Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A mechanism to encourage lecture attendance

It is of increasing concern to me how few students actually attend lectures. For example, in the second year undergraduate course I taught recently, attendance was in the range 50-60%. This is not unusual.

I consider that attending the lectures is an integral part of the EDUCATION that a course is meant to provide. Contrary, to what many students believe education and passing assessment are not the same thing. I am also aware there is much more to a course than just attending lectures.

If all the students were at home reading the text and solving problems I would not mind. However, based on their performance on exams I am skeptical of this.
If lectures seem not to be helpful then students need to engage with the lecturer to trying and make them moreso, e.g., by asking relevant questions. Again, this is part of the education process. Students need to learn to make the system work for them.

So what should we do about it?
Here is one radical proposal to address the issue.
At the beginning of each lecture a head count is performed and recorded. This is then averaged over the whole semester. This number is then the maximum number of students that will be allowed to pass the course, regardless of what students score on the other assessment.

This mechanism will not only provide a significant incentive for students to attend but also to encourage other students in the class to attend.

I would not claim this is a perfect solution. However, I believe it is significantly better than the status quo. I welcome comments.


  1. I think this mechanism would result in more student in the classroom and the exact same number following the lecture as before.

    I believe you're correct that the students would serve themselves well by engaging you in discussion in the lecture. However undergraduate physics courses can be very intimidating. You might serve them better by being the one to start those discussions.

    You reminded me of an interesting lecture by Eric Mazur at Harvard I saw recently on physics education discussing this very topic.

  2. I'm a stickler for attendance, and this idea is titillating to me.

    I'm not sure if it has been effective but in the research design course I teach, when we begin covering basic stats, I show the class how their attendance correlates with their test score achievement. In my experience it's always been .6 or higher... the scatterplots are very convincing (with the occasional outlier).

  3. I love it.

    I stood in for an absent lecturer this week. The students didnt know this would be the case. I learnt that 4 out of 17 tend to attend. I was gob-smacked. I run the tutorials for this class and the percentage is comparable. I dont think this would have been true 5 years ago.

    Germany has only recently changed to a bachelors system. Previously it was a five year diploma and the failure rate for an avg subject was 30% (so ive been told). I was embarrassed how little i knew compared to a good masters student on arriving here as a postdoc, and have worked my ass off to bridge the gap.

    Worryingly, the failure rate for bachelors here is almost zero, and in 10 years i fear the decree will be as easy as mine was, to the detriment of the students.

    Fail more! Do it, Ross!