When I started as a student in Trinity College Dublin 35 years ago, one of the endearing practices at our lectures (at least in the first year) was that the lecturer would do a roll call. As some of the names on the list were not easy (well, there was mine for a start…), this could take a little while. And when your name came up, you answered ‘yes’ or something similar (or in some cases, something actually rather dissimilar).
In those days, attendance at both lectures and tutorials was compulsory, so if you missed a certain number (and I forget now what the number was) you became ineligible to sit the examinations. This was a serious issue in one subject in particular. I’m going to be discreet now and mention no names, but Trinity law students of my generation will know who I am talking about: one lecturer was really boring; and I don’t just mean a bit boring, I mean “I’m not sure if my vital life signs will not shut down during this lecture” kind of boring. It would have been medically dangerous to sit through more than one of his lectures at a time, that kind of boring. There was an understanding in the class that you could not be expected to attend more than one in every four of his lectures, and that those whose turn it was to attend (suitably fortified in advance) would answer ‘yes’ for anyone not there, as well as for themselves. As this was not necessarily coordinated in advance, it was not uncommon for 3-4 people together to say ‘yes’ for a particular absentee. Anyway, my point is that the rules notwithstanding, attendance was not achieved here, and the lecturer knew it but did nothing.
However, back in those days it was still the norm to attend, and on the whole absenteeism was not a problem. But now, all that is changed utterly. Colleagues from a variety of institutions keep telling me that for much of the time they do not expect to see more than 30 per cent or so of students at a lecture. In part this is because many students now have part-time (in some cases, pretty nearly full-time) jobs and need to attend to these; in part it is because course materials are distributed in advance or are available online and cover pretty much everything that is said; and also, it probably has to be said, students increasingly simply don’t believe that their attendance or non-attendance matters.
Academics, on the other hand, generally believe that those not attending regularly are much more likely to fail or to drop out. And so over recent years, in a number of institutions, there has been some soul-searching over whether the issue of attendance should receive more attention, and indeed whether we should consider making it compulsory again, with mechanisms for monitoring and enforcement. The experience of colleagues in some areas where, for professional reasons, compulsory attendance is already being implemented (as in nursing programmes), is being watched with some interest.
On the other hand, for some time now some academics have questioned whether there is a discernible link between class attendance and student achievement. They point out that empirical research on this has not produced conclusive findings (or rather, some research has purported to show there is a link, and other research has apparently failed to find one). In one interesting analysis, the author – a professor from an American university – concluded that performance and achievement were linked to motivation, so that attendance helped when it was what the student felt inclined to do, but did nothing when it was forced upon an unwilling student. She concluded that compulsory attendance policies were unlikely to help.
At a time when student engagement sometimes seems low, for whatever reason, and drop-out rates are high, it is right for us to debate what should be done to improve this. But we must also be careful that the measures we take are assessed properly and that our policies are evidence-based. And the ultimate successful policy for student achievement is, as the study suggests, a high level of motivation. That is what we must work on.