Problematisation of Essays

I’m going to put this one out there and then duck for cover. I have no problem with traditional academic essays used as assessment. It is conditional on there not being too many of them, an appropriately varied assessment regime generally, and that the process of setting and marking them is conducted in as rigorous and fair manner as we are capable of.

But still, the essay mills. The cheating. 

I will never get on board with the idea of banning any form of assessment because at the heart of education is the basic idea that you have to trust those setting assessments to set assessment that is reasonably appropriate. I say reasonably because if I’m marking 80 essays, I have a range of tools such as GradeMark’s quick marks, to facilitate that. I can also do it at a steady pace over my allotted 3 weeks for grading.  I can tailor my marking to my circumstances. And ultimately I’ve probably got around 30 minutes to mark each essay and don’t have time allocated to wade through drafts, check thought processes, do face-to-face discourse on the broader points of the work, and return a grade with sufficient justification for second marking or our external examiners. I’m exhausted just writing that. So I set an essay in a 1st year module because I need students to demonstrate research, writing and formatting skills. 

Yes, some students may decide to use an essay mill to cheat. Probably more so given all the publicity about it over the last few weeks.

And you know what, I’m not sure I care that much. I certainly don’t want to jump on board the moral panic train about it all. I don’t care because the use of essay mills is a symptom of  massive problems in HE (and probably every other flavour of education): students have too little time, too much assessment, too much pressure, and they got to get shit done. Rather than banning essay mills or essays, how about fixing these fundamental flaws in our education culture? How about having fewer assessments (summative, formative – in the end the assessment regimes are practically deformative)? How about ensuring that students are guided sufficiently in their academic progress by staff that have more to give than contact time + 30 minutes per essay to provide feedback sufficient to dupe the students into decent NSS scores?  How about setting up a society where higher education isn’t postulated as the one true shot at achieving common life goals? At the moment if you don’t have a clue what you want to be at 30 when you’re 16, you’re pretty much going to enter limbo.

And I’m not about to introduce new tools in checking essays for whatever the signs of purchase are because I’m tired of casting suspicion on a whole cohort just because of the actions of some. You cheat in your degree assessments, you cheat yourself first and foremost. You miss out on some learning opportunities. You fail to develop your skill set and at some point, in some space and time, it’s going to come back and bite you on the ass. Naive? Me? Not really, karma’s a bitch.  

Yes, I know, there’s lots of inventive and innovative assessments out there that are far more useful than essays. I know this because in addition to essays I have set: magazine articles, infographics, oral presentations, posters, annotated bibliographies, lab reports, reflective diaries… and you know what? If a student turns over the assessment guidelines and sample work that I’ve provided to an expert and offers them money to do the work for them, all of those assessments could be cheated on in the same way as essays. What? Even the oral presentation? Yes. Anything that requires someone to do research to produce stuff  (e.g. an academic assignment)- prep the slides and give the student a script to read. Lab reports – provide the data obtained and the guidelines. So unless we’re heading to exam conditions for everything (and let’s not get into the memorise a ton of stuff to vomit in response to mediocre exam questions right now), we’re just going to have to work on building a culture of honesty and integrity in education, rather than the current one of attainment at all costs. There’d probably be some damn good mental health benefits all round if we dealt with the fundamental issues.

Adventures in Google Classroom Part 2

The start of term is a week away, and the first class in the Industrial Chemistry module is two weeks today. I have been setting up all of my courses on our VLE, and of course, adding more items to Google Classroom.

Adding students to Google Classroom: I have decided to post a link to Google Classroom on our VLE as well as the code required to gain access to the class. I will let students join themselves rather than inputting all of their email addresses (the alternative way of populating the class with students). I will monitor how many join between now and the first class and if needed, will manually add any remaining students before the first class.  I have added a colleague as a student so I can see what things look like from their point of view and check that things work. Generally student view is like teacher view but without the additional bits and pieces for scheduling and creating posts.

