Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Compulsory Attendance at Lectures?

The Guardian Education blog, in a post by Joshua Feldman, this week poses the question Should university lectures be compulsory? Feldman writes that allowing "students to skip class undermines the sense of academic community that is so important to universities – especially in fields where there is an emphasis on sharing ideas". He also argues that missing classes undermines students' "own studies because it allows them to miss class if they haven't done the work, are too hungover, or simply can't be bothered. Although there are times when students productively miss class — to work on an assignment, for example — there are many when they do so against their better judgement". He finally concludes that "enforcing compulsory attendance is the only solution".

An almost empty lecture hall.
Image source: The Squint.
I have never been in favour of making attendance at lectures/labs/tutorials compulsory at third-level. In some of my classes which are marked - needless to say, attendance at these classes is only compulsory for students who want to get a grade (absence = 0%). I strongly feel that students are responsible for their own education, and if they choose to not attend a class, then that is their decision. I regularly teach to classes with attendance less than 50%, it even drops to 20% or less on occasion. Rarely do I see a full class, so I know that many students from my classes are elsewhere when I deliver a lecture.

I am perfectly aware of the many reasons why students do not attend class - I was a student once myself. It is also possible that a student might learn more from half an hour in the Library than attend one of my two-hour classes. Students learn in different ways. The main thing that worries me is that I know from anecdotal evidence that many students choose to skip my classes because they do not think the subject is important, and that it is easy and not requiring much effort or study. It also gets up my goat when students complain about their lecturers or that they did not know that something was coming up because they missed the announcement in class. Frequently I am quite harsh with students in a tutorial when they tell me that they do not know what's going on and I ask them "Were you at the lecture?" - and their answer is "no". 

In my recent posts I have criticized public bashing of our graduates, and in the matter of attendance - they may have a point. However, by staying away from class does not mean that students are always in bed sleeping off a hangover. It is a life lesson that if you skip a class that you are taking a risk of missing something important or learning something new. Failure/pass rates do not match absence/attendance rates. While of course there are students who are simply not bothered to show up at class, much of what students do is calculated. I don't think any of us can look back at our college days and say that we attended all classes. By missing some we did not become lessor people or less valuable to employers.


  1. " I regularly teach to classes with attendance less than 50%, it even drops to 20% or less on occasion."

    You are doing it wrong.

  2. I'm with Eugene. What surprises me is that there is quite a variation in my students' attendance from year to year. It makes me suspect that some sort of groupthink is at work - a few mature students raises the work rate noticeably, a few popular dossers lowers the attendance dramatically.

    1. Hi Cormac - many thanks for your comment. I have definitely noticed this trend too, as have some of my colleagues. If I could figure out why some days there is near full attendance, and others very low - it would be easier to tackle the issue of attendance.

      Having said all this, a few years ago in one class, the student with the best result hardly ever came to class, while another who never missed a class failed. Maybe they are better staying away?

      Oh no - may be it is me after all!!!