Where the heck are my students?

Photo: Wondering where the students are, courtesy JP de Ruiter (pictured).

Disclaimer: I’m not a teaching-and-learning expert; you can think of this post as an interested person hashing out possibilities in print. If you know more than I do, please use the Replies!

I’ve been standing in front of classrooms for about 25 years now, and I’ve become increasingly irritated by the fraction of my students who aren’t filling the seats in front of me. In my typical course on a typical day, somewhere around 1/3 of my students are missing*. Get that: a third of my students aren’t even present in the classroom. All that buzz about lectures vs. “active learning”, learning styles, assessment design, and on and on: aren’t they just a distraction from the big issue, which is that no technique can reach a student who isn’t even in the classroom?

So how do I get my students into the classroom? Google will find you more on this than you could read in a lifetime – but you might be surprised, as I’ve been, to discover that the useful literature (quantitative, empirical, experimental) is quite shallow. We know a lot about why students say they don’t attend class (surveying students is easy). These may or may not be their real reasons, of course, but no matter; what’s really important is how (or whether) we can change that behaviour.

And that’s where I’m completely flummoxed. I’m searching for interventions because what I naively thought was the obvious one failed completely. The obvious one? I told my students that if they wanted to improve their grades, all they had to do was come to class, and I could almost guarantee a substantial boost. Colour me gobsmacked when this (repeatedly) didn’t work; but I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that students are just like all other humans, who can know what’s best for them and still not do it.

So what else can I do? Despite a fair bit of searching, my quiver is empty. Oh, the literature and the blogosphere have a fair number of interventions to suggest. But I want whatever intervention I deploy to meet four criteria. It should:

  1. be supported by empirical evidence that it’s successful**
  2. treat the students with respect (if you prefer, treat them like adults)
  3. not disadvantage any class of students
  4. improve student performance in their studies generally, not just in my course

With those criteria in mind, what do I think of some of the most frequently suggested interventions?

  • Give points toward the grade for attendance. This definitely fails on criterion #2, probably on #3 (because it disadvantages students with child-care issues, for instance), and probably on #4 (because unless I’m somehow building unconscious habits, they’ll just stay home from any course that doesn’t bribe them with attendance points).
  • Give points toward the grade for participation. This much better on criterion #2, but definitely fails on #3 (because it disadvantages introverts and underrepresented groups) and probably on #4. Here, by the way, is an excellent discussion of participation points.
  • Give mini-quizzes, either daily or unannounced. This passes criterion #1 (although the effect, when measured, turns out to be surprisingly modest). But it flirts with #2, and definitely fails on #4: again, we’re just bribing students to attend. Which is too bad, because otherwise I like this idea, or at least its potential: mini-quizzes can be learning tools as well as a way to increase attendance. At least, they could be if they were intellectually substantive enough; unfortunately, substantive daily quizzes have difficult logistics in a large class. If they aren’t substantive, of course, they’re just disguised attendance points.
  • Stop posting lecture notes before class – or at least post incomplete ones. Here’s a strong argument in favour, and there’s evidence that this does improve student performance (criterion #1). Actually, I tell my students repeatedly that my posted Powerpoints are outlines with copies of graphics, not complete lecture notes. But I have colleagues who go much further, leaving conspicuous blanks where the important words are, to the point where you can’t actually interpret the Powerpoint without attending the lecture. I’m tempted by this, but I can’t decide whether it violates #2, and I’m quite sure it violates #3 – by penalizing better-motivated students who bring the downloaded Powerpoints to class, and use them to spend more of the class time thinking synthetically and less of it writing. Finally, refusing to post lecture notes seems to contradict another message I try to send: that students taking a course seriously will prepare for each class, in part by previewing lecture material.
  • Teach in more engaging ways. It’s frequently argued that low attendance is an obvious consequence of poor and passive teaching. This argument suffers from the inconvenient fact that attendance is often low even for award-winning professors (and so may fail criterion #1). One could, furthermore, argue that attending and learning from even the most unengaging classes is a hallmark of the adult, professional learner. Nevertheless, there are so many reasons other than attendance to make our teaching engaging that it’s pretty hard to argue with this suggestion. The problem? Precisely because there are so many reasons to make teaching engaging, I don’t think this is available as a new intervention. Those of us who care about our teaching are already trying hard to engage our students*** – and those instructors with huge room for improvement are not, I suspect, terribly concerned about attendance.

