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Anthropology attracts elite students with sky-high grade point averages from their secondary schools. Now the department is to drop all grades from the first year so they can protect the students’ mental health. They need to learn to take chances and learn to make mistakes.
Imagine being at an intro event for new students. You sit on a folding chair in the sunshine surrounded by new faces. It is late in August. You have played against the odds and have secured your place with a 10.8 Danish grade average – or you have slipped through the eye of the quota 2 needle and have got one of the coveted places in a crowd of just-graduated aspiring academics.
Now look at the two people on your right side and the two people on your left side. At least one of you will have dropped out before next summer and at least one of you will end up seeking psychological counselling because of the pressure to perform, stress, low self-esteem, or depression.
“The students are affected to a degree that is similar to what you see in outpatient psychiatry”’
Psychologist Henrik Holm Hansen, student counselling
This is the worrying picture emerging from the Department of Anthropology at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Copenhagen (UCPH). The dropout rate for the first year is among the highest at UCPH and has been over 20 per cent over the last couple of years. On this, one of the university’s most popular and recognized studies, many students feel pressured, and more and more of them end up with psychological problems.
But now things are going to be change. This is according to the Department of Anthropology’s new study programme head Heiko Henkel, who had not sat down in his office for long before rolling up his sleeves and marking a big, fat cross on the top of his to-do list. He has eliminated all grades on the first year of the programme with immediate effect. And this year’s new cohort of students won’t get a single digit of their performance rated before they get to the 3rd semester:
“It’s an invitation to start going out on a limb. The students only come in if they have really high grade averages, but suddenly this is not the most important thing. This is the message we want to emphasize by removing grades from the first year,” Heiko Henkel explains to the University Post.
There have been many warnings about the poor mental health of young people in Denmark in recent years. Featured comments have been written about the performance generation and a string of comments and posts by stressed out, anxiety-ridden, and depressed students.
The student counseling service Studenterrådgivning meets students every day who have gone beyond the limits of mental health. Henrik Holm Hansen is one of the psychologists who helps students every day with their psychological problems. And he is shocked at how hard they have been hit when they get in the door:
“They are pressured to a degree that is comparable to what you see in the outpatient psychiatry. They have significant depressive symptoms and anxiety. And in all this, there is a lot of what you would call stress and performance anxiety.”
More people suffer from mental health problems in the world today than cancer, malaria and HIV/AIDS. Just let that sink in. Depression alone has recently become the most common disease in the world. Right now, more than 300 million people have been hit with it worldwide and only half of them are being treated. Still, mental health is still behind a veil of taboo and stigmatization.
“I should have just said something. Now I regret it.
Anonymous anthropology student who dropped out
When the World Health Organization held this year’s World Health Day in April, the theme was, appropriately, Depression: Let’s Talk. WHO’s director Margaret Chan used the opportunity to call out to all the countries of the world:
“These numbers are a wake-up call to all countries to reconsider their approach to mental health and to treat it with the urgent necessity that it deserves.”
When the world community has begun to talk about the problem as a public disease, it is partly due to the economic consequences. The drop in productivity from sufferers of depression combined with the follow-on diseases cost more than a trillion US dollars according to WHO. In kroner terms that is a six followed by 18 zeros).
Back to the personal costs. Depression and other serious diagnoses are, as psychologist Henrik Holm Hansen describes it, often the unpleasant endpoint of what starts out as performance pressure and stress. This is why it is so important to detect and mitigate this already in the early stages.
When students at UCPH last year were asked about their well-being, more than half of them said that they had daily stress symptoms. And the number of students who get sick from stress in connection with their student jobs has doubled in just one year.
“People experience less flexibility on their studies and a pressure to complete the study programme faster. And then they compare themselves to others. There is often a focus on the superficial achievements: the grades, the careers and so on,” says Henrik Holm Hansen.
At the Department of Anthropology, two student counsellors – one student and one graduate – are trying to enhance the students’ well-being.
To rebel against the performance culture that has gradually been grafted to on most of us requires courage, says master student and student counselor Nanna Ploug Kollerup and career counselor Luise Mandrup Andersen who want to give students the courage to fail, and the ability to meet challenges and talk openly about their insecurities.
Luise Mandrup Andersen was the first to speak out about something being completely wrong with Anthropology. And she became the woman behind the shift in mentality which they are now trying to introduce at the department. Removing the grades is part of this process.
It all started with some disturbing figures from student counselling:
“The student counseling made out some summaries of what it was that students were visiting them for. And the anthropologists were to a higher degree coming in with performance anxiety. In this area, we were at the very top. It made us think that this is due to too much focus on performance, and that you should be able to do everything,” says Luise Mandrup Andersen.
“The fear of failing,” Nanna Ploug Kollerup adds.
“Yes, and that’s the fear we want to break down and challenge,” says Luise Mandrup Andersen.
