The pandemic chips away at ETH student satisfaction

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Most of ETH’s students remain satisfied but the pandemic has left its mark

Most of ETH’s students remain satisfied but the pandemic has left its mark. (Photograph: ETH Zürich)

A survey of ETH students finds that just 62 percent are satisfied with their studies, down from 82 percent in 2015. However, ETH has improved on many specific issues, such as teaching.

The majority is satisfied: 62 percent of students said they are satisfied or even very satisfied with their studies at ETH. Another 27 percent are undecided and 12 percent are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied.

These are the results of a survey that ETH conducted in April. Between 13 and 25 April, an outside firm contacted 17,876 Bachelor’s and Master’s students, and nearly 7,600 responded to the online survey. Continuing education students and doctoral students were not included.

ETH had asked students once before about how satisfied they were with their studies, back in 2015. At that time, the overall level of satisfaction was higher: 82 percent said they were very satisfied or satisfied, 14 percent were undecided and only 5 percent were dissatisfied.

Regula Christen, Head of Student Services at ETH, organised the survey on behalf of the Rector. The results do not surprise her: "We expected a decline in satisfaction given the current conditions. However, the survey is there primarily to identify warning signs and unseen developments. Fortunately, we’re not seeing anything like that. The problems the survey highlights are ones we were already aware of."

Pandemic causes motivation to ebb

The reason for the decreased satisfaction is obvious, and the survey shows it to be true: students’ personal situations suffered in the pandemic and for many, it interfered with their academic work.

Only 57 percent agree with the statement that they can devote themselves adequately to their studies despite the pandemic. Of those who disagree, four out of five feel a lack of motivation and an equal number miss interacting with other students.

Sarah Springman, Rector of ETH Zurich, says: "We realise that the pandemic and long periods without contact with their peers weigh heavily on our students. This has put some of them in very difficult situations. That’s another reason why it was so important to us to be able to start on-site classes again this semester."

A total of 792 students, or 13 percent, agree only partially, somewhat, or not at all with the statement that their state of health allows them to devote adequate time to their studies. Of these, the majority again report suffering from temporary psychological stress.

The various counselling services at ETH offered help and support to those in difficult situations, and the majority of those who used them found them very helpful. However, awareness of the counselling centres varies widely.

Good teaching, too little time

Most of the students rate the teaching at ETH positively: despite remote learning, 79 percent say they attend the lectures they are enrolled in. A full 78 percent say that lecturers are available to answer questions outside of class, and 74 percent agree with the statement that studying at ETH Zurich hones their abilities to think critically and consider various viewpoints. Agreement with that last point has increased since 2015.

Students are still struggling with time management: only 43 percent feel that the time required for their studies is appropriate, while just 35 percent agree that the number of credits is commensurate with the effort required. And only 30 percent feel they have enough time to prepare for and follow up on classes. A whole 68 percent say they do not have enough holiday time to return to class refreshed afterwards. The current academic calendar, in which exam periods extend until close to the start of the new semester, is also criticised by many in the open-ended comments section.

Springman says, "We see a clear need for action here. The academic year has already been the topic of discussion at major strategy meetings with departments, faculty and students. This year’s teaching retreat included defining initial alternative designs for the academic year."

She went on to say that solutions already exist - or are in the works - for other challenges that the survey brought to light. For example, there are plans to improve the profile and awareness of the counselling centres. With regard to studying under time pressure - for example, for the first-year examinations - there are good workshops. ETH already encourages its students to seek help for mental health problems as part of a large-scale campaign.

Respectful interactions at ETH

A large majority of respondents (92 percent) experience respectful treatment at ETH, and 89 percent say their study environment is "free of discrimination that diminishes a person’s dignity". However, a quarter of students are at best only partially convinced that a complaint will be handled appropriately, and just under half are certain which offices will provide them with assistance in the event of discrimination in their degree programme.

The sense of belonging remains: 83 percent of respondents are proud to study at ETH and 84 percent said they feel welcome at the university. In addition, the majority of students also give the administrative processes a positive rating - an assessment that has actually improved since 2015.

Creating scope and improving communication

Incidentally, students also saw some positive effects from the pandemic: according to the survey, a majority would like to see some remote learning or hybrid courses in future as well, as this increases flexibility and allows everyone to learn the material at their own pace. In addition, students appreciate having recordings of the classes.

Michael Walther

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