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First-year student Mitchell: ‘I do feel embarrassed when my friends ask me if I’ve really quit again’

First-year student Mitchell: ‘I do feel embarrassed when my friends ask me if I’ve really

“You feel like you’ve failed,” Mitchell recently told EM.Mitchell is one of seven students who were interviewed regularly by EM last year, to track their progress during their first year. In his case, Mitchell studied the International Bachelor Economics and Business Economics (IBEB). However, he dropped out before the end of the year.

He’d had a hard time deciding to quit, feeling sick at the thought of doing so. “Quitting your degree affects your self-confidence.” Nevertheless, Mitchell was not exactly the first student to drop out during his first year at uni. Twenty to thirty per cent of all first-year students quit their degrees within one year.

Sanne van Herpen, an education researcher and consultant at Risbo, conducted a study on how Dutch students feel about the transition from secondary school to uni, “because the institution and the lecturers know that the transition is a challenge, but we don’t know exactly how students feel about it themselves.” Students are presented with more complicated subject matter and less supervision than they used to receive at school, while simultaneously finding themselves in a new environment where they enjoy much greater freedom.

Success and failure factors

It is hard to predict who will drop out and who won’t. First-year students who drop out may have made a well-informed decision to pick a particular degree programme, based on thorough research, or alternatively, they may have made a last-minute decision to pick that particular degree. Studies have shown that many factors play a part in drop-out and graduation rates. Van Herpen mainly looked at what students can do themselves to ensure success. The following factors are likely to increase a student’s chances of graduating: making a proper effort, self-confidence and contact with others.

Study advice by Sanne van Herpen: “As a student, you’re an active participant in your own degree. You’re out on the pitch, rather than watching the game from the stands or from the lecture theatre. If there’s something you don’t understand, please contact your fellow students and ask, what was that all about? Or contact your lecturer, or the study adviser. Be honest with them if you’re having difficulty getting to grips with the subject matter.”

According to Van Herpen’s PhD dissertation, students who didn’t work all that hard at school go on to do relatively little work during their first few months at university. ‘Untapped potential’, she calls these students. They either think that things are easy, so they don’t have to put in much work, or they simply don’t feel like making a proper effort. “The further removed the moment they will first be assessed, the longer they will continue to behave like that. If first-year students are given their first feedback by lecturers at an early stage, or if they have to sit their first exam soon after embarking on their degree, they will more quickly get an idea of how much work they are expected to put in and whether or not they need to change tack. But even then, a relatively large number of students in our sample passed that first testing moment without having to put in a serious effort.”

Students tend to be fairly convinced they are up to it at the start of the year. “If you ask students on arrival whether they believe they will successfully complete the first year of their degree, nearly all of them will say ‘yes’, because this is what they have chosen for themselves,” says Van Herpen. “Literature has shown that students will do a better job performing an assignment if they feel they are up to the task.” Her study showed that students’ self-confidence takes a hit during the first term. In such cases, the following factor may be beneficial: contact with others. Van Herpen encourages students not to be afraid to ask their fellow students or tutors for help. “From a pedagogic point of view it is good if there is a great deal of contact between the lecturers and the students, and between the students themselves.”

Study advice by Andrea Woltman: “Ask for help if you’re encountering any problems in your studies. Success is not a straight upward line; it always comes with ups and downs. Asking for help is not a bad thing. Actually, it shows you’re strong. So don’t hesitate to contact academic staff, your fellow students or other people.

“In addition, it’s vital that you have some fun and take your time to relax, on top of studying. Striking the right balance between studying and relaxation is a healthy way to complete your degree successfully and with a good degree of enjoyment.”

The degree programme with the lowest drop-out rate is Medicine. Whereas the national drop-out rate for most degree programmes has vacillated between 20 and 30 per cent for years, EUR’s Medicine degree only has a 10-percent drop-out rate. How come Erasmus MC is doing so well in this respect? “Medical students have a relatively good understanding of what they’re getting into,” explains Andrea Woltman, the coordinator of the Department of Medicine’s Bachelor’s degree. “Compared to wide-ranging degree programmes, a degree in medicine trains students for a relatively clearly defined profession. Many students have known for years that they wish to get this degree, meaning they are highly motivated. Few students are disappointed with the course contents.” Woltman also emphasises that, thanks to the strict entrance requirements, most of the students who embark on a degree in medicine are highly motivated. The requirements include high marks, relevant extracurricular activities at secondary school and study skill learning tests.

What can the university do?

Van Herpen’s study on the effectiveness of the Pre-Academic Programme showed that students benefit from a proper preparation for their new lives as university students.


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Moving stories and making friends: Students prepare for life at university

The 2019 Pre-academic Programme introduced new students to life at a research university,…

As in previous years, this year’s programme was nearly fully booked. Two hundred and fifty soon-to-be students worked on their self-confidence and communication skills. Such programmes can significantly improve students’ ability to use their talent, say Rowan Huijgen and Jorian Waleson, the programme organisers. “These are lessons you can keep on using for the rest of your life, about what kind of qualities you possess, how to deal with criticism, or how to give feedback. You learn to look beyond your own horizon. Basically, it’s a leadership programme.”

Changes to the curriculum

“Ideally, we would incorporate a programme such as the Pre-Academic Programme into the curriculum of all our degree programmes, but that is not feasible just yet,” says Waleson. “We do have lofty ambitions, though. We invite faculties to take part in the programme every year.” However, not all faculties are interested in joining at present.

Study advice by Jorian Waleson: “It’s important that you perform well in your studies, but what’s just as important is the following question: How am I going to develop my skills and personality? What is my spot on the horizon? What am I working towards? That in turn allows you to work on networking and getting to know people.”

Another obstacle identified by Van Herpen is the tension between teaching and research, the two core businesses of a university. “We must take lecturers’ didactic and educational tasks seriously, particularly in relation to first-year students. You can’t just throw students off the deep end. If you do so anyway, a few of them will always survive, but we will also lose a few students. That’s too bad, because we do want to give all of them the opportunity to do well.”

The researcher feels that EUR should ask itself a question: ‘Isn’t the system being overburdened?’ According to Van Herpen, it is vital to students’ chances of graduating that they be able to talk to their lecturers a lot. This is harder when the number of students taking a particular degree increases. “Aren’t we trying to serve too many students? And if we do actually wish to serve all of them, we must take a good, hard look at how to guarantee that we’re offering high-quality degrees. At the moment, we appear to have a poor balance between the number of available lecturers and the number of students, particularly in Bachelor’s degrees. Teaching methods such as problem-based learning and tutorials do improve matters, but ideally, students and lecturers would be in touch very regularly, and it would be easy for them to contact each other. This improves the feedback students are provided with, which helps them improve their academic performance. ”