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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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Encouraging attendance

Incentive schemes such as awarding marks for attendance, subtracting marks for non-attendance, promises to discuss exam-related topics and mandatory monitoring of attendance do little to address the core issues and causes of non-attendance. While such schemes may increase the number of ‘bums on seats’ they do not guarantee a corresponding improvement in performance, as was reported by Rodgers (2002). The consequences of these schemes include an over-exaggeration of (true) attendance and often an over-inflation of marks. Such schemes raise the question of whose needs they are meeting – the students’ or the educators’, the university’s or, in the case of professional programmes, the professional regulating body’s? Furthermore, it has been the writers experience that mandating attendance, as advocated by Bowen et al. (2005) has brought with it new problems. Mandatory attendance monitoring requires attendance by all students, even those who would otherwise not attend. This results in increased disruption in class and makes it more difficult for students who want to be in class to listen and hear and for the educators to teach. Teaching in this manner is, as Dame Judy Dench put it in her recent movie, Notes on a Scandal, certainly more a case of ‘crowd control’ than education. Consequently it is clear that more positive ways that are inherently motivating are needed to enhance the students’ desire to attend class.

While the evidence regarding the impact of non-attendance on academic performance is mixed, there are certainly lessons to be learned from both sides of the argument. The reasons for student non-attendance and indeed, perhaps equally importantly, student attendance need to be considered carefully and examined closely if this issue is to be addressed, particularly where it is of professional consequence, as it is in nursing, for example. While there may be little that can be done about many of the student-centred reasons for poor attendance, educators can certainly endeavour to address the educator-centred reasons. Increasingly the student population comprises mature students as well as school leavers from a wide variety of social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds (NQAI 2003). Such learner diversity will clearly bring new challenges and it carries implications for educators to ensure that programmes of education are relevant, meaningful and responsive to the individual learner. Gatherer and Manning (1998) demonstrate that lecture attendance was more beneficial to students from ethnic minorities than those from non-minority groups. This may indicate a greater perceived need among ethnic-minority students to attend lectures perhaps due to difficulties with language and discomfort with or a reluctance to use alternative learning resources such as virtual learning environments, online notes and so on. This highlights a specific need among this group of students for linguistic and information technology support. Even though their better attendance rates are admirable, they should not feel confined to this one learning resource. Such inequity puts these students at a disadvantage not only in terms of their performance in university but also in terms of their success after graduation.

There is an increasing presence of mature students in university programmes. This brings challenges not only for educators but also for mature students. Many of these students will have heavy family commitments and/or commitments outside of their programme of study that they will have to work around in order to attend class and to study. Despite this, however, McCarey et al. (2006) found that mature students tend to perform better than their younger counterparts. This might suggest a difference in how they value the opportunity for education, a stronger motivation to succeed or greater insight into the meaning and value of their chosen programme of study lending itself to a greater commitment to study. In order to further support these students Hughes (2005) suggests an increase in self-directed learning, a family-friendly approach to curricula and a reduction in the number of theory hours as an attempt to facilitate students who struggle to attend class due to family commitments. On the other hand, however, younger students who tend to achieve lower marks must not be neglected. The findings of McCarey et al. in this regard, in addition to the findings that poor performance in first year and poor attendance are predictors of ongoing poor performance, warrant close observation of first-year students and close liaison between first-year students and their educators and/or personal tutors (where a personal tutor system exists). Early and on-going liaison with these students will enable the identification of individual difficulties or problems and the measures to address these issues. Such measures may include increased tutorial support, facilitation of students with learning disabilities, or increased support in terms of helping students who are struggling with university life or living away from home and friends for the first time.

Reliance on the lecture style of teaching is, unfortunately in many cases, a necessary evil due to high student numbers, staff shortages, and reduced resources such as appropriate rooms, timetabling issues and so forth. However, that is not to say that this is an ineffective but rather a necessary teaching and learning strategy. There are numerous ways in which even lectures can be rendered more interesting and fun. The onus falls, of course, to the individual educators to closely review, reflect on and revise their approach to teaching in this format. The integration of more innovative teaching methods into the lecture such as gaming, for example, word searches or crosswords, five-minute classroom assessment techniques, interactive handouts, questioning, brainstorming, debate (Race 2001), student-led seminars (Ashcroft and Foreman-Peck 1994) and demonstrations (Quinn 2000) might be considered. Building in appropriate breaks or changes in activities every fifteen to twenty minutes (Quinn 2000) helps to re-engage students and recharge the attention spans that tend to diminish, particularly in large, full lecture theatres. The Report of the Nursing Education Forum states:

Pre-registration nursing degree programmes must use innovative delivery methods and be sufficiently dynamic, flexible and responsive to accommodate advances and ultimately provide the value system and basis for excellent nursing practice in the future.
(2000: 30)

This report clearly advocates and encourages nursing educators to embrace new and innovative teaching and learning strategies in a responsive and relevant manner. Other innovative teaching strategies that can be utilised, particularly with smaller groups or in tutorials include simulation, role-play and self-instruction activities. Computer-assisted instruction greatly enhances the probability of meeting the needs of the learners (Bastable 2003). Other teaching strategies that are useful include interactive handouts, questioning, brainstorming, debate (Race 2001), student-led seminars (Ashcroft and Foreman-Peck 1994) and demonstrations (Quinn 2000). Such teaching and learning strategies help to invigorate an otherwise potentially dreary session for both the student and the educator. It is clear therefore that there are numerous measures available to educators to enhance the teaching and learning experience. In so doing, educators can potentially entice back into the classroom at least some of the students who would otherwise absent themselves, in a manner that demonstrates respect and consideration rather than false promises and penalties.

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