Nanna Ploug Kollerup has studied anthropology since 2012 and will soon finish his masters degree. She says that there was not the same pressure when she started, “but then the Study Progress Reform kicked in (in 2013, ed.),” she says.
“Yes, and graduate unemployment and the financial crisis,” adds Luise Mandrup Andersen.
“I think the new first-year students think a lot more about what’s going to happen in three years’ time. They think ahead. When I started, we would ‘take things as they come’. Now we stress out about things more,” says Nanna Ploug Kollerup.
Anthropological Analysis – a group that takes care of external co-operation at the department – has investigated why so many drop out. One of the main reasons is that anthropology is a study programme of passion – a subject that students are expected to engage in with life and soul. Luise Mandrup Andersen recognizes this feeling:
“There are some who feel they have to be enthusiastic about the subject. It’s not just a study programme. It’s a kind of identity. ”
“And if some people don’t latch onto this right away, they feel outside of things,” adds Nanna Ploug Kollerup.
“Exactly,” says Luise Mandrup Andersen, “and if they get a bad grade, it’s absolutely terrible: “I’m not passionate about it, and I am not good at it, because I only got a 7. Out with me.”
"I usually tell them that I really hope that they all get a 02 or a 00. Just to try it."
One of the students who dropped out and who took the survey, faced the expectation that Anthropology was a subject she was expected to be passionate about from the start:
“I think it was one of the first lectures, where we were told that there were really many who would like to sit in our places. So we should be really happy that we were there. I really felt the pressure, because I could not feel that sense of exhilaration immediately”.
As humans, we have always mirrored each other. The difference is that today we do it less face-to-face, and more digitally. The problem is that social media are dominated by success stories, and the news media are dominated by conflict stories. This is according to several studies.
The news media, in particular, feed us with stories about our community when it breaks down – about our own society and the rest of the world when things go wrong. This can (along with other factors) lead to a more individualized way of living.
On an individual level, however, we are greeted with the glossy images of the social media – which are retouched versions of the lives of others. We can reflect upon them, but we cannot live up to them. This creates the space for a culture of silence about personal downturns and problems – the shame of feeling inadequate and a fear of being discovered.
No more shame. The psychologist’s 6 pieces of advice.
1. Practice being vulnerable
2. Practice daring to fail
3. Practice believing that it is okay to fail
4. Focus on your own effort, rather than your performance and how the others rate it
5. Say it out aloud when something is difficult (you will find out that others feel the same way)
6. Ask for help when you need it.
According to psychologist Henrik Holm Hansen, students learn today that their value is what you can see on their grades, their LinkedIn profiles and on their CVs. When students do not do what they are asked to do, it is wrong. And when they do exactly as they are told to do, they are written off as ‘Miss Perfects’. This has created a trend of students blaming themselves and feeling ashamed.
“I heard one student say she did not go the lectures when she had not understood the texts because everyone would find out she had not understood them. We reckon this is irrational, as you should precisely turn up at lectures to get them explained and elaborated. But this is the performance anxiety appearing again. And we are tired of it. We want to get rid of it,” says Luise Mandrup Andersen.
Nanna Ploug Kollerup has a specific idea of how students can go about this. “We find that when someone finally says to their reading group, ‘I think it was a bit difficult,’ everything suddenly opens up, and they all say with a relieved sigh: ‘we think so too’.”
Another dropped-out student from the Anthropological Analysis study recounts how bitter she was after finding out she had waited too long to say that the study programme was difficult:
“I only told my study group after I had dropped out. And when I said that, they all said they really understood me, because that is the way they felt too. So I should have just said something. I regret this today.”
Several of the students who discontinued the programme say that it is hard to talk about their challenges because no-one else does. For some, this leads to the conclusion that they are just not smart enough. This is stated in the Anthropological Analysis report:
“The frustration when the student realizes this, is exacerbated when they pursue study-related jobs and volunteering work. Because the teachers emphasize the importance of study-related work, this makes it important for the students. In this way, many felt that the level of ambition was high and that there was internal competition between the students. For some of those that dropped out, and for some of the active students, this competition complicated and challenged the good relationship with their peers.”
The study shows that students find it difficult to talk with peers about frustrations and problems with the education programme, and that this contributed to many students’ final decision to stop.
The campus is about to be filled with students, and soon all will break loose again. Student counseling gets the most requests every year in September. The start of a study programme is, in this way, the most critical period for the students, and everything indicates that the trend will continues – but not at the Department of Anthropology if it is up to the student counselors:
“It should be good. It should be fun to study. We want to catch people before things go wrong,” says Nanna Ploug Kollerup.
They say that the cultural change they want to introduce is based on the ‘mindset model’ invented by American psychologist Carol Dweck. In short, you have to fail, or make mistakes, to learn.