Adding Content:  I have added assignments and announcements to the Stream, this puts things in chronological order but it is possible to schedule things to be released as required which is useful. With assignments, a due date can be set and this adds the deadline to the classroom calendar and to a GoogleCalendar that is shared with my other calendars. I have set topics for all the content so far, and as mentioned previously, this will allow students to view the content either chronologically through Stream or by topic. I would have liked this as as student but I have to think carefully about what the optimum number of topics is. You can only set one topic per object. 

Assignments: I am looking forward to seeing how the assignments work. I have a variety of different assignments to set and so I am not entirely sure how the handed in feature will work with the different aspects. I have sheets to edit, tests/forms to complete, and files to submit. I have been reading the help files aimed at students to get a better sense of how this will work. Yes, I prefer reading – I do not wish to watch slow paced videos illustrating the technology! Just give me a few screenshots. 

The next step is to let the students get onto the site and start using it. 

Note to future self: Chem Ed Research

Dear Future Self,

The next time you decide to plan a Chem Ed Research project, could you please heed the following? This summer has been a world of pain that could have been avoided if some consideration had been cast in the direction of a few simple organisational points.

  1. GoogleForms/Tests: if you’re using these for one of your projects, and particularly where there will be some reuse of the questions, just create a master form of all the questions. Then you can make copies and delete the unnecessary copies. You can’t merge GoogleForms. Copy-pasting is painful. I’d also put the questions in different sections and number the sections. Then (and this is strange) DO NOT meddle with the numbering. So what if the folk filling out the form think it’s odd that they’ve got question 2, 5, 7 and 19. It will be a lot easier for analysis if the same questions have the same number in all versions.
  2. Questionnaires: would you please, for the love of all that is good in this universe, design the damn things with some kind of meaningful analysis in mind? Yes, I know, you know this, but please just get better at doing it. At least be consistent between your 3-point, 5-point, 10-point, emoticon, select-words, free text, and yes/no/maybe questions. It’s easier if you just pick a couple of types and stick with them. It’s a research tool not a fishing expedition.
  3. Ethics: your project will take you twice as long as you anticipate, so have some sense and set the end date twice as far as you think you need. It’s better than having to amend the application (when you just become tempted to add a few more things in, it’s a project, not a Christmas tree). 
  4. Pilot: pilot the damn questionnaires before you finalise the ethics application. Even if it’s a couple of colleagues or folk roped in to check the questions for sense, just do it. If you’ve got ambiguous questions, hopefully that will avoid the usual mess where you forget that people will tend to interpret things in different ways. The next time you ask for responses that can be given in different format (for example time), specify the units.
  5. Focus Groups/Interviews: get wise to the fact that you don’t get as many volunteers as you’d like, particularly at certain times of year when your likely pool of participants have already been questionnaired six ways from Tuesday. Instead of doing the same thing hoping for a different result, do something different.
  6. Name the files: let’s face it, this is a universal issue with you but come up with a better way of file naming. And file the files in the right file without creating 16 versions. 

With a little luck, next summer can be more productive and less frustrating. Or at least you’ll spend less time working out which question is which, and not be half way through analysis that feels ‘vaguely familiar’ only to find another file someplace else where you’d done it already. Just sort yourself out.

Best wishes


PS: we do still need to have a discussion about literature reviews, and due diligence in figuring out what’s been done before. 

Variety in Chemistry Education 2018 #VICEPHEC18

Well it starts formally on Thursday with the pre-meeting stuff on Wednesday. I’m not presenting this year, which is the first time in a long while. By my reckoning this will be my 9th Variety conference.

The links on the blog are a little muddled but if you’re interested, the Storify backups from 2011, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17 are available from the dropdown in the top right of this blog. They take a fair bit of time to load, particularly later years.

I’ve also got a fair number of blog posts over the years, available:

I’m sure there will be more blog posts coming after this conference!

I wouldn’t change a thing (a defence of personal empiricism)

It’s August and the season of walking a fine line between annual leave, finishing/starting research projects, and sorting out teaching prep for the forthcoming academic year has gripped UK academia. Time then to reflect on an August 10 years ago as I prepared my first lectures.

Tip 1: Don’t read chemical education literature.

