Navigating Educational Differences in Amsterdam

Cali Carper
November 14, 2021

My primary incentive for the IES Abroad Law and Criminology program was academics. Understandably, not many study abroad programs cater to criminology majors, so I was willing to stay in school an extra semester for this experience. 

Despite my excitement, I did little preparation in terms of background knowledge on the Netherlands. I ignorantly assumed the educational expectations in Amsterdam would be similar to home.

Well, I surely didn’t anticipate the entire educational structure in the Netherlands to be so vastly different from what I’m used to. So, after half a semester completed, I thought it time to reflect on my experiences. Hopefully my insights and struggles will provide guidance for anyone hoping to study with IES Abroad Amsterdam.

1. Grade Conversions

The biggest culture shock I’m still actively learning to navigate is understanding grading and grade conversions. If your school offers pass/fail, you’re decently set in the NL system. However, if you’re like me and your university transcript will reflect the exact letter grade you earn, you have more reason to care about the conversions. 

Here, courses are evaluated not by a letter, but on a 1-to-10 scale. Of course it may seem a 10 is 100%, a 9 is 90%, and so on. But the conversion is not that simple! “10’s are reserved for God,” the Dutch saying goes. And a 5.5 is passing, which is the benchmark point most students aim for. Whereas a 90% in the U.S. would likely be an A, somewhere around a 7.5 here might translate to an A. 

Although it is difficult to understand, IES Abroad Amsterdam offers a ton of helpful resources. Trust the IES Abroad Amsterdam staff to provide way more details than I during the orientation sessions.

Still, I suggest establishing a strong background beforehand, something I know might have benefitted me.

2. (Un)Graded Class Projects

However, I might be better equipped to describe what your grade could be contingent on. Again, it’s specific to the course, and every one of my courses have been different, but there are some general similarities. 

It’s typical for your final grade to be dependent on 1 or 2 assignments. This aspect of grading is difficult, stressful, and adds immense pressure to succeed with limited options to be graded on your knowledge. My class is split between two papers weighted at 50% each even when the course requires additional participatory aspects. Even if your grade is weighted on 1 or 2 assignments, it is typical to still carry a high workload with other compulsory elements to the course that are not graded. 

Participation, for example, might be required by not being graded. It’s difficult to avoid it the way you can in America, even in an online setting. 

Professors want you to express your opinion based on the materials, so they’re adamant you speak up. There is great emphasis on group work, so group representatives are a common feature of most courses. Whether online or in person, professors will cold call you in class.

Posting on a discussion board and coordinating with your group may be required but not graded as well. So, it’s difficult to slack off until the final exam or glide by without doing the readings, especially because class participation is expected to a much higher degree. 

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the class assignments vary from course-to-course. So don’t be surprised if every one of your courses has different requirements. 

3. Student Attitudes

The grading system was a shock, but so was discovering the different perceptions people have of school. Remember when I mentioned that 5.5 core is all you need to pass? It’s kinda the same philosophy of “C’s get degrees.” 

I was shocked by the willingness for students to admit nonchalantly that they didn’t do any of the readings or work for class in class, and I was even more shocked that not a single professor made a big deal of it. My experience in American courses is the opposite. Teachers won’t hesitate to embarrass you in front of the class or make a comment publicly about your lack of preparation. All of that’s to point out a unique comparative aspect of different culture’s attitudes towards coursework. 

But it’s not fair to make it sound like every student works for the bare minimum because that’s certainly not the case. Despite all of the negatives of group work, I’ve been in some fantastic groups. For the most part, my group stayed on top of work and communicated effectively. They are ready to offer ideas and take charge of the project. Everyone has unique opinions and something new to offer, even people who come from the same academic discipline. It definitely was NOT the experience I had in America.

4. Open Communication With Professors

A fascinating aspect of the Dutch education system is the closed distance between professors and students. Power structures exist, obviously, but it feels like the perceived power relations are less explicit and that professors work to close the gap. I’ve noticed that professors are adamant about students voicing their dissatisfaction and offering critiques. Likewise, students are expressive and willing to speak up about any confusion or opinions they have.