In the end, then, I’ve got nothing. I could, of course, draw the obvious conclusion: that a logical extension of treating my students like adults (criterion #2) is to stop trying to micromanage their behaviour – even when they’re making what I think are poor choices (non-attendance). But that feels wrong to me, too.   So here’s where you come in. If you’re still reading this far in, it’s likely that you’re interested in the attendance issue, too. Please use the Replies to share your thoughts. Maybe I can still fill those empty seats!

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) January 11, 2016

Related post: What if we flip the students instead of the classroom?


*This number seems to make me pretty typical; see Romer 1993 and many, many papers since. Although I have the distinct impression that attendance has gotten worse, I can’t find any backup for that impression in the literature (and the age of the Romer citation suggests I may be wrong).

**Not just data reporting that surveyed students say it would be effective, as in Kelly 2012. Students, like all other humans, are likely to be poor predictors of their own behaviour.

***I’m not a legendarily good teacher, but I don’t think I suck, either. I’ve worked hard over the years to make my lectures (and yes, they are mostly lectures) as engaging as I can. My impression (≠ data) is that I can keep the students who are there engaged, but I can’t make extra ones show up.

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38 thoughts on “Where the heck are my students?

  1. paulypod

    From an anecdotal perspective, I’ve found that attendance was higher when class sizes were smaller (in my experience, large=100+, small=12-20). I attributed this to people feeling a greater sense of accountability when their presence (or absence) was more likely to be noticed. Feeling valued/belonging is a really useful motivator. Finding ways of making a class *feel* smaller (eg: a greater effort by lecturers to address students by name, breaking into smaller discussion groups that are consistent throughout the semester), could be a useful strategy to fill empty seats.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks for commenting! I’d thought the same thing about small classes, until this last semester when my 13-student course had low attendance. This has made me wonder, although it’s n=1 and I suspect it was an outlier. Now if only I was better at learning names…

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    2. saejtin

      As the parent of a child who’s not attending his university lectures I thought I’d leave a comment. He doesn’t go because he doesn’t liking learning through lectures. (It may be relevant that he was home-educated. He is good at self-directed learning but unpractised at classroom learning). He reads and uses the notes the lecturer puts online and does his assignments and tends to get good grades. But on occasion he has had a pre-deadline but fairly last minute problem and the lecturers are then unhappy about helping him because he hasn’t attended. His feeling, and it may be unfair, is that they are saying, “you can’t be bothered with me, so I can’t be bothered with you!” rather than accepting that it’s not the way he learns best. He has suspected that, and you rather confirm it, that some lecturers deliberately leave some information needed for assignments out of the online notes. He was asked to talk to his tutor about his non-attendance and was just advised to attend. I suppose one might say why go to university if you don’t go to lectures – but then there are the practicals, the online notes, the assessment structure, the degree-awarding facility and the rest of the university experience! I respect your thought about not wanting to micro-manage your students, and can also see why that might not seem right, but maybe it is fine if the student is doing OK on assignments and wants to study in their own way. Just some thoughts that seemed relevant but may not be!

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  2. Jeremy Lundholm

    Thank you for posting this! I’m not alone I guess. I had a class of 13 last semester. Lots of hands-on, “learner-centred” activities, engaged lecturer (I’d like to think)… I was able to learn the names of all the students before the first class as my school instituted online class lists with the student ID photo attached for each student (every university should do this). I still had attendance problems, mainly with the students who needed to attend the most. I had a rough time teaching this course and it’s making me wonder whether I want to be doing this for another 20 years…
    So, I’m not sure that learning names faster will help. There are issues beyond the control of an individual instructor that underlie the attendance problem.