For me the biggest challenge was grappling with the content I was teaching and the structures within which I was expected to deliver. I was setting exam questions for the first time, trying to revise content I had not seen since I was an undergraduate (and for one topic, content I had not seen at all for it was not taught), and trying to work out where I fitted within the course structures and dealing with all the unwritten rules, guidelines, policies, and ‘things we do’. And it sucked time and energy. I promise you that within that, going off and doing a search for education literature and ‘good ways to approach’ teaching any of those topics was furthest from my mind. There were modules, I was expected to deliver and assess some ILOs and there was content that had to be covered.  Just learn the damn content well enough to not feel stupid in front of the class. 

Tip 2: There’s nothing wrong with adapting the previous person’s slides

Yeah, I know, but it’s a new job, new academic year, new notebook, shiny new blank page and all that. Just change the bloody powerpoint template and be done with it. Unless you’re cursed with a brand-new-to-the-institution course prep, reuse the slides because it probably worked well enough last year. And what’s more, if you’re new to teaching, I promise you the barre is pretty damn low in terms of what success looks like. No big student complaints outside of module evaluations and you’re doing fine. Seriously though, initially content is king because you’re trying to learn material as a teacher not as a student and it’s very different.

Tip 3: when the learning and teaching course you do tells you to keep a teaching diary, keep a teaching diary

Think of it as a laboratory notebook where the lab sessions are your teaching. If you’ve been an experimental scientist, you have an inherent understanding of troubleshooting and determining the accuracy of your results. The teaching people, they call this reflective practice, which is a fancy term for what you’re more than capable of doing anyway. For each session ask yourself:

– did I achieve what I needed to achieve?

– did the students indicate that they understood or that they were confused or bored witless (probably all three, likely from the same student at once)

 – what do I need to address next session?

 – what would I change for next year?

In those first sessions, you’ll probably over or underestimate how much you’ll get through. Perhaps you’ll fall into the ‘trying to be cool with lots of funny anecdotes’ model of a lecturer – well everyone likes to be liked. Perhaps you’ll be panicking that you wont cover everything and will blast through 50 minutes of stuff in the first 20 and and bewilder everyone in a 5 mile radius. It happens. Reading chemistry education literature is not going to help with this at all and if you’re really new to teaching, you’re not going to have that many strategies to deal with this without a bit of a think over a cup of tea afterwards. That’s fine, and that’s where your teaching diary helps – write/draw/graph it out, process it, troubleshoot and problem solve. You don’t need to write down your feelings (incidentally feelings don’t need to be included in reflections, you can be perfectly reflective about something whilst maintaining an air of scientific mystique). 

Tip 4: Your teaching style will evolve over time, don’t panic!

It takes me 5 run throughs of a course before I feel I’ve ‘got it down well enough’ to start playing with the content in what could be termed ‘a deliberate pedagogically valid way. That’s probably 5 years of teaching it. If you can get to that point sooner, good for you, but I find I go through an iterative process of incremental change based on my trouble shooting and reflections, identifying recurring issues and problems, addressing those issues, adding or subtracting in-class problems, testing MCQs and response devices, having more or less text on the teaching aids…it’s incremental and based on what I think works for me, in my context and in my style.  And in those first 5 years, good enough is good enough.Anecdotally I’ve heard of new staff who read the literature and see a report of some or other approach and adopt it wholesale. They then bumble around trying to workout why it hasn’t worked for them in the way the paper promises. Perhaps it’s another case for meta-reviews of educational literature to derive the most effective principles of practice from all of the personal empiricism out there, or perhaps it just makes the case for learning to walk before you can run. You need to learn what your teaching style is first – who are you in the classroom? And do I contradict myself here? Didn’t I say above that you should adapt last year’s teaching resources? Isn’t that imposing a style?  Well you have to start somewhere, and why not start with the last known point of good enough for that particular course?

