Not all students had a negative experience. Several students expressed their gratitude for their university or faculty’s ability to switch quickly to online teaching. One ESHPM student indicated that online features such as discussion forums and videos were used well in most of the courses. An EMC student indicated that she had been able to replace her work placement (which had been cancelled) with MOOCs at the suggestion of her programme coordinators.
Lack of direct contact
A lack of personal or face-to-face contact was the most common cause of complaints. Students felt it was harder to contact lecturers and thesis-writing supervisors or ask them questions. Many students stated that online learning felt like an incomplete substitute for their regular studies. “My student life ended with my having to defend my thesis on a screen”, one sad RSM student stated.
This reduced ability to interact constituted a particularly significant problem for students doing degree programmes that largely revolve around seminars and problem-based learning. Most seminars were taught on Zoom, but EUC, ESHCC and ESSB students all indicated that they felt online discussions did nothing to aid their learning process. “I have felt immensely frustrated in many instances when I felt like I was the only one participating in class, to the point that I did not dare to speak out anymore because I felt like I was the only one. Some students did not use their webcams and basically skipped the class in a sense”, one student said.
Students also missed talking to their fellow students. “Not only because of the social aspects, but because students will help each other when we all think an assignment is difficult. Now when you’re taking a course where you don’t know anyone, that’s quite hard”, an RSM student wrote.
Students do think that learning has become more flexible during the coronavirus crisis. Furthermore, they love being able to rewind their online lectures, or hit ‘pause’ so that they can take notes. One RSM student said that he finds it easier to focus now that he can watch his lectures at double speed. “It’s so much more efficient than it used to be. Frankly, I’d rather not return to campus. What a waste of time that was.”
The exams administered during the coronavirus pandemic did not pass muster with the students, either. They were given an average score of 5.0. Many online exams were plagued by technical issues related to examination and proctoring software. Some assessments were modified for online administration. For instance, students were given open-book examinations and take-home exams more often, which did, however, come with more difficult questions. In addition to proctoring, exams were given a shorter run time to prevent students from looking up answers or passing answers on to each other. This was also the reason why many students could not revisit a question once they had answered it.
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Several students told us that they found the proctoring software a distraction, for instance because they were afraid they’d lose their connection or that their staring would be flagged as cheating. Furthermore, some students disliked having their privacy breached without any kind of alternative being offered.
Nevertheless, some students didn’t mind sitting exams at home at all. Several students told us they felt open-book examinations helped them deepen their knowledge of a subject because the exams weren’t quite so focused on the reproduction of facts. An ESL student was particularly happy with the online exams: “This is what exams should always be like! After all, isn’t real life about how you apply knowledge, as well?”
Stress and loneliness
The survey showed that many students experienced a higher level of stress during the coronavirus crisis. Quite a few students said they felt insecure about the nature of their upcoming exams and whether they would earn enough credits to be admitted to Year 2 or the Master’s degree of their choice. Several international students were suddenly told to return home, or were concerned about their relatives.
A few students indicated that the rescheduling or postponement of exams had caused them to experience more pressure and had also resulted in their having a shorter summer holiday. One ESL student had the feeling that she never was on top of things. “We embarked on one term’s subject matter before we’d even sat the exam for the previous term.”
Medical students, in particular, indicated that their workload had increased to unacceptable levels due to the coronavirus crisis. “Classes that should have been taught over the course of five months are now being crammed into a month and a half”, one of them explained.
Many students also said they were having a hard time remaining motivated. Due to the coronavirus crisis, students have had to engage in much more independent study than usual. One ESPhil student indicated that it was hard to be disciplined in a study that doubles as your bedroom. However, some students did say that they’d had more time to study or relax due to the fact that they no longer had to travel to campus.
International students who decided to stay in the Netherlands often felt lonely during quarantine. However, many Dutch students also indicated that they had made fewer friends than expected due to the coronavirus crisis. Some of them said they felt they weren’t getting the proper student experience due to the closure of clubs and the cancellation of major events. “You know, the very things that student life is all about, other than your studies, obviously”, said an ESE student.
One notable result of the survey was that international students were much more likely than Dutch students to claim they had fallen behind in their studies due to the coronavirus outbreak. About half of international students claimed to have fallen behind, versus a quarter of Dutch students. Nearly half the medical students who took the survey said that they had fallen behind in their studies. Some EMC Master’s students were not taught any classes for ten weeks.
Concerned about the future
60 per cent of respondents indicated that they are concerned about the quality of the teaching they will receive in the upcoming academic year. More than half the respondents said they are afraid they would fall behind in their studies. Strangely enough, international students proved to be less concerned about this than Dutch students. However, they are more concerned than Dutch students about an impending financial crisis or reduced job opportunities after getting their degree. “If I go tell my future employer that I got my degree during corona, they will say, ‘Oh, so you watched some videos on how to do the job’”, one RSM student wrote. A fellow student of his added: “Getting a degree currently feels like a ridiculously expensive Netflix subscription plan.” Dutch students, too, fear that their ‘coronavirus degrees’ will be less valuable – for instance, because they are aware that students can cheat during their exams.
Some international students who returned to their home countries are still unsure whether they will return to Rotterdam in the upcoming academic year. Many of them have no idea what percentage of classes will be allowed to be taught on campus come September.
Rector magnificus Rutger Engels’ response to the results of EM’s survey:
“Since March we have transformed all education into online only. Some groups are more affected by the current situation than others. There are students with serious problems, who cannot learn at home, who are very stressed or worry about their career. Lecturers have made an enormous effort to continue education and to prevent study delays. Student-teacher contact remains very important. By being more on campus from 1 September – where possible – the experience for students will improve.”
About this survey
692 students took Erasmus Magazine’s survey between 25 June and 6 July. The respondents answered questions about their experiences with online education and exams, their living situation and financial situation and how they look at the coming academic year. The respondents’ male/female ratio, the faculty representation ratio and the international/Dutch student ratio were comparable to EUR’s overall student population.