Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Re. 'Are we just meat in the room?'

I have just read yet another very interesting blog from @PlashingVole (hereafter referred to as PV, which I hope he does not mind) about the issue of attendance at lectures (read the article here:  I started to write a comment back for it, but it got so long-winded I thought I would blog my response instead.

I imagine most places are struggling with this same issue.  PV makes an excellent point about the fact that students do not necessarily recognize the benefit of a course when they feel forced to do it.  We deliver compulsory Study Skills courses on the degrees at NUC which often incur a wide-spread (even aggressive) resentment from students.  Common responses are: ‘Why am I being told how to structure a sentence?’; ‘I have three A-levels, so I already know how to write an essay!’; ‘I hate maths, so why am I having to study quantitative research methods?’; ‘I came to study English – and this unit isn’t English’. Significantly though, by the end of their second year (sometimes even by the beginning of their second semester) many of those same students cite these units as the most important on the course, and some even express the wish that they were longer.  As PV argues, students cannot always be expected to understand the long-term benefits of a unit of study – but this doesn’t mean that such benefits aren’t genuine, and even necessary.

There is a further concern in that when we look across student attendance and progression data, there is a clear and direct correlation between grades and attendance. Those that turn up, get better grades (see my presentation on this below, which I tend to use to kick off my research methods class).


This might be because the stronger students tend to value lectures more anyway rather than because the lectures themselves have such a direct quantitative impact upon grades, but however you interpret the data it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that those students who often fail to attend classes are the very ones who need to. Even the presence in a room where relevant ideas are being discussed, and where students can interact and debate relevant ideas, must be of some benefit to those who (for whatever reason) struggle to give the time and commitment to their studies which they need.

There are problems with compulsory attendance though.  Firstly, as PV points out, the 'we know best, so do what we say' approach seems to go against the idea of 'independent learning' - that golden notion which seemingly distinguishes the graduate from the rest of the herd.  Secondly, there is a question of the increasingly stark practicalities of retention and progression data. Changes to HE funding mean that HEIs are increasingly dependent on being able to keep students and to make them succeed (see HEFCE). The thought of failing a (possibly) significant percentage of students because they only made 75% of lectures might be an effective threat to increase attendance in some students, but I can imagine many institutions expressing some qualms about whether the benefits outweigh the problems in terms of the institutions data. The marketability of an institution is increasingly dependent on this same data too. Many prospective students - particularly mature students - facing the significant costs of higher education are likely to review such data before making decisions on where to study. If you are paying that much money, are you going to go to the place with a 50% achievement rate, or the one with a 70%?

I certainly agree with PV that an attendance requirement would ultimately (if not always comfortably) benefit students, but would question the will of many institutions to enforce any penalties for failing to meet it. One alternative might be, instead of the threat of not accepting work from those with low attendance, to instead provide a greater incentive for attendance. Newham College, for example, gives its FE students with 80% attendance a laptop computer as a reward. I have no idea how effective this strategy has proved, but it might be interesting to see whether attendance at lectures can be better improved with a stick or with a carrot…