'It's not a lottery'
Get rid of resits
The teachers at the RUG are as stubborn as they come. They keep planning their classes in ten-week blocks. And they keep scheduling their resits at the end of these blocks, when every single educational expert knows that makes no sense whatsoever.
Resits should be planned at the most inopportune times. Some people even argue they should be done away with altogether, which the Erasmus University in Rotterdam did.
Even the Dutch name, which translates to ‘another chance’, is wrong, the experts say. ‘After all, it’s not a matter of chance’, says educational expert Ellen Jansen. ‘It makes it sound like it’s a lottery. But it’s just an opportunity to show what you can do and how much you know.’
Scheduling a second chance before the first one has passed is asking for trouble, Jansen says. ‘It leads to students getting way too strategic about their exams. They figure that if at first they don’t succeed, they’ll just take the test again.’
Other educational experts all agree with Jansen. And for good reason, because much research has been done on the subject. Nienke Renting at the Faculty of Economics and Business reiterates that many students tend to use the first exam as a way to check out what’s being asked. ‘They have a quick look to see what they’re expected to know, but they’re really too late with that.’
In the current system most students don’t start studying until halfway through the block, or even later. They focus all their efforts on the exam. And when they fail, they just take the resit during the next block. The experts call this ‘hurdling’.
‘We shouldn’t underestimate the psychological effect’, says Renting. ‘If students only get one chance, they’ll actually work harder. They’ll do everything they can to pass, which they don’t do when they get a second chance.’
But this is an incredibly inefficient system. It takes time, and the students suffer delays. And the teachers suffer, too. After all, they’re the ones who have to make the tests, come up with proper questions, and then they have to check all the exams. It’s a fairly laborious process. All part of the job, of course, but it’s a shame when students then proceed to not take these tests seriously.
Jansen harbours no illusions. ‘There are just too many ways in which students can be tempted.’ After all, students also want to exercise, hang out with their friends, be social, or work. And this doesn’t mean they’re spoiled, irresponsible, or immature. ‘Adults do this, too’, educational expert Ally van Hell at the medical faculty emphasises. ‘Why would you start preparing for a conference now when you can do it later?’
So it appears to be a waste of time. No matter how often teachers warn their students to start on time, no matter how much study advisers use the terms ‘study delay’ and ‘bsa’ as a threat, when push comes to shove, they all start studying too late. Only to fail, and then sign up for the resit.
But that’s when they truly get in trouble. Once they start banking on resits, they quickly run into problems. ‘People tend to think they can quickly make up a test,’ says Janke Cohen-Schotanus, who pioneered the new curriculum at the medical faculty. ‘But they can’t. Once you fall behind, you can’t ever make up the difference.’
Sure, she says, there are those few really good students who manage this. But they all get really good grades under normal circumstances. The majority of students are weaker, however. ‘They normally get sixes or sevens and they can’t make up the difference.’
The biggest factor is the timing of the resits: they are usually scheduled in the final week of the following block. The social faculty and religious sciences even schedule their resits during the third week, in the middle of the next block. A terrible choice, the educational experts say.
Of course, students want resits to follow the first exam quickly, because they feel the material is still fresh in their minds. But this is a fallacy. ‘The knowledge doesn’t stay fresh’, says Van Hell. ‘If it were, students would have passed on their first try.’
In reality, the material they learned in the first block interferes with that of block two. This means the students are much less focused on what they’re supposed to learn during that time period, and they run into the same problems as before.
But there are solutions. One of those is a proper block system, with blocks shorter than the eight weeks they currently are, and only one course being taught at one time. ‘It’s how they used to do it at the pedagogy department’, says Jansen. ‘The workload was the same, but there was very little competition between courses, and the output was higher.’
And yet the faculty decided to adopt the current system, where the blocks are ten weeks and two or three courses are taught at the same time. This was practical in case students wanted to take one or two courses at a different faculty. But it did decrease returns.
Resits are best planned at the end of the year, which allows students to focus solely on studying for them. It’s annoying for people who’ve planned vacations, but it should be annoying. ‘We have to make passing the norm. Right now, failing is the norm’, says Cohen-Schotanus.
The medical faculty has proven that it’s possible. They have divided their academic year into two semesters. They don’t teach separate courses, but use problem-based education. They focus on a single subject, such as a patient with Down syndrome. The course then addresses a myriad of subjects, such as genetics, internal medicine, or cell division.
Every three or four week, students take a module test with questions about the various subjects. There are no ‘study weeks’, because this would suggest students don’t have to study outside of these weeks. They have class one day, and their test the next. On top of that, the testing is cumulative: material from the previous tests comes back, ensuring the knowledge stays with students.
The final tally takes place at the end of semester, when students either pass or fail. Anyone who fails gets another chance in July. Not for a single subject, but for everything they learned during the semester. ‘Here, people don’t even think about going to the first exam to check out what’s being asked of them’, says Van Hell.
The method is working. The medical faculty has the best output of the entire university. The students’ knowledge is at the same level as their colleagues from the rest of the country.
The Faculty of Economics and Business does have a regular block system, but they do use module tests, and students are offered the opportunity to make up their poor grades. The faculty is very satisfied with this method. Of course, there are always teachers who refuse to baby their students.
They feel they should find out for themselves that they need to start studying more consistently. ‘But is that really what we want to teach them?’ says Renting. ‘I don’t think we should just let students drown. Education should focus on teaching students and allowing them to develop their talents.’
This begs the question why the entire university hasn’t yet adopted this system. Wouldn’t it be the ideal setting to put that scientific knowledge of testing into practice?
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Too often, the curriculum is based on the way teachers were taught the course themselves. ‘Gut feelings trump theory’, says Van Hell.
They often protest using the terms ‘academic training’ or ‘academic freedom’. ‘I call it being academically lax’, says Cohen-Schotanus. ‘Students are free to not participate, but when they do, they have to conform to the rules and procedures.’
But the people who teach should be realistic. ‘Students usually only want to know three things: when is the test, what do I need to do to pass it, and what happens when I don’t?’ says Cohen-Schotanus. ‘That’s just the way it is.’
That means the tests should be used to steer education. Plan many, forcing students to keep studying. Offer students the opportunity to compensate bad grades so they don’t get hung up on a single failed test. Offer cumulative testing, to ensure that a later good grade makes up for an earlier poor grade. And finally, make taking a resit as unappealing as possible.