination Board. Stefan Straetmans, associate professor at SBE, also had to come in for a talk once. “A student had approached the board because he was dissatisfied with his 9.5. That should have been a 10. Well, then you have to find the time for that. Later on, it appeared that he had tried the same thing with four colleagues.”
You are free to complain. But lecturers are sick to their stomachs with it. Last year, the so-called ‘action-oriented reflection groups’ were set up at all faculties, to provide input for the Taskforce Sustainable Employability (see box). Employees from all academic ranks, from lecturer to professor, participated. The anonymised reports refer to “the power of the student”. At the Faculty of Law, they experience student behaviour as “time-consuming and intimidating”. A culture of negotiating about exams has emerged, in which all kinds of channels of communication are used to prove you are right and starting petitions, the report states.
“Students are treated with velvet gloves”
Stefan Straetmans reckons that universities themselves have contributed to this: “Everything is about grades and rankings; these are decisive for their exchange options and their careers abroad.” “The higher the grade, the greater the chance of being accepted to a selective master’s,” says Capalbo. According to Straetmans, students are treated “with velvet gloves”. “Negative behaviour at the university seldom has consequences for them. We hardly ever correct students, unless it is about objectively determinable facts such as fraud. I emphasise that we are talking about part of the student population, but some really show a complete lack of respect.”
He especially points out the lack of politeness in their communication with staff. “I then wonder: will they do this later on in the same way with their senior manager where they are doing a work placement or when they have a student job? Probably not, because they would be turned away.”
According to Bos, students all too often think that they are customers. “They already feel that way upon arrival, as if they are special, possibly even having been raised that way, because you have those types as well,”. “But: they are not customers. We, the lecturers, do not need to serve them. They have their own responsibility, they have to develop their own potential themselves.”
They don’t only feel like consumers, but they are also unsure at the same time. All the lecturers that were interviewed by Observant mentioned it. “The present generation of students wants to control everything, know what will be asked at the exam, which books they should and shouldn’t read, they don’t want to be surprised,” Straetmans summarises. He sees this in particular among first-year students: “They are 18, 19 years old and have no clue how to study. That aspect – learning to learn – should receive much more attention. They resort to old exams, as something to hold onto, and expect the new exam to be similar. Numbers change: okay, but if I dare to get it into my head to ask a new kind of question or a new kind of calculation, they don’t know what to do. So, it is ‘way to difficult’, or they feel that the assessment is unfair, ‘because they did practice like hundreds of questions?’. I don’t like neither-fish-nor-fowl exam for which everyone can score a 6.5, no, I want an exam that enables the best to distinguish themselves.” Straetmans sees it as a task for the faculty: “Let us bring the old exams up for discussion, maybe we shouldn’t make them available anymore on study drive.”
Bos is irritated by the lack of self-reflection: “They prefer to place the responsibility outside themselves. But if the results aren’t good enough, a poor grade will follow.” “Yes, sorry, but you get no credits for participation, you get credits for the content, reflecting the extent to which you have mastered it,” a junior lecturer feels, who wishes to remain anonymous because of the small scale of University College (“I would not like students to recognise themselves in a story”).
The fact that the complaints are mainly about grades – instead of wanting to learn from their mistakes – is a thorn in the side of the lecturers. Straetmans takes his Finance block, for almost 1,200 first-year students, as an example. He spent hours on the (more than three hundred) comments that were sent after the exam. “I have no idea what I am doing, according to them,” he jokes. Seriously: “No, it doesn’t make for pleasant reading. I take a break after half an hour.”
Students at SBE are allowed to leave remarks in a special comment box, online, up to five days after completing the exam. “I saw the word unfair pass by so many times. As well as: ‘I was confused’. But they seldom come with good arguments. Sometimes, the criticism is founded, so then I will adapt the answer key. But I do wonder if the students take the trouble to look at the answer key, with clear explanations, and then reflect on the mistakes that they made. I doubt it.”
