Sometimes the Dutch live up to their stereotypes and perhaps they are far too relaxed when it comes to examinations. It is currently mid-way through midterms and thankfully I had my two midterms this morning, but my workload is still hell. I may come back to this later. However, ever since a discussion at the beginning of the week about high school exams, I feel that I have to make this fact about the Dutch system more publicly known.
UCU, and it’s mother university Universiteit Utrecht, is ranked in the top 50 universities in the world. But perhaps they are not in the top 50 in the way they carry out their exam procedures. Here I will list a few points that may give the students of UCU an unfair advantage when it comes to what grades they obtain.
1. Anonymity. You’d think that this was an obvious thing to have when handling exams wouldn’t you? I mean that is the only real use for our student numbers at Exeter and we have those here too so it makes sense to use that rather than your name. It doesn’t take a genius to see (and there are many experiments that show) that markers can easily be biased when they know who’s writing a paper (even when they think they are not). They don’t even have to know you personally to be biased – and at UCU (with maximum class size of 28) it’s pretty likely they will know everyone’s name in the class. Just knowledge of gender can influence marking. When it has even been shown that such superficial things as your handwriting can sway the mark awarded for a piece of work, openly telling an examiner who you are makes bias (intentional or unintentional) almost impossible to avoid.
2. Examination layout. When you sit your GCSEs, A levels or most exams in the UK you generally get taken to a new room that isn’t your classroom and are sat on a single desk. Yet UCU does not believe in this simple way to prevent cheating. Most of the time your exam is in the same room as your class with the seats in the same layout i.e. a horseshoe shape facing the board. This means even quite an unsubtle person can look at their neighbour to copy their notes and I’m sure most people actually do. If you are stuck on a question and the person next to you is scribbling away happily then most people will be tempted to at least try to see what they have written. I don’t see how you couldn’t.
3. Examination procedure. Now some of the things in the UK I think are a bit over the top in the examination world, such as taking the labels off of your water bottle in case there are notes on it, and the absurd (even I don’t understand why) rule about having to take you hat off while at Exeter. But being allowed to have your bag by your desk, being allowed to leave the exam room and come back, and what’s more having the teacher leave the room during the exam – making the room unsupervised – is just a little too lax. I am quite unsure why people get to leave and come back so if someone could enlighten me on this fact it would be appreciated.
My view on this point had been strengthened when people came back from their stats exam which was held in the educatorium (what a silly name for a building) off-campus at the Uithof. Here the procedure was much more like the exams at Exeter and to hear people complain about it was odd. The main complaint was on the subject of ID cards. The examiners at the Uithof expected everyone to have their ID cards on the desk when they were writing their exam – a standard procedure at Exeter. But being UCU (where most people don’t even have a picture of themselves on their student card – though strangely mine does have a picture) people hadn’t brought them. In my eyes it makes sense to do this, to make sure the person who claims to be Sarah is actually Sarah. Perhaps UCU is okay as the class room size is so small it would be much harder for someone to write your exam for you, but it is something I had forgotten happened at home.
The deception went deeper as for the stats exam they were obviously allowed calculators. However they were allowed to use graphical calculators – something that every Dutch student has – rather than in the UK, where I’m sure most people haven’t even seen one. Basically they are big chunky things which have many functions, including being able to draw graphs – which is handy. However they also have a huge memory in which you can input all your notes for an exam. For maths at Exeter we are not allowed these – full stop. Our scientific ones have to be on a list of approved calculators and before we sit the exam we have to go to the exams office and get a little gold sticker put on it to show it is approved. However no approval of calculators was needed for this exam and even though the examiners said they would check all calculators I’m sure most can still sneak them through. Plus the graphical calculators even have a statistics mode which I’m sure people could have made great use of.
As the confessions came out over the lunch table I learned that this graphical calculator business had been going on for years with everyone confessing to having notes in there for their secondary school exams. I further learned that teachers at their schools even knew this was the case and did nothing about it. I continued learning that they all had their own elaborate schemes for telling each other the answers by hand gestures and leg placements. Shame on you Dutchies!
4. Assignments. The main problems here, not including lack of anonymity which I have already mentioned, is word count and hand-in time. The first is not true of all classes here, as in social psychology I was explicitly told that you had to put your word count on the piece of paper and were not allowed to be over it. However in most classes students do not adhere to this rule.
In psychology at Exeter I am told at least once every year the word limit, is the limit. Many students have the idea of the “10% rule”, which means you can go over the word count by 10% – but I am also being repeatedly told this is not the case. Yet here they don’t seem to mind even that much and people hand in work that is over by much greater then 10%.
For instance, my group evolution paper was meant to be 1000 words…
“By the way guys, it’s quite over the word count”
“It’s more than 10%”
“It’s fine – they’re lenient on word count here”.
And how lenient! My friend, who had an essay of 500 words, said one student handed in the same assignment with over 700 words. “It’s just an extra paragraph”, they said, “without that end paragraph it wouldn’t make sense”. But the task is to do it in so many words, then the challenge is to do it in so many words. It is definitely an unfair advantage to go over the word count by 40%!
Concerning hand-in time, the rule at Exeter is very precise – you have to give your work in electronically and if your work is late by one second then you get a zero for that assignment. It’s clear cut. It seems crazily unfair, but everyone knows the rule and that’s how it works. However I am astonished to hear that people are able to hand in work hours, days and sometimes weeks after the hand-in date and still have it accepted. Another part of the challenge of an essay is time management, so why should other people in your class be allowed to spend extra time on their work than you? People are even proud when they have done this “I managed to hand my work in only an hour past the deadline this time”. To my ears there should be some king of a penalty for this or the rules should be made more explicit.
So what do I think about this? Personally I am unaware that I have suffered from poorer grades because of this system, but then again I wouldn’t really know as favouritism by teachers is not likely to come out (especially as they’d be adamant they were not biased – but, as I said above, unconscious bias is possible, even probable) and when people get extensions on their work the class is not made aware of that fact, so I would not be able to compare given grades. I also haven’t received my evolution paper back to know if it has been penalised or not for being over the word count.
However I would suggest that some people do fall foul of this system and furthermore are probably unaware of it. Maybe UCU is too trusting of it students not too cheat (I am very tempted to do this given that it appears to be so easy and the teacher doesn’t pay that much attention to the class!) and perhaps they are too trusting of their staff not to be biased? Perhaps UCU should consider changing their ways of being laid-back and tighten up their act.
Maybe it’s the case that the Dutch are more trusting of people and the UK we are more distrusting? It might be similar to the fact that the Dutch (even a big institution like UU and UCU) seem much less aware of credit card fraud and do not take the precautions we routinely do in the UK.