The dangers of the Dutch grading culture
There is a moment international students share when they receive their first grade at a Dutch university. Probably a 6 out of 10, maybe even just a little bit above 5,5? Panic settles in, you probably look around, and the Dutch students shrug in indifference. Perhaps the professor even has ‘good job!’ written on the corner in red ink. In the Netherlands, a 10 is the highest grade to exist, but an 8 is really the highest grade you can get—9 if you’re a real overachiever.
‘As an overachiever, it does frustrate me a bit’
For the students who grew up with this grading system, viewing a 7 out of 10 as ‘great work!’ is the norm. But can this affect those who aren’t accustomed to this culture? Erasmus student, Dimitra Angelaki, says that she ‘had gotten information from previous Erasmus students from my university that have come to Radboud.’ Even with that warning, it was disappointing receiving grades in the Netherlands because she kept comparing it to her standards.
Alexandra Maiuga, international Bachelor student says that she was told from the beginning that nobody gets a 10 in Dutch universities. However, it was confusing once she delivered great papers that she worked hard on, only to receive a 7,5 accompanied by really encouraging feedback. To her, the kind of effort she put in and the response she received translated to a high grade, yet it is still far from a full score.
Radboud University, of course, has professors from various backgrounds. So, is this issue merely present at our university in particular, or is this an issue built around cultural differences?
At Radboud, Maiuga takes a variety of courses such as American and British Literature, Arts and Culture, and Linguistics. All of her professors are Dutch except for one German and ‘they all seem to be holding back with grades,’ she says. ‘Many assume we’ll know what they expect, even though some of us are new here. Also, some are very detailed with feedback, while others are vague. It would be nice to have more consistency and better feedback from everyone.’
The Dutch have a habit of staying amidst the comfortable and average
There is also, of course, the culture of normalcy amongst the Dutch. Doe normaal (‘be normal’) or doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg (‘be ordinary and you will be crazy enough’) are famous sayings that reflect the Dutch habit of staying amidst the comfortable and average, which could be a reason why certain professors view 7 as a good grade.
Angelaki supposes that the university wants to push students to work harder. Maiuga guesses that this grading culture might exist due to the fact that the university views a 10 as work that surpasses all expectations, which would not happen for the normal, average student. ‘As an overachiever, it does frustrate me a bit,’ she says. This is understandable since a 10 is still a viable option on the grading scale, yet it seems to be completely unattainable at our university.
For Maiuga, the grading system does not have a detrimental effect. It is frustrating that she can never get a 10, but she has more anxiety over the fact that ‘it is not enough to barely pass in the Netherlands, you have to go beyond that.’ Although her grades do not affect her too much, it does make her question what value her grades hold at all, since it seems that a grade ‘holds as much value as we place on it.’
Nevertheless, Angelaki experiences it differently as an Erasmus student as she says that ‘the grading system has caused me a lot of stress.’ She was required to apply to six courses, thus causing a heavy workload. Because it is also her last semester, she has ‘to pass most of the classes with at least a 7 so as not to ruin my average. The average is not that important for work, but I need it to apply for my master’s in Greece.’
As a result, she has been stressed due to her fixation on maintaining her average. Back home, she was able to achieve a 7 with half as much work as needed here, so it has heavily affected her sleep patterns and stress level—causing some health issues. ‘The issue is it would not have mattered if I was a permanent student here. But as an Erasmus student, the system here can be very frustrating since it will inevitably have to clash with my home university,’ she says.