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  3. Karl Cottenie

    When I read your requirements, and then your comments, it struck me that your requirements almost necessarily set you up to fail. So here are my gut feelings backed up by almost no empirical evidence:
    1). completely agree, but I would add a qualifier: it should work with your own teaching style.
    2). completely agree, but when I read your interventions, I think you are too harsh on yourself. If you explain in your course outline why daily mini quizzes are important and explicitly associate learning objectives with it, then this is a very adult and respectful way to interact with students whether they are children, young adults, or adults. This is also backed by a lot of empirical evidence (http://mazur.harvard.edu/research/detailspage.php?rowid=8). I also think that there are lots of situations in adult work life where attendance is mandatory for several reasons, so if you have a good reason, this could be a perfectly reasonable requirement. As for the logistics part, my colleagues have convinced me about the pedagogical advantages of using clickers in my next biggish class,
    3). agree, but if this disadvantage to students with child-care issues is really important to you, then requiring attendance is by default in conflict, and you will have to make a decision in advance whether attendance for its learning advancement is more important than your student’s time trade-offs.
    4). I don’t think I agree with this one. Students take maybe 40 classes in their undergrad education, and I don’t expect my one course should have a lasting influence on their learning experience. Of course I hope that happens, but that is not a requirement for me personally, because it would set me up for failure as a teacher.

    So in short, I have used questions or exercises in class continuously throughout my teaching, and I will now make it more formal with clickers in bigger classes and paper versions in smaller classes in combination with explicit learning objectives associated with this component as an important component of my teaching approach. And thanks to your requirements and blog post, I have now a nice way to frame it in my bi-annual teaching statement! So thanks for the blog post.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Karl, for your thoughtful comment. I’m inclined to think you are absolutely right: if I stick closely to my 4 criteria, I have set myself up to fail, or at least to realize that perfect attendance while treating students like adults just isn’t something anyone can have.

      On the other hand, I like your thinking about explaining the learning value of frequent quizzes, in hopes that students see them as more than just attendance points. Thanks.

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  4. sleather2012

    Yes, even when I was at Imperial we had undergraduate students who did not attend lectures, and I soon found out that they would only attend labs if there was an assessment linked with it – At MSc level on the other hand, attendance is pretty much 100%, and if a student does not attend they usually send an apologetic email saying why they will not be attending or one later saying why they couldn’t make it. So my feeling it is to do with motivation, many students on large undergraduate courses are not there because of a deep love of the subject and these are probably the ones that miss most lectures. At MSc level, at least in the UK, they have made a grown-up decision to enhance their cv and career prospects in a specialist subject area and, in most cases, will be self-funding it, so their motivation is greater.

    PS I have to confess, that in my second year as an undergraduate, I regularly missed Saturday morning lectures 🙂

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  5. peternewbury

    A big part of my job is working with instructors to help them create classrooms where students learn. Low attendance is a common symptom. Here are 2 conversations I have with them:
    1) Students do not see the value of coming to class. How does being there make them more successful? (I ask this frequently of instructors show post full notes online after class, and who spend class going through those notes. If the only reason to come to class is the notes, and the notes are available elsewhere, why bother!) There’s no magic bullet to this issue but here’s something to think about: your expertise is not the content – anyone can memorize. Your expertise is knowing the connections between concepts and analysis/problem-solving. That’s what you should be doing in class, with carefully designed opportunities for students to practice those skills. Flipped classes and active learning (especially peer instruction with clickers) are good, evidence-based strategies for creating that kind of classroom.

    2) If a student feels like no one will notice or care if they skip class, they’re more likely to skip class. Imagine this alternative: imagine a student thinking, “If I’m not there today, that class will be less valuable. I have something unique and important to contribute.” I totally admit this one is harder to address. My goal for the class I’m teaching right now is to “see” each student. What this means in class is using instructional strategies that create opportunities for each student to contribute their unique knowledge/experience, even in a class of 300. Again, peer instruction with clickers is a good choice. So are “jigsaw” activities and worksheets completed in small groups (2-3 students), especially if students are assigned roles in the group (like note-taker, spokesperson, “expert”, discussion manager,…)

    I like how these 2 issues overlap – knowing I have something important to contribute to the class is one reason why attending is valuable.

