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Student with coronavirus: ‘My lecturer helped me a lot’

Two months ago, history student Willemijn contracted coronavirus. At the time she was taking a course given by lecturer Rens Tacoma. What can you do if you’re even too ill to follow online lectures? And how are lecturers dealing with the growing number of sick students? ‘We have to work it out together.’

History student Willemijn van Rijn contracted corona. ‘It makes me really angry when I hear about other students not taking the corona measures seriously. You don’t want to get sick, and you certainly don’t want to infect anyone else!’
History student Willemijn van Rijn contracted corona. ‘It makes me really angry when I hear about other students not taking the corona measures seriously. You don’t want to get sick, and you certainly don’t want to infect anyone else!’

Willemijn, when did you realise you were ill?

‘I’m often ill in the winter, so at first I thought it was that. And I’d been very careful: I’d seen very few people, socially distanced and so on. But then I got a high temperature that lasted for about three days. It was awful. It turned out to be corona, so I went straight into self-isolation.’ 

What about the courses you were following? 

‘I tried to keep up with everything. It’s online lectures so you think you’d be able to get your laptop out and get on with the work. But I was really ill. I contacted my study coordinator, who advised me to focus on getting better and not to think about my studies for the time being. That was hard; not doing any work made me more anxious. I was worried about falling behind and about all the work I’d have to catch up on.

‘I agreed with Mr Tacoma that I would follow the tutorials when I could and that I wouldn’t have to do all the assignments for the subject. Nor would I have to do any replacement assignments. After each online lesson, the two of us had a brief chat about how I was doing. That was really good; he helped me such a lot.’

Wanted: coronavirus stories!

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected you? We’re looking for students, researchers, lecturers and other staff who want to share their stories in a new series of articles on the University website. The articles will comprise a personal interview and photo that shows how this turbulent year has been for members of the University community. To share your story, send an email to: nieuws@leidenuniv.nl

Lecturer Rens Tacoma: ‘We have to find the best way to get through this together, lecturers and students.’
Lecturer Rens Tacoma: ‘We have to find the best way to get through this together, lecturers and students.’

Rens, how did you find out that Willemijn was ill, and what did you do?

‘The lectures had just started when Willemijn told me she had coronavirus. I soon realised it was serious; she followed the second lecture from her bed and looked terribly ill. I really appreciated that she made the effort to attend!

‘In the lecture I told the students they could use two jokers: they could choose not to do two out of the total number of assignments for the course. That worked really well for Willemijn. She also showed how keen she was to do as much coursework as possible. So, I was flexible: do what you can.’  

Why did take this approach? There are rules, aren’t there, on whether students have to catch up on missed work when they’ve been ill? 

‘We’re in a highly unusual situation. A lot more students are ill or in quarantine, or are finding it hard to cope. We have to find the best way to get through this together, lecturers and students alike. We need to keep more of an eye on and look after one another: we really do have to get through this together. The funny thing is that I normally have very strict rules about attendance; in fact, I think I have a bit of a reputation for being strict. But I can see that’s not the right approach right now, so I’m taking a more flexible one. And that’s good for both students and me.’

‘I would say, though, that it can’t be too free and easy. Willemijn was very good at letting me know how she was doing, which tutorials she could and couldn’t attend, and showing how motivated she was. It’s important to keep communicating, and that’s the responsibility of the student. With some students, you hear nothing from them. I’m putting more effort than normal into trying to keep everyone on board, but in the end, I have to fall back on the regular rules.’  

How are you doing now, Willemijn?

‘I’m not ill anymore but I’m still having some difficulties. I’m more anxious than I was, and am afraid of getting ill again or passing it on to my parents or grandma. I don’t feel at ease in the supermarket anymore, which is something I didn’t have before. I was always careful, especially as I was seeing a lot of my parents and grandma. It makes me angry when I hear about fellow students or friends meeting up or just not taking it seriously. It is really important to stick to the rules. You don’t want to get sick yourself, and you certainly don’t want to infect anyone else!

‘In terms of my studies, I’ve not caught up yet. Many of the other subjects didn’t show the same kind of flexibility as Mr Tacoma; I couldn’t catch up with some subjects in my minor, so I had to drop the whole minor. That was really frustrating, but with the help of my study coordinator I reworked my plan for the rest of the semester. Now I’m going to do a nice internship!’ 

Rens, how do you look back on this period? Do you have any tips for your fellow lecturers?

‘At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, our main concern was to get all the teaching online and finish the semester as well as possible. We’ve managed to do that, and now have to make sure that the teaching is worthwhile. You often hear it said that doing everything online is ‘less’ somehow. That’s not how I see it at all. It may sound trite, but it is just different. The challenge is that we still don’t know what works and what doesn’t; that’s something we have to find out as we go along. And by “we”, I mean lecturers and students together. Normally I have my lectures all planned out, but this year it was just too busy for me to be able to do that. So I just got going and we evaluate each lecture when it ends. It’s a good way of deciding together what works. It does take some energy but it’s also really enjoyable and useful to have students giving their input. And it’s a great way of getting them to feel more involved in your subject.’ 

Do you agree, Willemijn?

‘I do. I really like discussing what we thought of the lectures and assignments with Mr Tacoma and the other students, and what improvements we could make. I would certainly recommend that lecturers ask their students for their thoughts on how a course or parts of it can be organised. At the moment, lecturers are the ones doing all of the work to structure online teaching. Students could help – we could do it together!’ 

Text: Marieke Epping

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