Tip 5: At some point you’ll make a decision between good enough and excellence in teaching

The biggest change we could make in UK Chemistry Education is to increase the basic standard of teaching.  But we forget that those who aim for good enough are doing other things as part of their role and we need them in the academic ecosystem just as much as we need teaching superstars. It would be nice for everyone to be excellent teachers but it isn’t going to happen, and at some point you’ll have to decide how much of your 35 hours a week is going to be spent on developing your teaching. In an ideal world, this would be flexible, allowing you to ebb and flow between teaching and other roles as your career develops, but I’m not sure it works like that and those decisions are probably going to be made for you to a point. If you’re lucky enough to get to pick, know that there is nothing wrong with simply being good enough. I think this is why there is so much literature and research on first year university stuff: those courses are more likely to be taught by more teaching focussed staff with extensive teaching portfolios whereas third and fourth year stuff are more likely to be taught by staff who do limited teaching because of extensive research portfolios. 

Tip 6: When/If you do dip a toe into the pedagogical literature, don’t expect a miracle cure

They don’t exist. There are ‘off the shelf’ teaching methods that you can apply and if you’re looking for quick fixes, I’d head for those methodologies and I’d follow them to the letter, and if you’re particularly luck, you’ll be the first in your department/faculty/uni to do them and you can be seen as a trail-blazer. You may well stumble then into an institutional definition of excellence without having to try too hard. Otherwise, wading through the contradictory mass of literature that’s full of unfamiliar theoretical underpinnings and social science stuff is seriously hard going.  Pick a good entry point and I’d recommend a discipline focussed teaching and learning conference as a good starting place. You’ll pick up the names of the people with sensible ideas about learning and teaching and can go find their papers and see what they’re up to. If you’re brave, you can talk to them.

I find seeking out literature for my deliberate pedagogically valid meddling in a course to be an intensely painful process. I dislike it. I have a particular loathing for papers that report something then don’t give some simple suggestions as to how the information might be applied in the classroom. I also dislike how the higher education chemical education literature seems to be obsessed with laboratories, and in particular, laboratories in early years of university. It’s hard to find relevant stuff for upper years, and it gets more complex if you move into international literature with very different course designs. 

The process I’ve described here is largely what personal empiricism means to me. It’s also known as reflective practice. We just run into issues when personal empiricism is all there is in chemistry education and also issues when people don’t realise that their personal triumphs may be something that has been established for years as best practice. That always makes for an awkward conference presentation.

So, to summarise, if I were starting teaching again this summer, I would stick to a basic goal of getting the content sorted first, then rooting out the concepts that students struggle with the most and devising ways to support that, and only then would I worry about developing pedagogically correct practice. And the latter, only if I felt that teaching excellence was something of personal importance to me and relevant to my career expectations. I did, by the way, decide that teaching was of personal importance to me and a key focus for my career. But sometimes I question whether that was the right decision, and in the current system I suspect it’s too late to go back the other way.

Meeting Matters

Meetings are an unfortunate fact of working life and unfortunately most people view them as a necessary evil, something to be endured. It’s a shame because they can be productive. At first the structure of a meeting seems obvious – people meet to discuss stuff, there might be an agenda, papers to consider, apologies to sent and lots more. But the typical structure of a meeting needs more careful consideration to ensure it is inclusive.

Let’s start before the meeting. The people in charge need to come up with an agenda, make sure any relevant information is available, and tend to catering needs. To allow people to fully consider papers and an agenda, they should be available as long in advance as possible, certainly no later than 3 – 5 working days before the meeting. This allows people who have different working patterns sufficient time to consider the papers. The notion that ‘no one reads the papers’, or ‘everyone reads them an hour before’ is anecdotal at best, and actively harmful to people who, for one reason or another, need longer to access things.  Put as much as you can in the papers in a concise and precise manner – let people process complex information and form a balanced opinion with time for reflection. This lets them attend the meeting and make a response rather than an off the cuff reaction, which may reflect a more emotional and stressed response.

Catering for diversity in a meeting means more than ensuring there is tea and coffee. Do people work remotely and need the opportunity to attend via video conferencing? Make the option available as default rather than something ‘special’ that is a ‘hassle’ to set up. Do people need to come and go during the meeting to tend other equally important matters? Put estimated timings on the agenda so people can plan to be there at the right points, then try to stick fairly closely to them. Minute by minute isn’t necessary but try to hit them within 5- 10 minutes. Arrange the agenda to cater to people’s attendance needs. If it’s a long meeting, factor in breaks, and if it’s all day, factor in a proper lunch break that allows people to regroup or spend some time doing their normal lunch stuff. Just because you’re holding a meeting, doesn’t allow you to deny people appropriate breaks throughout the day – some attendees will be relying on them.