    Peter

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Peter! I think what’s interesting (with respect to your point 1) that students offered ANY set of notes will assume that these are THE notes, with everything on them they might want to know – even after being told explicitly that this isn’t true. This is frustrating, because withholding ALL notes just penalizes good students. And I completely agree it’s in the connections and integration, and stressing one thing over another, that the instructor’s value lies. Otherwise, all a student needs is Wikipedia and time…

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  6. Brian McGill

    I have increasingly taken to posting notes that only have pictures and graphs – no words at all. This makes it pretty clear the notes are not an adequate substitute for lecture. I would say it has had a positive (but not perfect) effect on attendance.

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  7. Clem

    Have to second the votes here for mini quizzes… and not that they need to be daily, but random and often enough. As a practical matter you should give the quiz at the end of the lecture period so that quizzes must be passed in at the final bell – protecting time the typical laggard(s) will cost if quizzed without a deadline. The quiz can be as involved as you’re prepared to grade of course – but a question or two requiring some synthesis or interpretation of material has value and can help stimulate critical thinking (and identify individuals needing assistance in this important skill).

    I’m so old the boards in classrooms were still black. I had a favorite prof in an upper-level botany class (20-25 students) who had each of us fill out a 3×5 index card (they do still make these 🙂 ) with our name, major, and some personal trivia (e.g., favorite plant). He brought the deck to class each day and would go through it to ask questions directly to students. We had assigned reading from the text and/or journal articles for each class and questions usually played to whether we’d read the assignment(s). He would go trough the deck in sequence and ask enough questions to get through the whole deck in under a week. If a student was absent when their turn came up he would mark their card and move on to the next. We quickly learned who we followed and knew whether reading the assignments would be absolutely necessary for the next lecture (and attending a lecture where we were likely to come up… a given). Then about halfway through the semester his deck “accidentally” fell on the floor… shuffling it nicely. Horrified looks all around (and impish grin on the prof).

    The index cards help associate names and faces – easing the difficulty learning each of your students.

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  8. Katie Whitehead

    Another suggestion: learn all of their names. Corollary: Impress upon them that you really care about them, and that you notice when they are and are not there.

    Learning 80 names is not the easiest thing in the world, but it’s also not that hard, and is made easier with the picture rosters we are given. I’ve also found that learning names is good for me, too- I like the students better, I like teaching them better when I feel like I know them.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Katie! I have to say that learning 80 names is VERY difficult for me – definitely outside my skill set (not just with respect to students). But I agree, there are many good outcomes from being able to call students by name. Attendance might be one of them (although what data I have suggest it isn’t a strong effect).

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      1. peternewbury

        I’m totally with Katie on this: learn your students names. I’m up to 75 students – and just 2 years ago I was convinced I could never, ever learn students names. Now, I can’t imagine teaching strangers.

        I’m lucky to have access to students’ pictures through our student information system, and I use them to make index cards (actually, it’s PPT slides printed at 6-up handouts):

        http://www.peternewbury.org/2014/01/learn-your-students-names-no-really/

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        1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

          Peter – I’m totally in agreement that this would help (maybe not with attendance, but definitely with other things. And maybe you’re right, maybe I could do it – but 50 years of life experience strongly suggests otherwise. This is not unwillingness to try; it’s a matter of ability, as I struggle with names and faces in all situations. (At UNB, by the way, a large fraction of students suppress availability of their photos with the class list, so unfortunately that’s not a help).

