When students first start their career at a university, most of them have a strong intrinsic motivation to learn a lot about the subject of their choice and to do well as a student. They chose a subject they love, often went through an enduring application procedure and pay a lot of money for their studies.
Even though I have no scientific proof for this, and this is just based on my personal experience and the experience of many other students from my study program (the international bachelor of psychology) I can confidently say: most students are good. Most students try their best to follow all instructions, most students follow the rules, most students put an extensive amount of effort into their studies, most students are eager and honest.
Tremendous lack of support
However, over the course of the first year of university, many of us experienced that the organizational system of the university has flaws, and in addition to suffering from that we experienced a deep level of distrust in us and a tremendous lack of support by the university. Not only during the Corona crisis, which led to big changes and challenges for all of us and makes some degree of chaos understandable, but also already before Corona began to influence our lives.
There were several cases in which a mistake was made by the system of the university, for which then students were blamed and were the ones to feel the consequences. For instance, the university lost the answer sheet of a test of one of my fellow students and then suspected him to have taken it and made him retake the test.
A similar thing happened to another friend of mine with her exam answer sheet. In addition, the tests of two people I know were mixed up, leading one person to believe they did not pass even though they did. And that is not all: the university has expressed suspicions about plagiarism to certain students that are impossible.
Despite it being no wonder that results in exams are similar if over 250 people are answering the same questions, despite it being the system in which the answer sheets got lost and the results got mixed up, many students are suspected of wrongdoings immediately.
The students are already standing under a lot of pressure, and experiencing such accusations, experiencing how powerless one is with respect to the system of the university, experiencing how randomly these things can happen to anyone, and that regardless of how much effort one puts in, regardless of how well one follows the rules, these suspicions and events can happen to any student, is not only extremely demotivating but also shocking, tiring, overwhelming, unsettling. And not once have I heard of an apology by the university for the experiences which the students are put through.
Additionally, at first sight there seem to be many possibilities for students to seek support at the university. However, a lot of students experienced that their requests and mails were being ignored, some never got an answer to any of their mails to certain contact persons. Especially during the corona crisis this left some of us unable to reach out for support or to initiate change, even if we felt that it was urgently necessary. Many of us felt left alone.
Now you might ask yourselves where I am going with listing all these experiences. What I do not want to do is blaming any one specific person, especially as I do not believe that there is one person to blame. However, while thinking of these stories I got the feeling that all of them somehow connect to some underlying flaws in the system of the university, which lead students to suffer and deserve attention.
Climate of distrust
All these stories reminded me of a book I recently read by Rutger Bregman, De Meeste Mensen Deugen – which would roughly translate to “most people are virtuous” (the English version is called: Humankind, a hopefull history). Bregman established the hypothesis that most people are intrinsically good beings, while most societal systems are built on the belief that they are not.
The experiences that some of us have made fit that hypothesis very well. Most of us are good students, trying their best to achieve a good performance. However, when a mishap happens due to the system of the university, we are the ones who are suspected, we are believed to be bad, or at least worse than we actually are. There is a very persistent climate of distrust toward us students. Many experiences and experiments in the past have shown that a climate of trust leads us to be better people that a climate of distrust can. Don’t you want us to be better students?
Additionally, the phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecies is well established in the field of psychology. It has been shown for instance, that if teachers were made to believe that certain students that were chosen at random had a higher IQ than others, these students ended up thriving more than the others did.
Could the expectation that students are prone to cheating, the suspicions that we are met with, the distrust and the lack of support work in the opposite direction?
It is certainly not an easy task to change one’s profoundly manifested conception of students. And it might be especially hard to doubt the system of the university instead of the students for those who have worked at the university for years, whose lives are build on it and rely on trust in the system. However, it still is a train of thought that has to get going.
I believe that increasing the trust in students could not only lead them to have a better student experience than some of us did, but it might even lead them to achieve higher results, be more innovative with their ideas, and to maybe become terrific scientists at the university one day themselves.
Carla Maló Calmus studies psychology.