It is a common complaint of engineering lecturers that attendance at their lectures rapidly drops from near 100% for the first lecture to a steady-state value between 40 and 60%. There is also a good (but not perfect) correlation between attendance and exam performance. The fundamental reason for low attendance is absolutely clear: Students attend if and when they believe that they will get something useful from the experience – or at least get more than they would from any competing activity. A survey conducted by Tim Bullough in 2008, among a large cohort of students at Liverpool, elicited the following comments on lecturers who were regarded as excellent:
- Enthusiastic; passionate about the subject; knows his stuff
- Lectures are clear and well-structured and the material is presented in a clear logical way
- Notes are well set out and easily understandable
- She explains things very well
- Lots of practical, real-world examples
- He interacts with us in lectures
- She does not talk down to us
- He is very helpful, immediately responding to email enquiries
- She is very approachable and showed real concern for my learning
- The learning objectives were very clear
- He makes sure that the class understands the problem.
None of this is surprising or sophisticated – it’s just common sense. The key point is surely to be clear about the purpose of attendance at a lecture: Attendance can be forced by governmental requirements or encouraged by the giving of marks: Semi-automatic classroom attendance recording is now routinely available in many universities. But this is not the educational point – indeed it might be counter-productive. Attendance is only of value if the student benefits more from attendance than s/he would if the time was spent some other way. Coming to class in order to register, and then to fall asleep at the back, is no use either to student or lecturer. I believe that the lecturer must make clear to the class, at their first meeting, what is the purpose of attendance. For me the list of sensible reasons might include:
- A search for inspiration and motivation to study this topic;
- A need to ask questions to clarify an aspect of the topic;
- A wish to develop an understanding (perhaps via Socratic dialogue) of the topic;
while worthless reasons might include:
- A wish to have the syllabus described verbally;
- A wish to collect notes and handouts, or other proxies for knowledge;
The lecturer should evidently explain the purpose of the class in terms of my first list (have I missed any reasons?) and reinforce this explanation by his/her subsequent behaviour.
One further thing you can do to minimise the risk of non-attendance is to schedule deadlines for course-work and reports carefully. Avoid, and ask your colleagues to avoid, deadlines during the working day which can compete with scheduled lectures. Why not set a deadline of midnight on a Sunday (or even a weekday) so that the last-minute brigade neither needs to skip your lecture nor to stay up all night?
There is also an issue with late arrival at classes. Locking the door at the scheduled start time has been used by some lecturers but is usually unacceptable for safety reasons. The key point is consistency – the same treatment should be given to all late students on every occasion, and the reason for your intolerance of lateness should be explained clearly. For me, it is the discourtesy to other members of the class, whose concentration (as well as mine) is disturbed by late entrants.