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:
- be supported by empirical evidence that it’s successful**
- treat the students with respect (if you prefer, treat them like adults)
- not disadvantage any class of students
- 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.