Sunday 17 May 2015

Engagement or attendance

The engagement / attendance issue 

I spend a lot of time chasing students who do not attend classes. I keep a register of every seminar but not of lectures. I go for a sort of zero tolerance here. I chase every absence. The first one gets a a friendly email, the second something slightly sterner and the third the first of four official letters.
Official letter one points out that absence is not acceptable, letter two invites the student to meet with their personal tutor, the third sets up a meeting with their programme leader and the fourth asks them to withdraw. I'm personally not keen on letter four and try to avoid it. It goes against our retention agenda.  Letter three is prompted by a further absence or a lack of response to letter two and four by a lack of response to three or a further absence. The official letters become part of the student's record, which in turn informs references we may be asked to write.

Attendance not compulsory

There is an EU directive that students should attend 75% of their classes.  We clearly ignore that.  Our students tend to polarise into those who attend well and those that don't. On the whole,  those who attend well get better results that those who do not attend so well. This is not surprising; though we upload material to our VLE to help those who  cannot attend for good reason and to aid those who need need to pre read,  we are not generally supplying distance learning courses.  There are exceptions.  In one module I recently taught students who didn't attend scored as well as those who did. However, I had uploaded an unpublished book that in effect echoed the lectures. This was a request from my publisher.
It isn't like school where attendance is  compulsory and parents can be prosecuted if students don't attend. It isn't like work where you owe employers service in exchange for money. It's not even quite like gym membership  even if at  £9000 a year, £40.00 per class, paying the membership alone will not guarantee  a shapely body.  The student only harms herself by not attending and arguably even this is only so if the teaching is good and the student benefits from being taught rather than being an autodictdat.  Thankfully most do benefit. We have purpose.

Classes as another resource

The seminar anyway relies on students preparing beforehand. We all know they don't always so lecturers do well to have something up their sleeves. We talk of the "flipped" classroom, where we provide all the knowledge and an introduction to the skills beforehand and the class beomes a space for rehearsal, questions and troubleshooting. It becomes another resource for the student, who must self-direct her study. It is the university's job then to provide excellent resources. Are we coming back to gym membership?
Engagement rather than attendance, then
So, I write a variety of different things in my register.  As a former high school teacher I'm into "official" and "unofficial" absences. Illness, transport and family problems would be official. Didn't feel like it , something coming along and oversleeping would be unofficial. Not attending but asking an intelligent question could be labelled as something else: "notional presence" perhaps. Even the "unofficial" notifications are reassuring;  they show that the student is still alive and cares enough not to let you worry.


There are of course some classes where attendance is important.  The drama module, for example,not only needs everybody present at all scheduled classes but also at extra rehearsals. The creative writing. workshop works better with some sort of critical mass. All should comment on everybody's work and not just turn up if they are in the hot seat. Maybe measures should be taken here to make attendance compulsory.

A new role for the academic tutor 

If we agree that engagement is the key, rather than attendance, then the role of the academic tutor grows.  This is the key relationship for the student. A lack of engagement with her would cause concern.  Lack of attendance would be flagged but would not cause undue worry.


We are asked to provide references and we tend only to dwell on the positive. Those that read them naturally often read between the lines. If we don't mention attendance it probably wasn't good. If we're specifically asked, we must be honest. Here then, again,  perhaps we need to emphasise engagement over attendance.    

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