Mandatory attendance is seldomly done in german higher education. The system relies on a series of examinations, and whoever passes those get the degree, no matter how much or how little time they have spent inside university buildings*. At the same time, there is a push for mandatory attendance because people feel that only if they force students to be physically present in class, they can make sure students learn what they are supposed to be learning, because they feel students can pass examinations with good grades without ever having set foot in a class, thereby missing out on a lot of learning they should have done**.
And then Ib (Hi Ib! :-)) recently asked me about an article on the importance of student attendance by Schulmeister (2015, “Abwesenheit von Lehrveranstaltungen. Ein nur scheinbar triviales Problem“). In that meta study, about 300 articles from many different countries are brought together to ponder the question of mandatory attendance.
The motivation is that one of the German Federal States recently changed its laws and now prohibits making attendance at university compulsory. The two main reasons are that attendance (and more generally, learning) is seen as the personal responsibility of students, and that students may depend on working to fund their studies. However, Schulmeister argues, many studies have shown that even though personal responsibility for outcomes is a huge motivator, there is no way to “force” someone to take on personal responsibility. And for the need to work to finance being at university, recent studies show that most students don’t work out of the necessity to earn money, but because they would like to have a higher income to be able to splurge on more things. Hence those two arguments don’t seem to carry a lot of weight. But what are the reasons for students not attending class?
There are a couple of “external factors” that affect student attendance. Students who live further away have higher attendance rates than those who live close by, maybe because they aren’t as tempted to have a quick nap at home in the middle of the day and then never come back to university. The weather also plays a role: the worse the weather, the lower student attendance. On the other hand students miss class more often due to vacations during summer. And attendance even depends on the day of the week!
But there are also other reasons for students to decide to stay away from class. Being tired or expecting the class to be boring are often mentioned, and most reasons appear trivial. Some students — interestingly, typically those with low grades — mention that they stay away because the teaching is bad. And studies find that students are convinced that it doesn’t matter for their learning outcome whether they attended class or not.
In fact, students often claim that they can compensate for not being in class by studying at home. And that might be the case if someone missed a single meeting for important reasons. However once people miss a couple of classes, on average they don’t compensate for it by studying more at home. On the contrary – students who miss a lot of classes often don’t even use the resources provided in learning management systems or by their peers. And even when they do, it cannot compensate for the missed attendance. Attendance is an important predictor of student success.
A big part of the discussion is whether personal freedom of students is limited if they were to be forced to attend classes. Some say that students are grown-ups, so it should be up to them to decide. On the other hand, studies show that those students who miss more classes hurt themselves by earning lower grades. Studies also show that the more classes someone attends, the higher their learning outcomes and the lower the risk to fail classes or drop out of university. So might it even be the responsibility of teachers to ensure students don’t hurt themselves, even if it meant limiting their personal freedom?
So what does all of this mean for us?
First, students need to be aware that they are, in fact, hurting themselves by staying away from classes. There are enough studies that have shown this, no matter what they might believe. And there are further studies that show that being aware of this alone already leads to increased attendance.
Second, we need to be aware that making attendance mandatory will make weaker students perform better (and the weaker students are also those who miss more classes in the first place).
Third, if we want mandatory attendance, policies that punish for missing class are more successful than those rewarding attendance (in most studies – not all). This seems to contradict the classical “dangle a carrot rather than threaten with a whip“.
But in the end, the best way to ensure high learning outcomes is probably the middle ground between mandatory attendance and complete laissez-faire. A compromise might be to monitor student attendance and use extended absence as a reason to warn students about the dangers of missing classes, and to provide mentoring and education on how learning works. And to keep negotiating with our students how much freedom they want and need and how much we are willing to provide to keep them from harming themselves.
What is your take on student attendance? Should they decide for themselves whether or not they want to attend, or should attendance be mandatory?
And Ib, what else would you like to know about this study? :-)
*Of course there are courses where attendance is or can be made compulsory, for example certain lab courses or student cruises. And even without mandatory attendance there are courses where you have to submit work continuously throughout the semester, making attendance compulsory for logistical reasons. But those are not the norm.
**To which I would reply — well, if your examination actually tested everything you want students to know and be able to do after your class, you would make sure that only those students pass that actually mastered everything. And then it would not matter how and where they learned it! Not relying on your examinations to “filter out” students who have not learned “enough” means that your examinations failed, not necessarily your teaching…
Rolf Schulmeister (2015). Abwesenheit von Lehrveranstaltungen. Ein nur scheinbar triviales Problem Studien zur Anwesenheit in Lehrveranstaltungen