An interesting manifestation of this is students’ willingness to contest a grade, evaluation, or assignment. With a background in being “Midwest Nice,” thinking about telling the teacher what I don’t like about how he/she graded my assignment is nerve wracking. It’s not seen as rude to common what the professor says or critique the course. The Dutch bluntness, for me, was fully realized after week 1 of my courses listening to students criticize aspects of the syllabus. 

It’s not as vicious as it sounds, rather, it’s a wonderful test for practicing assertiveness and confidence in education. Whereas in America it’s more frowned upon, in my experience, to say things that might be seen as “talking back.” Here it’s welcomed as a chance for teachers to evaluate the course and listen to honest opinions from students.

5. Where I’ve Struggled

Aside from the confusing grade conversations, I’ve struggled to grow accustomed to the different homework expectations and writing styles for essays. 

From middle school and maybe before, my teachers prepared me for essay writing entirely dependent on the strength of my analysis, critique, and innovative ideas. Attending college has taught me to prioritize creating unique hypotheses and fostering creativity in my papers. In fact, we’re often told explicitly and penalized for summarizing materials. “Don’t repeat back to me what I already know,” professors often say. 

Here, it’s quite different. Dutch institutes are big research institutes, which means students are used to writing papers in a research style, maybe more so than an argumentative or persuasive essay. Surely it depends on one’s field, but the courses I take HIGHLY value the ability to summarize the materials even if professors have read them. In the times I’ve complained to other Dutch students about why I’m struggling, I’m told that summary matters oftentimes more than whether you come up with an original perspective. 

This has led to great difficulties in understanding what the aim of the essay is based on the given prompt. You are often graded on what to fail to include or mention because professors argue that demonstrates that you didn’t understand the full theory even if you purposely chose a limited scope to analyze. Needless to say, it has been a hard transition.

This is, of course, generalized to an extent and applicable to my own courses, but I know other students have experienced a similar discrepancy when writing papers.

The best I can offer as a student struggling myself, make sure you understand and apply ALL of the theory asked for in the writing prompt. You have to include as much as possible to demonstrate you know what the main aspects of the theory are, at least for application questions. 

6. A Silver Lining

For as much as it has been difficult, and it has, there are ways to prepare. IES Abroad Amsterdam staff are helpful and resourceful, so check in with them about where you stand. You will have 1:1 meetings with them through the semester as well, but you can reach out at any time.

Don’t be afraid to ask your professors for help. It’s great to contact them before and after an assignment to make sure you fully understand. They will offer feedback most times, and maybe even have an extra session to ask questions about the assignment. 

Work with other students as well! Talking to other students has been useful in getting the student insider perspective. Discuss concerns you have and see if they can provide additional tips. 

It’s also beneficial to stay in contact with your home university. Contact your academic advisor or your study abroad advisor to make sure you are staying up-to-date with what is going on at home. 

Lastly, it’s not all bad. I thought I would hate group projects, but that’s how I met most of the Dutch friends I have now. My professors are extraordinary—we’re learning about the Srebrenica conflict from a professor who grew up in Serbia during it! Even though the readings can seem like too much, they are all incredibly interesting. The field trips are exciting too! Two of my courses prepared exclusive excursions to The Hague, where we can observe a trial at the International Criminal Court and talk to leading figures from the Office of the Prosecutor. 

All in all, the differences will be manageable with the right tools, and the experience of studying abroad in Amsterdam is worth putting in the time and energy. 

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Cali Carper

<p>Hi there! I’m Cali Carper, a small-town Wisconsin girl who enjoys her book collection, dance, fashion, thrifting, knitting, and thinking critically. Currently, I’m a fifth-year student at Penn State studying Criminology and Comparative Literature with minors in Korean, Asian Studies, Sociology, Global Studies, and English. When I was a first-year student, I spent a summer abroad at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea. In my last year, I’ll be traversing Europe for a semester during my study abroad trip to Amsterdam, where I’ll participate in the Law &amp; Criminology program at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam!</p>

2021 Fall
Home University:
Penn State University
Hudson, WI
Comparative Literature
Criminal Studies
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