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Student non-attendance in higher education
A phenomenon of student apathy or poor pedagogy?

Author - Joanne Cleary-Holdforth

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Non-attendance by university students

From the literature reviewed, it would seem that students undertaking university courses skip classes on a not infrequent basis (Cohn and Johnson 2006; Hughes 2005; Rodgers 2002). The question of why students do not attend class is often raised. Numerous studies have investigated this and have uncovered the many reasons that students proffer as explanations for absenteeism (Gump 2006; Nicholl and Timmins 2005; Hughes 2005; Timmins and Kaliszer 2002; Hunter and Tetley 1999; Longhurst 1999). The range of reasons include family, social and work commitments, illness, faking illness, family emergencies, faking family emergencies, to mention but a few. Clearly some of these reasons are completely valid and occur as a consequence of life circumstances, life events and the changing profile of the student. However, a number of the reasons for absenteeism offered by students appear to be quite trivial in nature and give rise to the question of how much students actually value educational activities such as lectures and tutorials. There is also evidence of a particular pattern of non-attendance amongst university students, with most absenteeism occurring on Mondays and Fridays and being of one day in duration (Timmins 2002; Rodgers 2002).

Gatherer and Manning (1998) suggest that there may actually be psychological benefits to occasional absences. Yet if one were to try to address this in timetabling and, in so doing, scheduled classes only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, one would have to ask the question whether attendance would then be problematic on Tuesday mornings and Thursday afternoons. There may be some sense, however, in avoiding 9 am scheduling on Mondays and classes after 3 pm on Fridays, although this is not always logistically feasible given the number of programmes that have to be catered for, group sizes, availability of appropriately sized venues and so on; and there is little promise that such scheduling would achieve the desired outcome. The reasons given for absenteeism are largely student-centred and there may not be very much that educators or the academy can do to address them. To some extent, perhaps, it may simply be the case that students will be students and so there will always be a degree of absenteeism on university courses.

Hunter and Tetley (1999) interviewed 168 full-time students about not only their reasons for not attending lectures but also their reasons for attending. This information is of tremendous value to educators as it provides direction with regard to what students want from lectures, what excites them and, ultimately, what may encourage them to attend. Lectures that these students would not miss were those that were interesting, those that were difficult and hard to make up, those that they considered important to their degree, those in which there was a lot of material given out, those where they liked the subject or in which the lecturer was good. It is imperative therefore that, in so far as is possible, educators endeavour to ensure that their lectures are interesting, relevant, delivered in a positive manner and in an environment that affords respect and equality to all, in a climate that is conducive to learning (Quinn 2000; Toohey 1999). Reasons for student non-attendance – such as the following, that can be perceived as academy-centred – are what educators need to focus on in an effort to address the problem. These reasons include failure to connect the content of the lecture to assessment or the ‘real world’, the availability of lecture material in online forms, unexciting, unchallenging lecturers, timing of lectures and competing assignment commitments (Gump 2006; Nicholl and Timmins 2005; Hughes 2005; Timmins and Kaliszer 2002; Hunter and Tetley 1999; Longhurst 1999). Many of these contributing factors to non-attendance are, to a greater or lesser degree, under the control of the educators and the policymakers of the academy. Mark Twain is reputed to have said, ‘I have never let my schooling interfere with my education’. Conditions such as long lectures without a break, lectures that are scheduled late into the evening, numerous assessments due for submission around the same time, lectures in which interaction is not encouraged and where either the content or the manner in which they are delivered is dull, unenthusiastic or irrelevant, or where the relevance not explicated, all these deter students from attending class. Those students who are academically stronger or more self-directed in nature are likely to seek the information elsewhere and probably succeed but not necessarily excel, while those who have less academic prowess or who are less motivated are likely to struggle to pass (Sharma et al. 2005). Yet these are contributing factors that educators can reduce by reviewing and reflecting on their own practice in terms of how they facilitate (or not) learning and strive to foster an enthusiasm for their subject.

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