Come up with a better way for recording absences than ‘apologies’. Yeah, what could possibly be the problem there? Simply, people who cannot attend due to different working patterns should not have to apologise for having a working pattern that suits their needs. It should be sufficient for people to notify you that they will be absent and have that recorded. If you use a doodle poll or similar method for agreeing a meeting date, automatically record the absence of those who indicated they could not attend. Similarly if you send invites via calendars, automatically record the absence of those who decline the meeting.  I utterly despise being marked as AWOL for a meeting where I clearly indicated I could not attend when the date was set. Another decent thing to do would be to automatically record the absence of those who’s duties prevent them attending – do you really expect someone who has teaching contact time during your meeting to send you apologies? You should not expect people to send emails expressing apologies when they never indicated they were available, or could not be available in the first place.  To me, an apology should be retained as an expression of regret for being unable to attend for unforeseen circumstances. A part-time contract, working from home day, or scheduled teaching is not unforeseen.

At the meetings. Make sure everyone gets a chance to be heard, and consider leaving contentious topics open for further feedback outside the meeting to allow those who take longer to process information time to come to an opinion. Big debates in meeting only favour those who think fast on their feet. Let the quiet people have a chance. Similarly, leaving a contentious topic open for a few days allows those who could not attend to consider things and offer an opinion. If your goal is to foster a collegiate environment, sending messages after meetings with limited attendance stating, in essence, that those who showed up to the meeting have decided X so that’s what we all must do, does not achieve this and indeed makes those who could not attend feel redundant. There are times when decisions are urgent and must be made by those in the room, but the majority of decisions in meetings just need to be made, they aren’t urgent matters of national security requiring rapid action.

Make sure people listen around the room. There is nothing more distracting in a meeting than one corner of the table talking amongst themselves. And this includes the person chairing it. If you need to talk privately to someone, pause the meeting, don’t talk over your attendees. If people are talking amongst themselves, ask them to share or be quiet. And make sure the conference call people have an easy way to indicate they want to speak.

Make sure you are catering to the diversity that you know about – presentations should be done using best practice for inclusivity, and adaptations for any specific needs of attendees should be catered for.

After the meeting. A summary of the key points, an actions list and minutes are essential to helping people follow the discussions. If you’ve left a topic open for a few days to allow more contributions, summarise the debate so far and send it around people with a clear deadline and format for responses. Don’t rely on gossip to relate the conversation. Make sure there are minutes for all meetings – for the people who could not attend, nothing happened that wasn’t minuted, so if you’re taking decisions that impact people’s working style, have the common decency to produce a summary and circulate it within a few working days of the meeting.

Ask for feedback on how the meeting ran, the room, the length, the agenda structure. It’s easy when chairing to lose sight of how the meeting felt for the participants.  If anyone has behaved in a difficult manner, talk to them informally before the next meeting. Consider asking for reports in written format when they convey standard information each time, reserving valuable meeting time for matters than need discussing rather than conveying information. Get those reports in good time, but make sure people are aware they will be required.

I don’t think any of this is difficult, there’s a lot of it, but it’s not hard. It just takes effort to consider many of these things. Feel free to add to this list in the comments.


Adventures in Google Classroom

Our institutional email is Gmail which gives us access to all sorts of Google goodies for teaching including Google Classroom. I dabbled with it a little last year, contemplating using it but I couldn’t quite get it straight in my head. This coming academic year I am planning to use it for my Industrial Chemistry module, largely because the majority of assignments for that module are submitted through GoogleForms.

About the module:

Students attend sessions on a range of industrially relevant topics in chemistry, take part in several workshops on skills, complete a reflective diary on the skills development, and work in groups to develop a product idea.  We have:

– a mock application form

– a mock aptitude test

– reflective diary entries

– presentation submissions (group and individual)

These are all submitted through GoogleForms, some used as tests to enable marking and return of feedback by email to the students. Presentations are normally submitted into a shared folder to facilitate upload to the PC in the presentation room.

