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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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Effects of (non-) attendance on performance

A number of studies have been undertaken in an attempt to investigate whether there is a direct relationship between attendance and academic performance. Such studies have yielded mixed results. Gatherer and Manning (1998) undertook a correlational study to investigate the relationship between lecture attendance and examination performance on a first-year biological sciences programme. This was a reasonably rigorous study, comprising a sample size of 152 students and utilising appropriate statistical analysis for the nature of the data in terms of levels of measurement attained and the distributions of the variables. The findings of this study reveal that there is a weak but statistically significant positive correlation between lecture attendance and examination performance. It is interesting to note that this correlation was more pronounced in the ethnic minority groups in the sample. This is particularly relevant and useful information given the increasing diversity of the student body. In a study undertaken by Sharma et al. (2005) the relationship between student-centred tutorials and examination performance on a physics programme was investigated. Not only did this study demonstrate that students with greater attendance performed better in their examinations, it also established that students working together in the same group with consistent attendance attain higher examination results than those who do not. Moreover, the results of this study not only advocate the importance of attendance but also that of the role of groupwork in facilitating student learning.

Cohen and Johnson (2006) examine the relationship between class attendance and examination performance in a sample of 347 economics class. Their findings demonstrate a strong positive correlation between class attendance and academic performance. A study by McCarey et al. (2006) explores the predictors of academic performance in a cohort of nursing students. One of the variables that was under investigation as a predictor was non-attendance. Data were obtained from 154 students in this study and appropriate statistical tests were performed on the data. Results demonstrated that attendance was a significant predictor of performance with increasing non-attendance being consistently associated with poorer marks. This study also yielded a number of findings that are invaluable in terms of facilitating individual student learning and the endeavours one could undertake to support students. For example, students aged 26 and over tended to perform better than those under 26 years of age. While this was not statistically significant, it would be worthwhile considering in terms of the need for different levels and types of support for younger versus more mature students. Students who performed poorly in their first year continued to do so throughout the programme. It is interesting that it was these students who had higher rates of non-attendance. In light of this, educators could use both poor performance in first year and poor attendance as predictors for poor academic performance overall on a programme and could target such students early on in the programme. By addressing any difficulties they may have early on one could provide relevant and meaningful support to enable these students to improve.

On the other hand, contrasting studies have been undertaken that demonstrate no relationship between attendance and academic performance. Rodgers (2002) implemented an incentive scheme in an undergraduate introductory statistics module. In practice, each student’s overall mark was reduced by 1 per cent for every tutorial missed in excess of two. The students’ attendance and performance were compared with the performance of students who had undertaken the same module in the previous academic year, prior to the introduction of the incentive scheme. The results of this study indicate that while attendance did improve, improved attendance did not translate to improved academic performance, even when the ‘penalty points’ that had been deducted for non-attendance were added back on to the students’ overall marks. Grabe (2005) examines the relationship between students’ use of online notes as a substitute for attending class and examination performance on an introductory psychology module. The data conveyed that approximately 30 per cent of students who frequently used notes claimed to have done so as a replacement for at least six classes. In comparison, amongst students who used online notes as an adjunct rather than as an alternative to class attendance, no difference in examination performance was seen. Such information is very useful to educators when deciding whether and how to provide online notes to students.


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