The fear of failure is, according to Luise Mandrup Andersen and Nanna Ploug Kollerup, something that students bring with them from their gymnasium [Danish high school]. With the insanely high grade point averages it takes to get access to most higher education programmes, students are afraid to raise their hand and say something wrong. They learn to seem perfect and therefore only say what they already know.
“They get used to this in secondary school, finding out how to fit in and what rules to live up to. The first thing they ask at the start of the study programme is: ‘What is going to happen at the exam and how can we get a 12 grade?’ This is instead of stepping back and saying ‘okay, now we are at university. Now I just have to learn,’” says Nanna Ploug Kollerup.
She is backed up by Luise Mandrup Andersen: “It has to be ‘untaught’ and this takes time. Particularly at the bachelor level where the students are highly performance- and result-oriented and not at all process and learning-oriented.”
Luise Mandrup Andersen says that they actually have a quite flexible curriculum for Anthropology. For example, when writing a thesis, you can actually make a film or a museum exhibition instead of writing a long report:
“There is, actually, within the education program, an opportunity for you to really go off the beaten track academically. Nevertheless, by far the majority of the students choose to write a written thesis. We have to shake them up. You need to dare something. You need to have to dare to make a mistake.”
Luise Mandrup Andersen explains that it is difficult to influence the older students because many of them have already fallen into unfortunate routines.
“But the newbies, the ones who will be here 1st September. They are the ones we are trying to get hold of.”
Head of Studies Heiko Henkel is convinced that the abolition of grades in the first year will reduce the dropout rate in Anthropology. He believes that they will already see a change next year.
But UCPH is generally moving in the opposite direction. It is now only grades that determine whether you can go study abroad on overseas agreements (outside of Europe), and this will affect students who are about to apply. They previously only needed to do motivated applications.
Heiko Henkel calls it a ‘tripwire’, tripping up the desired change in culture. Study abroad is so central a part of the anthropology study programme that students will now feel even more pushed to get good grades. However, he insists on abolishing the grades in the first year, and says that they will find a better solution to the problem of studies abroad:
“It is important that new students get more space to unfold their creativity, find their way in the discipline, and become students. To do away with the grades is a small step in this larger project.”
Luise Mandrup Andersen likes the fact that grades in the first year will be abolished, and this is in keeping with the welcoming that she is planning for the freshers about to start on a new study programme:
“Instead of focusing on classics like where the library is located, we will focus more on ‘now you are here, relax, you have your ticket, now it doesn’t matter with the grades. Now it’s about learning, now it’s the process, now it’s trying things out – grades from now on don’t really matter.”
She will also invite all new students in for an individual conversation to help them open up on what it is they are having trouble with at the start of the study programme.
“Then I can handle it and say ‘You know what? I’ve talked to 27 others and they say exactly the same’. I want to shake them up a bit and say ‘Don’t worry, it will be enough. Even if you make mistakes. In fact, precisely because you have made mistakes.’”
The study counselors explain that it is crucial that they get the teachers on board. Because the students can be best reached in the classroom. It is more difficult for student counselling, which is mostly sought after on the students’ own initiative.
Henrik Holm Hansen from the Student Counselling Service knows about the frustration of having the ability to help, but not always reaching those who are in need:
“It should not just be an offer. It should be something that permeates every department at all levels and that reaches the students. Ideally, we should talk about a cultural change. I also think that the use of language is really important. How you say that it’s okay to have a hard time, and that when you’re having a hard time, there are options.”
At the Student Counselling Service, they have already begun preventive campaigns, so that fewer students get to the point where they need psychological counselling. Henrik Holm Hansen sees what Anthropology’s student counselling is doing as a unique opportunity for the Student Counselling Service to collaborate with the different study programmes in order to lift off some of the performance pressure from students’ shoulders.
“They are doing some amazing stuff. It looks like they are doing a lot like what we do in terms of stress, namely removing the focus from the outside, that is, what you have to achieve, on performance. And instead moving towards an inner focus: ‘What do I want to study, if I am not getting good grades?’ Where the goal is learning rather than on a performance that you can either be successful or not successful in,” he says.
For Luise Mandrup Andersen, the preventive measures are such a good idea that she is not keep it for herself. She has therefore met up with student counsellors from the UCPH humanities, health and science faculties, and from Copenhagen Business School, Roskilde University and the Danish School of Education (DPU) to plan for how to replace the culture of performance and silence at other study programmes so that all students can learn the courage to make mistakes.
And if, heaven forbid, some of the students who have turned up at the start of studies start worrying about their lack of grades and the fact that they have to wait a whole year to chase that elusive 12, then Luise Mandrup Andersen has some choice words of advice:
“I usually say to them: ‘I hope for God’s sake you all get a 02 or a 00. Just to try it. Then you will notice: Nothing happens. A piano doesn’t drop down on your head from above. Nothing happens.”