Friday, May 07, 2010

University Attendance

I noticed that an American university was planning to use RFID tags to track student attendance at lectures: Arizona college to position sensors to check class attendance.

A full lecture hall!
Originally uploaded by DavidDMuir
I sympathise with the university to an extent. I find it frustrating that attendance is poor at lectures. Also, I get all grumpy old man when students say, "Why didn't you tell us about [insert topic here]?". Often we have covered the issue the student is asking about, so it is frustrating that, possibly because of non-attendance, the student missed it. Students say (we do ask!) that often they stay away because they don't see the value of the lecture. My frustration comes from not understanding the criteria they use to judge "value" - how do they decided what is valuable and what is not? Often all they have to go on is the title in the timetable and therefore their decision is based on minimal evidence. My suspicion is that the real reasons for poor attendance are different from the stated reasons. It is a reasonable guess that the timing of the lecture has an effect (Friday afternoon lectures are particularly poorly attended) and past experience of lectures is another possible factor (if previous lectures in a slot have been of minimal value, students may be less inclined to attend future lectures).

Universities have to take at least some of the blame for poor attendance. If they use a lecture format because it's cheap rather than because it is effective, students may vote with their feet. If I fail to engage students, and fail to convince them of the value and relevance of what I'm talking about, poor attendance at subsequent lectures may be the consequence.

Therefore, I also have some sympathy for the students. The university in Arizona is encouraging lecturers " have attendance be a part of students’ grades". That seems a particularly odd suggestion to me. Part of being a university student is making decisions about your learning for yourself and suffering the consequences if those decisions are bad. Surely, if attendance at the lecture is valuable, it will be reflected in the grades the students get anyway? Having said that, there is an argument that attendance has a value beyond the grades achieved. In particular, in a professional course like teacher education, I would argue that being with fellow students and then discussing the lecture afterwards (in the cafe, student bar, bus home...) is an important part of a student's development. Interaction with other teachers will remain an key part of their continuing professional development and establishing good habits during initial training seems like a good idea.

So while I sympathise with the universities frustration, I feel they are taking Big Brother's sledgehammer to crack a nut. And while I sympathise with the students, I think that they are missing out on something important by staying away lectures and that their overall experience of the course will be poorer as a result.

But I would say that wouldn't I? What do current students think? What do former students think?

1 comment:

Chris said...

I recall being issued with Class Tickets at Glasgow Uni when I was there. You didn't get into the exam halls without them, and you though you got first class tickets if you'd performed well I think they were related to attendance. (Can't think how they checked, though)
But in my year in teacher training I frequently skipped boring classes - I think I went to two RE classes in my whole time there. Ironic, given what I've ended up doing post-retirement!