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Petition — Is it the subject, or is it the students? What is the problem when 27.3 per cent of students fail a course? A law student has gathered more than 1,000 signatures for a complaint against the subject Property and Creditor Law.
»You know something is really wrong when grown men sit and cry over an exam assignment.«
These are the words of former law student Maria Sørensen, who had to re-take the exam in the compulsory bachelor course Property and Creditor Law no less than five times before she finally passed.
»We sat there, many students, re-doing our exam each time. And I clearly remember people there crying, and shaking, because they knew they were going to fail the subject again, again, and again. And when you sit there for the third time, it means that your entire future as a lawyer is at stake,« says Maria Sørensen.
She points out that university students in Denmark need to apply for dispensation to re-take an exam more than three times.
It was in the summer of 2019 that Maria Sørensen first took the exam in the subject. She only passed it, on the fifth attempt, in the fall of 2020.
When Maria Sørensen first started, the course was called Security and Creditor Rights (S&K) and it was worth 10 ECTS. Her year cohort was the last to take this course. Now the course has been converted into Property and Creditor Law (T&K) and has 15 ECTS. But the academic content and type of examination are similar – apart from the fact that the new course includes more property rights than its predecessor.
For both courses, the failure rate has been extraordinarily high for years, while the average grade level has been extraordinarily low. In the years 2019-2022, the failure rate was 12.9-18.2 per cent, while the grade point average was 4.5-5.5 on the Danish -3 to 12 grading scale.
For this reason, the Board of Studies at the Faculty of Law chose this summer to add one extra hour to the on-site written exam, so that students now had five hours to complete the exam assignment instead of four.
When I saw how high the failure rate was this year, I thought, this cannot be right
Morten Kromann, law student
But the change did not have the desired effect. In the summer of 2023, a whopping 27.3 per cent of all students failed the course. The grade point average was 4. This had master’s degree student Morten Kromann taking action.
»I myself had finished my bachelor’s degree this summer, and it has become clear to me that there is one subject that sticks out every year – the Property and Creditor Law (T&K) course. People are warned about it on the first semester, and people refer to it as the unofficial make-or-break test. When I saw how high the failure rate was this year, I thought, this can’t be right,« says Morten Kromann, who himself passed his T&K this summer.
He started a petition against the subject and its »structural challenges«, and at the time of writing it has received more than 1,000 signatures from former and current students.
»Among the compulsory courses on the bachelor’s degree programme, the subject Property and Creditor Law has the lowest average grade and the highest failure rate. The problem is not the students, but structural challenges in connection with the course content, teaching, exams and assessments,« Morten Kromann writes in the petition.
According to the study board’s own evaluation criteria, a course needs to be reconsidered if the failure rate is higher than ten percent and the grade average is lower than five.
»The initiatives the board of studies took last year to counter the high failure rates have clearly not worked. So this indicates that there is something structurally wrong with this subject. Because it cannot be right that so many students have to fail it,« says Morten Kromann.
Morten Kromann himself got a 4 for his T&K exam. And even though he passed, the assessment is far below his usual grade level, he says.
»I passed, but I share the experience of many students that this subject is assessed more harshly than other courses on the law programme. I’ve only got one 4 on the programme, I usually get 10 or 12,« he says.
After Morten Kromann started the petition, many students contacted him anonymously to share their experiences.
»Many have written that they have had to take the subject for the third time, or that they have had to apply for a fourth exam attempt, and are therefore afraid of being thrown out of university,« says Morten Kromann. He has also made a Freedom of Information request to gain access to documents on how many students end up being disenrolled from the university because they fail to pass property and creditor law. But these numbers do not exist on a subject-specific level, the faculty has informed Morten Kromann.
On the basis of the petition, Morten Kromann and three other students have drawn up a 12-page complaint about the course in its current form. The complaint will be discussed at a meeting of the Board of Studies at the end of September 2023.
»We want the Board of Studies to investigate whether there is a structural problem with the subject, and whether it is, in effect, costing otherwise talented students their education. If this is the case, we believe that they should consider whether this particular subject is crucial to complete your education as a lawyer,« says Morten Kromann.
The course is on the fourth semester and deals with real estate, business finance and creditors.
»Of course we don’t think that you should just lower the academic level. But perhaps we could look into whether the subject should be divided into more sub-elements. Or whether the exam should look completely different,« says Morten Kromann.
For Maria Sørensen, it was her request to be allowed to take the exam in a different way than the first four times that finally had her passing, she says.
