Thinking about student attendance. Podcast recommendation: “Talking Learning and Teaching” with Tom Lowe

Now that we are back to (the new?) normal after the pandemic, it seems that something has changed regarding how student physically attend teaching. Why is that? That’s what Kevin L. Merry and Tom Lowe are exploring on the “Talking Learning and Teaching” podcast.

To me, one sentence really stood out: “One student can have many reasons for not attending, and they can be different every day” (my emphasis, because I think it’s worth pointing out). There are many different reasons that can influence attendance that I’ll go into below, but we should really be careful to not think about each of them applying to different subsets of students (even though some of them of course might), but to see all of the different reasons potentially being relevant to most or all students at different times.

There are probably more reasons to consider whether you are going to attend in person, but it’s good to keep in mind

The cost of living. Life is really expensive these days! That includes living close-ish to university so it’s even feasible to attend, being able to pay for commute, working hours that potentially overlap with class times, or that require resetting the internal clock so students can function at class times, and also being able to pay for (quality, and sufficient amounts of) food. This is something that we tend to forget, but if students can’t afford to eat properly, how can we expect energy levels high enough for deep thinking?

Another aspect of cost-of-living is “digital poverty”. If students share devices, stuff happening in parallel means only one person can attend, and in general even reading pdfs or accessing Canvas might not be possible at all times!

But then there are also aspects relating to how we teach. If we expect students to commute to campus for a 1-hour lecture, it had better be worth the effort that goes into the commute! Also the quality of teaching in general. If teachers only read from their slides, why should students not just read slides at home on their own? If lectures are non-interactive and streamed, why would anyone be there in person?

And then the eternal question of relevance. If teaching is not perceived as relevant, why would anyone invest their time, whether in person or otherwise?

Also, experience during the pandemic shows that “it worked” to do everything from home. So why should it not be good enough now?

Another good point to remember is that we as teachers also changed how we work. A lot of us work from home more than before the pandemic, and the “this meeting could have been an email” thing is A THING now. If there is no benefit of going in over working from home, why would anyone do it?

And a really positive impact of the pandemic, I think, is that nowadays, being “semi sick” counts as a reason to not go in and get all your colleagues sick (I HATE it when people come to work coughing!! Have you not learned that we can do stuff online now?), when pre-pandemic it was pretty normal to schlep yourself into the office coughing and sneezing. But that of course also holds for students, not just staff.

In the podcast, two problems with the focus on student attendance are raised:

Attendance, even though often used as proxy, is really not the same as engagement. Being there and nodding is only part of the picture. We have no idea how much students who don’t seem engaged in terms of attendance talk about content in settings we don’t observe, in a café or on WhatsApp, and even when looking at attendance online we can only see if students let all videos run through, but not if they were actually watching, and how they were thinking about the content. And, as they point out: “sometimes highest-engaged students are the ones who struggle the most”

The other big problem with focussing on attendance is accessibility. Yes, we can (work to) increase student motivation to come in: make content relevant, offer formative assessment every session, etc. But if we have made it worthwhile, what about students who cannot come in? We can make it easier to be present (through e.g. funding to travel, for food, …), and organizing teaching in a way that students only have to attend block courses, or 3 days a week, for example. But there are many legitimate reasons for not coming in (and as I said above, there are times when I want students to stay away — I don’t want your virus, thank you very much!). A fear-of-missing-out approach (i.e. holding the exciting or beneficial stuff back so only people who turn up get it, as an incentive to be there) is really not fair and not accessible. So how do we deal with that going forward?

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