It was already clear that after the pandemic, there were fewer students in the lecture halls. However, lecturers have also noticed that fewer students are attending tutorials. Concerning, they think. ‘Students who do not attend tutorials often get lower grades for their exams.’
‘We started a first-year course this year with 28 tutorials, of which we had to cancel six because not enough students showed up,’ says Maarten den Heijer, associate professor of international law and coordinator of that course in the first year of law school. He sees a slight decrease in the number of students coming to tutorials after the pandemic.
This is concerning, he thinks. ‘We see a clear correlation between students who attend their study groups and who pass their exams. Students who do not attend study groups often have lower grades for their exams.’
It is clear that after the pandemic, students find it difficult to go to physical lectures. ‘After corona, many lectures can be watched via a livestream and recordings are also put online longer because of possible quarantine of students and lecturers with corona,’ says a UvA spokesperson. ‘Although attendance and active participation is sometimes part of a grade in tutorials, some lecturers are noticing less attendance there either.’
Coming to tutorials has become an option
‘Student absences are of all times,’ says David Hollanders, lecturer in European studies. ‘And it's also of all times that lecturers marvel at students who don't show up. But the subtle but visible shift I see after corona is different. Where attendance used to be a starting point and the norm, it now seems to be an option.’
That attendance is an option, Hollanders sees in the way students deal with their attendance. ‘Sometimes students mail a question about a lecture they did not attend. You can see from that that students are no longer trying to shove it under the table that they are not coming. Before, they used to apologize when they weren't there.’
Hollanders does not see a very strong decrease in attendance at tutorials, but there is a 10 to 20 percent lower attendance than before corona. At the Faculty of Humanities, where he teaches, there is no attendance requirement, so students can basically go and come whenever they want.
At the Faculty of Law, there is also no attendance requirement for most courses. If students do not show up at the tutorials, they can still take the exam, but they are no longer admitted to the rest of the tutorials of the course. Den Heijer sees that in law, student attendance is ‘historically a concern. So low attendance in tutorials and lectures is not new. But after corona, we are seeing an estimated 25 to 30 percent drop across the board in student attendance during tutorials.’
How does this come about? Den Heijer mentions three explanations. First, online education is still offered because of corona. Second, staying at home has become easier. ‘That can also be seen in business - employees are less likely to go to the office.’ Third, the new course registration system Glass, which has been used at law since early 2022, did not yet work optimally. ‘Students could only choose to a limited extent which parts of the day they were not available due to other commitments, which meant that their study groups might be scheduled on days they could not attend. We have now broadened that.’
Den Heijer wants to ‘not speak of disaster.’ ‘I think this trend was also playing out before corona. But also I think it has been reinforced by the pandemic.’
The Faculty of Social & Behavioral Sciences has an attendance requirement for many courses, and their teachers do not seem to see the trend. If students miss one or two tutorials, they are excluded from the course and are not allowed to take the exam.
David Feenstra, lecturer in anthropology does see that the attitude of students has changed. Before the pandemic students were sometimes absent. And often under the pretent that they are “sick”. That has changed now. Students have become much more direct. They are now more willing to say the real reason they are not here, such as that they have gone skiing in Switzerland. And then they ask me, “what about my absences, can I miss another study group?”’
Feenstra sees students trying to plan their study schedule around their other commitments, and now there seems to be more room for that. This, he says, is partly due to online education. ‘If students didn't actually want to be in a Zoom tutorials, they could turn off their camera. They've learned in that time how flexible studying can be, and they're keeping that flexibility in.’
Importance of physical education
Feenstra thinks it's logical for students to try to adapt the university's schedule to their work. ‘Life in Amsterdam is expensive, and students often have to work a lot. That is difficult to reconcile with the lecture schedule, so it is understandable that students watch the lecture back in their own time.’ Yet he also finds it double. ‘Studying at university is not just consuming knowledge. It also requires a certain presence, so that students can produce knowledge together with lecturers. Studying is also self-enrichment. So in that sense, I would like students to be on campus as much as possible anyway.’
Hollanders sees the importance of on-campus tutorials in particular, also because they are usually not recorded. ‘You can watch the lectures online, but the tutorials are not recorded. So if students miss them, they miss part of the material. And if they don't come to the tutorials, they miss the interaction with fellow students and lecturers about the material. If they don't feel like going to the study group one day, I advise them to make up an excuse and not to tell the real reason.’
Within the anthropology department, the team thinks the solution is to make students more committed to the university. Feenstra: ‘We want to emphasize the sense of belonging and give students the feeling that they belong here, within the university, the faculty and with each other. This is also done by better enforcement of absences. And we want to help students, especially freshmen, understand that knowledge is not just to be consumed, but that physical presence and talking about the material with each other is important for knowledge production. It's that awareness that we're trying to work on.’