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            1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

              Not off-topic at all! I don’t think my inability is “medical”, like yours; but I have heard of that and have sometimes wondered idly if it comes in mild varieties 🙂 I like that you use it to make yourself “human and relatable”. I wear nerdy T-shirts for the same reason (well, that and the fact that I like them). This got a mild sneer from the President of my university once, until I explained that and showed him a photo of an insect one of my students had submitted for an assignment because it looked like the one on my T-shirt! That evidence of engagement carried the day…

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  9. AEMcDonald

    Great post! The attendance in most of my classes ranges from 75-95% which seems to be higher than those seen from some of my colleagues which I hope reflects the efforts that I’ve made to use active learning in my classroom. I teach 3rd and 4th year undergraduate courses and do not use textbooks, so the only source of information is the course notes and what I cover in the classroom. I provide class notes the day before class, but I talk a fair bit about each slide and not all of this information is on the slides themselves. I also conduct random 10 minute in-class essays (7 per term and they have to do 5 for 10% of their grade) and lecture summary assignments (3 per term and they have to do 3 for 30% of their grade). This certainly helps with attendance, but also does double duty addressing learning outcomes. It is really hard not to take a lack of student attendance personally, but I’ve started to realize that many of my students have very busy lives. Some of those absences are for valid reasons (e.g. illness, family care issues, personal crises) and as you said I have to treat my students as adults and therefore accept that if they are choosing to miss class then they have to deal with the consequences of that choice.
    One of my colleagues in another department has done something very radical. He offers two versions of the same course. Option #1 is for those who choose to attend class regularly (e.g. they do assignments, he offers lots of guidance and assistance) and Option #2 is for students who wish to learn on their own (e.g. they buy the textbook, don’t come to class, teach themselves, and write only term tests). Students pick which option they want by a certain date and are locked into that option. He gets a 50:50 split for each option and can therefore focus his attention on the students who want and/or need his help to learn the material. It’s pretty out there, but he is much happier teaching now compared to previous years when he would fret and get upset about students not attending class.

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  10. Jeremy Fox

    Another vote for frequent, low-stakes quizzes. A good idea pedagogically, no matter what the attendance is; encouraging attendance is a happy side-effect. You, and the students, need to know ASAP what they are and aren’t getting (which is usually very different than what they *think* they are or aren’t getting), rather than not finding that out until they bomb the midterm. But no, I’m not aware of any big randomized controlled trials of their effect on attendance.

    Of course, one could view frequent quizzes as just paternalism by another name. “Ideally”, the students ought to do the assigned readings and attend lecture just because the prof asked them to–or even just because they love learning!–rather than having to be “forced” to do so via quizzes. But personally, I wouldn’t see it as paternalism. I mean, if you’re going to take that view, then every assignment and other course requirement is paternalism.

    This year in our intro biostats course (132 student lecture, usually attended by 90-110 students in the past), we’re flipping the classroom. And not only that, we’re putting students in permanent 6-student teams for the lectures. So they’re responsible to their team for showing up prepared and contributing (their mark for the team-based portion of the course depends on peer evaluations). And the students are taking frequent low-stakes quizzes as individuals, and as teams. All of this is for pedagogical reasons rather than to improve attendance, but it does have the side effect of improving attendance.

    I suspect that at least part of the positive effect of flipped classrooms on student learning in the pedagogical literature is that it forces students to spend more time doing the readings (and attending class!) than they otherwise would, and forces them to keep up with the material rather than waiting until the night before an exam and then cramming. I’ve asked Meghan Duffy, who knows the pedagogical literature pretty well, if she knows of any studies that try to separate out this “time/effort investment” effect. from “per-unit time/effort invested” effects Apparently there aren’t many.

    As an aside, in intro biostats I’ve also tried the device of having a small fraction of the course mark (5%) depend on answering 75% of the clicker questions I asked at random throughout the term (usually 1-2 per lecture, sometimes 3, sometimes 0). I called this “participation”. This improved attendance a bit, from about 90-100 students out of 132 to ~110. But some students can’t be arsed to attend even if it’s worth approximately one step on the letter grade scale (5% is about the difference between, say, a B and B+). Interestingly, most students attended the large majority of lectures (>85%, well above the required threshold to get the 5% participation mark), while the remainder attended few or none. And not surprisingly, those who weren’t attending did no better than a C+ in the course (even setting aside their zero for participation), and many barely passed or failed. So quite possibly, the students who aren’t attending are students who are on track to fail at university, and who need a more substantive intervention than any single prof can give them if they’re going to turn it around and succeed.