“The focus is often on the grades”
Capalbo clearly recognises differences between the faculties where he teaches. “My own faculty, FPN, has grown tremendously. More and more students feel as if they are a number, they want to make themselves heard when they don’t agree with something. At Data Science and Knowledge Engineering, they are not as difficult. They look to themselves, feel that they should simply have done better. University College also has a fair share of complainers, but they often present arguments.” The junior lecturer at UCM thinks differently about this. “Arguments? Learning from feedback? They do far too little of that. The focus is often on the grades. But a discussion about grades means nothing if you know just as little at the end as you did beforehand.”
Reason for the lack of reflection? “It most likely has to do with work pressure,” Bos observes: “Certainly at SBE, we ask much of students. There are targets and deadlines, dozens of papers, presentations, projects. Because of this, students have no time to reflect on their own achievements or uncertainties. They have to keep going.”
And what about quality control? “We have outsourced that to the students too, to ‘amateurs’. Student evaluations apparently ‘show’ us how good or how bad our teaching is. But that is not possible, is it? We should be measured by our colleagues, dare to be critical, ask questions – ‘how do you do that?’ You are not going to find out what does and doesn’t work in education by looking at student evaluations.”
The ‘reflection group’ at the Faculty of Science and Engineering (FSE) abhors the use of student evaluations too: “When you get a bad evaluation, it is brought up at your annual appraisal interview.” The report also states: “Teaching should be assessed by professionals. Now it is a popularity poll.”
Bos confirms that he is in a comfortable position. “With me or with colleagues who have been teaching for years, they are more careful.” He can allow himself to not respond to a complaint or to answer with a fiery e-mail. They have earned their stripes, respect and tenure. “Often it is young female lecturers, non-Western, who are put under pressure. Ironically: the UM’s diversity policy focuses on shining the light on these members of staff, but they are insufficiently supported. When I was department chairman, I said to my staff: ‘If something is going on, you having a problem with a student, send him to me, I will have a talk with him.’ To show that I support them.” And that is how it should be across the faculty, in the board, even the Executive Board. “If you say that you are for inclusivity and diversity, then you really need to do something about it.”
Although Bos says that this concerns a small group of complainers at SBE, “approximately 10 per cent of the master’s and 20 per cent of the bachelor’s students, this minority is very expressive and a lot of energy is lost on them. We have a large group of hard workers among our students, who undeservedly get less and less attention because of that small group with large mouths.” Bos would much rather see good and bad behaviour made more visible, to praise good behaviour – “also to ensure that they do not hook up with that minority, because they are dragged along, as bad behaviour is rewarded.”
Capalbo has noticed that students want to be “heard”. “They want you to enter into discussion with them, preferably on a personal level, and explain how things are.” That is why he feels that that those review moments are of the greatest importance. “Certainly, a review is an art. You never know what is waiting for you. One moment, you might have three people turn up with legitimate complaints. Another time, there will be 25 students who register with zero decent reasons.” Straetmans also sees the importance of it: “There is a discussion taking place, one-on-one. I do set clear rules beforehand: you can get feedback during the review, but there will be no negotiations on grades.”
“You have to set up your review properly”
Capalbo reckons that in order to prevent matters becoming worse, a lecturer must set up his review “properly”. “You have to run a tight ship, in small groups, marked-out time slots, otherwise it gets chaotic.” He suggests that tips should be shared with inexperienced colleagues. “Just like we have a PI who takes young researchers under his or her wings and shares best practices, we should have that for teaching. I would say that you should always plan a review with two people. Not only to avoid being accused of something or other later, without witnesses, but mainly because there is more time for a personal talk.”
Code of conduct
The Taskforce Sustainable Employability has summed up a number of ‘solutions’: “more support from the department,” as Bos also suggested, “restoring authority” (how that should be done, is unclear) and “drawing up of a code of conduct on policies and ethics, standards and values and proper communication”.
Would such a code help? Straetmans: “Sceptics will say: students won’t read it anyway, spare yourself the trouble, but I think: should one then not do anything? I think it would be a good idea to repeat it as often as possible, in a block book, on Canvas, or wherever.”
Of course, the lecturers all understand the uncertainty, the difficult time, the pressure placed on students, and yes, fortunately it is a minority, but, the UCM lecturer reckons: “Keeping in mind the fact that you are dealing with a person doesn’t just go one way. Students want to be treated like human beings, but lecturers want that too.”