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.

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