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    1. Jeremy Fox

      By the way, we’re now starting to get data from our second term teaching intro biostats as a flipped classroom. So far, something like 15 students out of 120 have not attended either of the first two classes. Which is about the level of attendance we used to get when the class wasn’t flipped. It’s early days, and possibly some or all of those ~15 are planning to drop the course and just haven’t gotten around to it, so we actually have had close to 100% attendance. But maybe not–back in the fall, pretty much every single student was there every day from the get-go. So we’ll see–maybe there’s no magic bullet when it comes to encouraging attendance. They’ve been getting email reminders too, and the fact that they need to be attending from the get-go is crystal-clear in the syllabus, which is available on the course website. You can lead the horse to water, but you can’t make it drink, as the saying goes.

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      1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

        Yeah, a lot of people suggest that flipping the classroom will boost attendance, but that claim seems unlikely to me; students who don’t like to attend class seem to me even less likely to attend when they’re asked to do prep work and active show they’ve done it in front of their peers. But, of course, I could be (and hope to be) wrong.

        I’ve always thought that saying ought to be “you can lead the horse to water, but you can’t make it THINK”. At least, on my cynical days 🙂

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        1. Jeremy Fox

          On the other hand, flipping the classroom might “boost” attendance in the sense of forcing those students who don’t feel like attending regularly to drop the class entirely. In my intro biostats course, if you punt on attending lecture, you’re sacrificing at least 16% of the course mark, which is going to make it really hard to pass the class.

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          1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

            I guess I’m having one of my cynical days… I see little evidence, sadly, that students are that rational about whether and when to drop my classes. Had one finish the semester with 9.5% a couple of years back. You’d think that student might have seen it coming…

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  11. Grad student

    Providing you with anecdotes from the other side of the lectern isn’t giving you the empirical data you’re looking for, but here is my two cents: when I attend a powerpoint lecture with printed out notes in hand (or the electronic version on my laptop), I don’t spend more time thinking synthetically. I spend more time checking my email on my phone. When you don’t provide lecture notes, you force students to engage – literally hands on – with the material (Bonus #1). They can’t write down every word you say, so they have to think about what the main points are prioritize writing those (Bonus #2). In the undergrad course that I think I learned the most in, the professor covered so much so fast that my notes were always a mess. I always had to re-write them after class while it was still fresh in my head, which made me review the material (Bonus #3). And if I found during my re-write that I didn’t understand something or I had missed something, I had to go talk to the professor or send him an email. I talked to him frequently (Bonus #4)! If I missed class, I had to find a friend and ask to copy their notes, which typically involved talking about class material with other students outside of class (Bonus #5). So, in my opinion, posting your notes is a huge disservice to your students. You don’t even need to post the graphs and pictures for them. Students can sketch, and it is good for them to do so.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks for this. It’s interesting that you’ve reversed my argument about withholding notes penalizing good students. You may well be right. I would have one worry: all the things you say lacking the slides made you do: did you do these things because you were already a “professional learner”, caring about the material and self-guiding behaviour to learn it? And in this case, would have attended anyway, and would have done those things even if you had the slides? I ask because I think many students don’t seem to have such professional learning behaviour under any circumstances. I’ve come to think that teaching students to do the kind of things you’re talking about is probably more important than any subject-related content I can possibly deliver!

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      1. Grad student

        I took the class that I mentioned in my first semester of undergrad, before I had any good learning habits. Also, I wanted to be a history teacher and it was a geology course, so I wasn’t particularly motivated by the subject material at first. The professor told us on the first day that you had to come to class because all of the notes were in his head, not written down anywhere. He also discussed one system of reviewing notes (rewriting the notes for the whole semester once per week – ha!) that I decided was more than I needed, so I just rewrote the notes from each lecture one time. I think informing everyone of those things upfront was a good tactic.

