News - October 11, 2007

Professor doesn’t dare ask difficult questions

Chemistry professor Gerard Fleer no longer dares to ask difficult questions in exams. In his farewell speech on Thursday 4 October, he said that students are increasingly bad at maths. Further, teachers are under pressure not to fail too many students during exams.

‘As has everyone, I too have seen many changes in education. The level of entering students, especially in mathematics, has undeniably decreased.’ According to Fleer, the university’s quality system encourages teachers to give easy exams. If too many students fail, teachers have to justify themselves before the Education Committee. ‘In the past ten years, I have no longer dared to ask the more difficult questions in an exam because I had to be sure that enough students would pass. Otherwise, you exceed the signalling effect or, worse yet, the attention effect, and then you’re in trouble with the Education Committee.’ Fleer thinks that the pressure on teachers is logical. Since universities are paid on the basis of the number of diplomas they award, if they fail students then they cut off their own nose.

Fleer, who emphasized that he very much enjoyed teaching, has lectured on various subjects in his career, including chemical thermodynamics and general and physical chemistry. Subjects that are followed especially by students from the more fundamental sciences such as molecular sciences and biotechnology. Fleer: ‘Molecular scientists used to distinguish themselves from other students by making higher marks, but that is no longer the case.’ Fleer also notes that increasingly fewer students are concerned about the mistakes they make in their exams. ‘They’re delighted with just a passing grade and don’t bother to see what they did wrong.’ Fleer has no easy solution. ‘The problem is connected to all of the changes in Dutch education. As a university, you can’t do much about the situation. But I thought it was a good idea to broach the subject.’