A Voice for the Majority

Bright students, the kind that populate programs like Econometrics, often begin their university studies having developed a sense for sticking through difficult courses, never questioning if their potential struggles therein are just that - their own - or whether they are in fact shared by their fellow classmates. Yes, they often see the results of various course-end evaluations, but these are often compromised by poor participation rates, where even those that do reply are either particularly disgruntled or especially satisfied with a given course. When this occurs, the student teacher feedback mechanism that teachers and program administrators so keenly rely upon to improve their craft ends up faltering, unintentionally omitting the most helpful voices to hear. This silent majority consists of the students in the middle of the satisfaction spectrum, those who are neither ecstatically pleased nor dismally disappointed with a given course, but it is precisely these students whose voices should end up bearing the most impact for pedagogical improvements. 

but it is precisely [the silent majority] students whose voices should end up bearing the most impact for pedagogical improvements.

It was in this spirit that I decided to apply for the Econometrics Programme Committee, officially representing the Data Science track (but generally hoping to improve matters for the entire program at-large), to allow me to have greater input into this inefficient feedback system. As a 39-year-old former career educator myself who is also now a second-year student in EDS, I felt I was uniquely positioned to help bridge the divide between the teachers (many of whom are likely my age or younger!) and my fellow classmates. 

Thus, I began with a soft-redesign of the evaluation method, with heavy emphasis on both the fact that my inquiry into student satisfaction levels was to be independent of the administration itself, and that this re-envisioning of course evaluations was meant to empower students to actually help steer the course of their program, ideally for their time in the study, but if not, to at least have meaningful reverberations for upcoming enrollment cohorts. 

To help emphasize these goals, I included with my messaging about the survey an informal YouTube introduction video where I tried to make my case for why this new trial-run for surveys had the power to make real change, and to encourage the average student in the program to actually participate this time around. Whether this helped much or not is uncertain, but I believe it was a solid first step into trying to reach more students and increase participation rates: as with much of this trial run, much could be improved upon, but we have to start somewhere! Despite all these efforts, I only managed to acquire a low sample size of 33 respondents, but the input I did receive definitely proved interesting and leaves me with faith that a shake-up like this could still end up being quite useful, if only we can find a more effective means of surveying the student body. 

Preliminaries 
It should be noted that the 50-question survey was rather long, and many fields had optional open comment boxes, so this might have been to the detriment of the response/completion rate. Also, while the survey did in fact focus on many broad topics related to the program, it was also intended as a formal stand-in for the administration’s actual end-evaluations since their old system was in a transitional state to a newer one, and us Programme Committee members were asked to come up with a temporary means for gathering feedback until that new system was up and-running. As such, much of the survey centered around gathering feedback for individual Periods 1-2 courses/teachers, most of which I’ll leave out here, as individual teacher assessment isn’t the primary goal of my inquiry. Finally, while it is inevitable that the Covid-19 lockdown heavily impacted the responses in the survey, it is ultimately my intention to look beyond the temporary setbacks caused by the pandemic and instead focus on the issues that were already present beforehand, as I still believe there is much to be refined in the Econometrics program, if not at the School of Business & Economics or Vrije Universiteit in general. 

Hot-Topics 
To begin, I knew upfront that I wanted to take advantage of the independent nature of my survey design and thus ask questions that most-likely the administration might feel were beyond its self interests or that might be seen as somehow unprofessional (were they to ask). 

Roughly 66% of respondents felt that they did deserve some amount of rebate.

One such issue was whether or not students (and their parents) felt they deserved some amount of tuition rebate given the limitations on teaching efficacy inherent to the lockdown. Roughly 66% of respondents felt that they did deserve some amount of rebate, and though this clearly impacts non-EU international students more, a number of Dutch students were amongst this majority. That said, three respondents explicitly commented in favor of the fairness of the current rates despite the lockdown, one of which felt very strongly that Dutch students have no place asking for a discount when they are already getting a great deal to begin with. 

Another topic that most-likely the administration would address was whether or not students would have foregone going to university in the first place had they known Covid was coming, but to my surprise, the two most common responses were that they were either mildly uninterested in this sentiment’s implications, or even more strongly, that they had absolutely no interest in pausing their education. Running contrary to this though is the average rating of a 5.9 (out of 10) given in response to how well students thought our teachers had adapted to the challenges of teaching remotely, so perhaps the instinct not to have paused their education has less to do with the negative impacts on learning and more to do with simply not wanting to delay moving on to the next stage of their lives. 

One final question built around redesigning the way three year programs work in general was whether or not students would have been interested in an optional pre-Bachelor’s prep year to have better established some of the general concepts we regularly use in our program, including things like higher-mathematical notation, greater familiarization and practice with proofs (before Analysis), introductory statistics built much more towards intuition (much like the practical statistics courses taken by science majors), and elementary programming courses (as programming education came up as a frequent complaint amongst many students). Roughly 39% of students said they would in fact be interested in such an optional pre-Bachelor’s, and though this runs contrary to how Dutch research universities are supposed to structure their degree programs, seeing as a pre-Bachelor’s would be an opt-in precursor year, I feel it would be worth the system looking into, even if just for a handful of high-difficulty programs. 

Remaining Findings 
Regarding tutorials, on a 1 to 10 scale, students gave a 7.6 average preference for tutorials to resume being weekly for all classes (after having mysteriously becoming every-other-week at the start of this school year) and for tutorials to be offered in-person as soon as possible, even if lectures would need to remain online-only. Fortunately, the school seems to be taking first steps into resolving the in-person tutorial issue, so there is some light at the end of the tunnel there. 

In another segment of the survey, I supplied a list of ten potential improvements to pedagogical practices at-large within the Econometrics program and asked respondents to tick any boxes they thought would make a notably positive impact on their time in the study. These suggestions included (in order of popularity): more real-life examples and/or graphs/visualizations of abstract ideas (63%), shifting focus from exams to a more holistic understanding of what’s really going on with a given subject (58%), supplemental video content and/or links to quality YouTube channels (58%), less of a teach-yourself-to-code approach with programming (52%), either making more use of our textbooks or doing away with referencing them entirely since they barely get used (48%), more frequently-graded quizzes/exercises to help keep students on-task (36%), a course preparing students for abstract notation/concepts (36%), establishing a mentor/buddy system of older students for first-years (27%), and more one-on-one time with teachers (24%). 

Concluding Remarks 
In a survey with 50 questions and no fewer than 328 written-in free-response comments (in addition to the easy-to-answer ratings included on many questions), three pages of a Word document are hardly enough to capture the passion with which even these mere 33 respondents reacted to this initial attempt at reinventing our student-teacher feedback mechanism in the Econometrics program. While this survey may still suffer (despite my best efforts) from the Yelp review effect (where only very positive/negative responses are recorded), I am confident that if we as a department were to find a way to give more voice to the students who fear addressing their concerns and/or suggestions for improvements in the end-of-course evaluations due to lack of impact or value, we would see similar results. 

As I stated at the outset of this article, I firmly believe that smart students simply aren’t accustomed to airing their complaints/suggestions, instead being resigned to just plow through their study, but I ask whether or not this justifies not doing everything within the power of the administration and faculty to further improve their offerings nonetheless. In short, improving systemic shortcomings is always a team effort, and it’s an endeavor I intend to continue to fight for for the length of my time here at the VU. Here’s to a better Econometrics program for teachers and students alike!

I firmly believe that smart students simply aren’t accustomed to airing their complaints/suggestions, [...], but I ask whether or not this justifies not doing everything within the power of the administration and faculty to further improve their offerings nonetheless.

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