        I do remember some of the students being annoyed because they were used to receiving copies of the notes, and I predict that to be an even more widespread annoyance these days. Not sure how to avoid getting flayed alive in your student evals. But I had another professor who didn’t post his powerpoints because of copyright concerns, and I don’t remember anyone complaining about taking notes. Maybe it depends on how fast you talk.

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    2. MS

      There is a recent emprical study that concludes that providing powerpoint slides to students ahead of time decreases their engagement and performance — though interestingly it has no measurable effect on attendance: dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2015.02.002

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  12. Adam

    Another possibility along the lines of low-stake quizzes/participation. Something of this nature was suggested to me by an education researcher. You can use clicker questions to gauge general learning (they have internet based ones now so students can use their phones! Which may be a different set of problems). Instead of explaining the answer and why, have the students divide into small groups to teach each other. Presumably, knowledge of the correct answer increases this way. Occasionally the wrong explanation can spread via particularly convincing students.

    To avoid disadvantaging certain groups or personality types, you can always allow students to discuss answers to questions in small groups, then randomly call on students using the mentioned index cards, a number generator, etc. This way students don’t have to volunteer, which eliminates students from dominating the class, and increases confidence in shy students because they have already talked over the answer with peers. As an added bonus, you aren’t ‘on’ for the entire lecture period and can mosey around while students discuss.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Adam – have you seen literature showing an impact on attendance rates? These things all sound good, of course, in other ways; but I’m wondering if they’re an incentive or a disincentive to actually coming.

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  13. Jeremy Fox

    So Stephen, I assume you’ve seen Real Genius? Specifically, the series of short scenes throughout the movie in which attendance at a big lecture declines throughout the term? With students who aren’t attending just leaving tape recorders on their desks to record the professor’s lecture? By the near-end of the term, there’s only one student still attending, surrounded by tape recorders. And at the very end of the term, the student arrives to find that the prof isn’t attending either, and instead has left a tape recording of his lecture in a cassette player at the front of the room. 🙂

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  14. Will Petry

    Building on the idea of mini quizzes…

    A strategy I observed as a TA was to allow students to drop a reasonable number of their lowest scores. In the case of the particular class I TA’d, this came to 5 scores out of 17(!) mini quizzes offered over the 10-week quarter. Students were free to skip these classes outright with no questions asked, affording them the freedom to deal with time conflicts, physical and mental health issues, deaths of loved ones, or other happenstances that kept them from getting to class. On my end, preparing quizzes twice a week was manageable and gave me an avenue to gauge the critical thinking and application skills that were essential to doing well on the final exam. Moreover, this strategy worked well to encourage attendance. Only ~5 students were absent per class (omitting an outlier during midterms); only two individuals were chronically absent despite repeated attempts to reach out to them. I found this approach to be a good balance of the approaches I’ve seen to deal with #2 & 3 in your list. That and it didn’t have me feeling like an awful human being while sorting through the doctors’ notes and obituaries that the professor of another class I TA’d required to excuse absences.

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  15. stefanie

    Yes! Me, too! I’m teaching a required course with 60-90 students, depending on the year. I care about teaching and learning, I think I give interacting and engaging lectures, some things aren’t on my slides, and I try to learn student names. As an incentive for students to show up and to keep up with the material, I ask students at the beginning of each class one question (orally, not on a slide) about the previous lecture’s material that is similar in scope and style to my actual exam questions.

    Students that show up are engaged and give me positive feedback, but I’ve got the same problem that Steve has: what do I do to get more students to attend?? In my case, it’s often not 1/3 that is missing — but 1/3 that is attending! Needless to say, the resulting exam scores are frustrating!

    Quizzes are a good idea in principle. But I’m living and teaching in Germany, where I’m prohibited by some absurd higher education law to have the final grade be the result of more than one single graded assessment. Yes, really, I’m only allowed to give one single final exam, although I can give other exams/quizzes/homework/exercises/etc that are not graded. Predictably, students are definitely not motivated to put effort into an assignment that isn’t graded.

    So what can I do under these conditions (graded quizzes not an option) to get more students to show up?? Please help, any suggestions are welcome!

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