The Expectation of Academic Independence

By Kira Guehring | August 30, 2021

Student studying for exams by watching recorded lectures. Divyashree Muruganandam, The Amsterdammer.

Campus reporter Kira Guehring discusses the increased pressure for academic independence when adjusting to the university lifestyle, particularly during the pandemic.

For many first year students, the transition from high school to university represents a step towards independence. It represents the freedom for them to do whatever they want, when they want. However, this is not everyone’s reality. Living at home, being financially dependent on others or being pushed towards a certain career path can all reduce feelings of independence. 

These examples are commonly associated with the personal independence gained through pursuing higher education, but also more broadly the time after graduating high school. There is however an aspect to independence that is unique to higher education and an integral part to getting a degree: academic independence. 

While some universities follow a structure similar to that of secondary school, this is often dependent on the classes one takes and the overall structure of the program. The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) sets out a certain number of hours needed to receive necessary credits, and at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) only a fraction of those hours are made up of class time. This requires a lot of independent study time from the students. 

Universities thus set the expectation that students are capable of managing their own time, which is also reflected in the UvA’s educational style. From creating study plans to finding a work-life balance in which deadlines are met, students manage how much time and effort they put into their studies outside of mandatory classes. This can be disorienting for those who came straight out of a system where their days followed rigid timetables set by schools, parents or jobs.

Academic independence is a skill that is learned and honed throughout one’s university career, often pushed by the pressure of looming deadlines. Balancing the freedom of hours, sometimes days, without organized activities, with the knowledge that there is still work to be done can be taxing. The UvA recognizes that not all students arrive with a self-sufficient skill set at hand and offers a number of resources are offered, including regular workshops

Despite this, it seems that many students yearn for more guidance from the university. If you have ever been in a group chat for your degree, you most likely will have witnessed countless criticisms regarding the bad organization of the university. While many claims ring true, some complaints about being uninformed could easily be solved by either checking the course manual or a quick Google search. 

This has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as online school can make it hard to keep track of deadlines and meetings. With regular real-life classes being a distant memory, there is no longer a division between home and university. This lack of structure makes it challenging to put in the necessary independent hours, especially when new responsibilities may appear as a consequence of changing circumstances. Yet, the expectation of academic independence does not go away.

Ultimately, as a student, the expectation that you will inform yourself about the structure of your classes and the resources available to you should not come as a surprise. By enrolling you take an active step out of the world of hand holding and gentle nudges. While some topics, like a reminder to request your degree certificate, should be communicated, this does not apply to every detail of the syllabus. Most information can be found on Canvas or on the student sites (where information on graduation can be found) and the administration should not be expected to constantly inform students about every detail.  And when in doubt, there is always the option to ask the study advisors or education desks. Part of academic independence is also figuring out who to ask.

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