I write my teaching documents using GoogleDocs and Slides so that I can link directly to them and enable downloading as a PDF when I’m on the VLE. I can roll over content and update it without the hassle of having to upload fresh files. I like being able to share my teaching content easily with other teaching staff and I love having everything in one folder, accessible on any computer I want to work on.

The plan for GoogleClassroom is to take advantage of several features:

Stream will allow objects to be viewed in a chronological order so that students see the most immediately relevant stuff for the week ahead first.

Topics will allow students to view all objects for a specific ‘thing’ (workshops, reflective diary, group project) in one place.

About will allow module reference material to be located in one place – my module guide, assessment guidelines etc.

I will be able to add questions into the stream so that I can collect feedback from students or deal with questions on assignments without email. I think I’ll use this mainly to collect feedback on how the course is going.

I’ve been experimenting with linking to the key documents so far and scheduling the release of things. I would like to get a lot of the course pre-scheduled so I save a little time during semester. Of course, that means I need to get a lot of the course revised and ready!

I’m also planning how I will get feedback from the students on how they found GoogleClassroom. Unless it is specifically requested, I’m not going to provide the course materials through the VLE as well, but I will clearly signpost the course on the VLE. I should also be clear, I’m not trying to replace the VLE, I’m trying to take advantage of the easier integration of Google tools in a module where I deliver 80% of the content and assessment and already use it extensively. I’m sticking with the VLE for everything else. I also think there are some advantages to asking the students to adapt to a different way of ordering content, an additional learning outcome if you like, and one relevant to a module that emphasises skills development.

The next challenge is to work out how best to facilitate group projects through this interface. It will be easy to create Google Team drives  or shared google drives for each group to enable them to share and work collaboratively (another module requirement), I just need to work out the best way do that. I believe it is possible to personalise posts in Classroom so I think I’ll be able to link to the shared folder for each group. I expect around 10 groups so that isn’t too much work. We’ll see…


Summer Book Club: Introduction

Front cover of the book Messy by Tim Harford

The thing that attracted me to this book was that it seemed a good antidote to the cult of super-organisation. I like to-do lists, I like feeling productive at work, I like colouring in. So I tried bullet journaling (spent too much time colouring bits in), I tried making to-do lists and project plans (spent all the time making the plan and no time doing it), and I tried working to a disciplined timetable to ‘get stuff done’ (first knock at the door obliterated that). I need a to-do list so I don’t forget important stuff but when it’s too detailed, I simply do nothing. Ultimately I am motivated by deadlines and a little pressure, and that doesn’t quite work with many organisational methods that do the rounds on social media.

A book about being messy sounded perfect. The introduction to the book celebrates spontaneity, whether it be provoked by adverse circumstances, or deliberately built into a speech (for example, not following the script precisely). That appeals to me – I like the idea of my to-do list forming the skeleton of my summer, the essential components and broad structure and form that guides things, but leaving plenty room to work on the rest as my whims allow. Yes there’s a risk of not doing ‘all the things’, but I am never going to do all the things I want to this summer and I’m better off accepting that now!

Questions if you’re reading along:

– have you ever found an organisation system that works and that you’ve stuck to beyond three weeks?

– do you think embracing a more spontaneous or messy style of working deliberately could work?

– what do you think about the main anecdote in the introduction (the piano one)? A useful reminder of the perils of demanding perfect circumstances for action, or not?

Summer Book Club!

Front cover of the book Messy by Tim Harford

This summer I plan to read the book Messy by Tim Harford (how to be creative and resilient in a tidy-minded world). I’ve spent quite a few summers thinking that if I could just become more organised, my productivity would shoot up, I’d have a plan, I’d know exactly what to do and when, and I end up ignoring pretty much every to-do list I spend hours making. When I saw the title of this book, it called to me and gave me a hope that there might be another way! It was an impulse buy and I’ve read the first chapter and liked what I read.