»It was the last subject I needed to pass my bachelor’s degree, and I had been delayed for a year and a half. So I talked to a student counsellor about how I could complete my bachelor’s degree when it was, apparently, impossible for me to pass one of the subjects,« says Maria Sørensen.
After the many exam attempts, it was as if I was overwhelmed with anxiety and paralysis every time I had to go in for that exam.
Maria Sørensen, former law student
She describes her academic level as average. She didn’t use to get top grades, but neither did she usually fail her exams.
»I’ve failed an exam before, and I passed it on my first re-exam attempt. I’ve never had to apply for a special exemption for a fourth exam attempt and stuff like that,« she says.
Maria Sørensen had lost hope. She had failed the fourth time and explained to the student counsellor that she did not think she would be able to pass if she had to sit in the same room with the same assignment.
»After the many exam attempts, it was as if I was overwhelmed with anxiety and paralysis every time I had to go in for that exam. The student counsellor suggested that I request to take the exam by writing a major large-scale take-home assignment instead,« says Maria Sørensen and continues:
»So I did. And then I drew on some private, family problems I had at the time as an argument for taking another exam attempt. I was allowed to take the exam that way, and that’s how I finally passed.«
Ulrik Rammeskow Bang-Pedersen is head of the Property and Creditor Law — T&K course. He is also chairman of the Board of Studies at the Faculty of Law, but speaks here as course head. He helped design this summer’s exam in T&K, where students got one extra hour relative to previous years.
»The summer’s assignment had not become longer or more difficult. The students had only been given more time. So I was very, very surprised when I saw this year’s failure rate,« he says.
It is, of course, regrettable that so many students fail, but we also have to maintain a certain standard.
Ulrik Rammeskow Bang-Pedersen head of the Property and Creditor Law —T&K course
He received Morten Kromann’s petition and complaint against the subject earlier this week. He also got a request from two of the Board of Studies’ student representatives to include the complaint as an item on the board of studies meeting in September.
»As a course director, it surprises you when you see that more than 27 per cent of the students have failed a subject. That is why the course managers have started an in-depth analysis for the Board of Studies to find out what the possible causes are, and the potential for improvement in this particular course,« Ulrik Rammeskow Bang-Pedersen says and continues:
»This petition is a bit unnecessary because we’ve already set things in motion.«
Is the academic level too high, or are the students assessed too harshly?
»You need to have a minimum academic requirement when people subsequently leave for the outside world after graduation and call themselves lawyers. We have chosen to make that requirement at a certain level. But we would, of course, like to see fewer students fail,« says Ulrik Rammeskow Bang-Pedersen.
»I have been at the university for 25 years, and it is nothing new that the subject is difficult for students. Should we require less of them for that reason? No, because then we would have worse lawyers.«
He explains that the Board of Studies is currently investigating what similar courses and exams look like at other Danish universities.
»And then, of course, we also look at whether we require too much of them academically. However, I do not feel that this is the case. It is, of course, regrettable that so many students fail, but we also have to maintain certain standards.
»In the final evaluations of the course, we can see that several students have indicated that they have spent fewer hours on it than the prescribed time for the course. And in this case there is a risk that you will fail.«
Are the prescribed norms for the course skewed?
»The subject does not have more pages on the syllabus than other courses with the same prescribed norm, so on the face of it no. But as course director, I have to be honest with you and say that I would like this subject to take up more space in the study programme, because it is important and difficult material.«
In relation to the unusually high failure rate for this summer’s exams, the course director also points out that a much larger number of students than usual chose to take the exam in the first place.
Whether two or 2,000 people had signed, we would still take a closer look at the course
Ulrik Rammeskow Bang-Pedersen head of the Property and Creditor Law —T&K course
»Normally, a portion of students choose to deliberately give in blank exams. But this year far more of them took the exam. This means that the number of students who passed is more or less in line with other years. More failed it, but perhaps more people have also been insufficiently prepared,« Ulrik Rammeskow Bang-Pedersen says.
We hear from students that the course is referred to as an ‘unofficial make-or-break test’. Is that the intention?
»No, definitely not. The intention is only that the students we send on from here have a minimally acceptable level of knowledge in this area.«
Does it impress you that more than 1,000 students have signed a complaint against this subject. Or should they just get their act together?
»Of course it makes an impression on me. But to be honest, it made more of an impression on me to see how many students failed the course this summer. Whether two, or 2,000, people had signed, we would still take a closer look at the course.«
The analysis of the course is not yet complete, and the board of studies will therefore not be able to consider the topic fully at the meeting on 26 September, says Ulrik Rammeskow Bang-Pedersen.
However, the plan is for the course to be fully looked into at the Board of Studies meeting on either 27 October or 23 November.