I will read a chapter a week (9 chapters, 9 weeks) and post my thoughts on each chapter here. I’ll also post some questions about each chapter if anyone wants to read along and comment. There’s no pressure to read it over the same timescale – whatever works. I know from past summers that a chapter a week is a good rate for me and this kind of book.


Attendance Matters?

Before we start, how many of you have sat in a meeting sorting out your email, doing your marking, reading a book, or playing a game on your portable electronic device? How many of you simply haven’t attended a meeting because you thought you had a better use for your time, or were so ‘meeting-ed out’ that one more was going to break you?

There’s been a few tweets about attendance at lectures over the past few days, sparked in part by a research study from a single institution/cohort/class showing that when lectures were captured (recorded), attendance dropped. There’s also a fondness amongst academics for using attendance as an indicator of success. It probably is, but it’s a proxy for other things and we should at least be aware of what we probably mean when we demand attendance.

Students who attend classes are more likely to hear important information, have the key points signposted, be prompted about deadlines or assessment formats and other stuff. We often reward students for their attendance by how we place emphasis on things, or additional information that we provide. So attendance heavily benefits cue conscious behaviour where students are focussed on assessment and seeking to gain insight into what tutors want to see in assessment and provide it. It’s very strategic, but it is often in response to our hidden curricula – the things we expect/want from students but don’t clearly articulate. And cue conscious students can be sub-divided into actively seeking cues (you know the ones, they email quite a bit), and to those that are more passive (they don’t ask) but do pick up on most things. It’s probable that cue agnostic students are present in sessions but simply don’t notice the hints being dropped.

We also liken attending classes to attending the live concert and getting the experience of attending – it is purportedly an enriching experience versus some kind of solo study. Perhaps it is but before we use this argument we have to seriously consider the ‘value-added’ in our face-to-face teaching. If we are easily replaced by a recorded ‘sage-on-a-stage’ lecture, then we’re not really adding value to those who attend. And in case you’re contemplating the concert analogy, consider that the recorded live album is edited and there are bits missing. But if you go to the whole thing you get the whole thing, warts, rainfall, wardrobe malfunctions and all. We’ve all stood at the front of class to a room full of bewildered, bored and at times hostile students. It isn’t great, but that should be a prompt for reflection, not just on our own teaching but on the context within which the students arrive in the session. I can’t function particularly highly in the third 2-hour meeting of the day, on a different topic to the other two, with half a ream of paper in pre-reading papers, minutes and agenda. So why should I expect my students to show up bright eyed and bushy tailed for the 5th and 6th contact hours of the day on the third topic?

Ultimately though, attendance is being used in many contexts as a proxy for engagement. Students who attend are likely to do better in assessment – that’s probably the cue seeking behaviour coming out but also they are simply more engaged with their studies. Students who attend are likely to have better relationships with staff, have greater interactions with staff, simply be better known in the department for positive reasons. I suspect unconscious bias comes heavily into play when dealing with these students and we view familiar faces more favourably. Yes, I know, we also know a lot of students for less positive reasons but we’re possibly better at checking our bias there. When was the last time you raised an eyebrow at a student’s mark profile because you were surprised a student with those positive characteristics hadn’t done as well as those positive characteristics made you think they should?

We know that students who don’t engage with courses do poorly – coursework that doesn’t fully address the assessment criteria, sitting in the lecture theatre surfing the internet or watching YouTube. And we struggle to differentiate the quietly contemplative solitary learners from the gregarious verbose learners when we invoke the allegedly awesome power of social learning (I’m sceptical, can you tell?). Perhaps it’s time to recognise that as lectures and teaching fellows, professors, readers and demonstrators, that we’re pretty far removed from understanding what it’s like to be a student. After all, we’ve only got our personal context and experience as a frame of reference and we probably weren’t typical.

Attendance as a proxy for engagement sucks. I think we need to carefully consider our role in creating engaging sessions (not talking about edutainment, just adding value to showing up), but also the factors beyond our control that influence attendance: they are not all related to the stereotypical student lifestyle with it’s mores and excesses, if that even existed. Let’s stop berating students for making what may well be valid and internally consistent decisions about attendance and start asking them to reflect on their engagement, and our role in supporting that.