Cutting class is a time-honored practice among college students and it is to be expected that students will honor this practice by spending some class time away from class. However, state colleges and universities are being pushed to gather and assess data in order to justify the funding provided by the state. A key part of retaining funding is to provide data showing that students are graduating in a timely manner. As might be imagined, when students fail classes, this tends to slow down their graduation.
At two recent meetings I attended there was a discussion about classes with high failure rates and the question was raised as to why students were failing these specific classes. While my classes had failure rates well within the expected norm, I decided to formalize what I had been doing informally for years, namely generating a picture of why students fail my classes.
Not surprisingly, I generally noticed a correlation between a student’s attendance and her grade: low attendance generally correlated with a low grade. I have also noticed that attendance has grown worse in my classes over the years. Based on conversations with other faculty, the same is true of other classes. As such, it seems reasonable to consider that lack of attendance helps contribute to the failure rate and thus to the slower and lower graduation rate.
The hypothesis about low attendance does not get to the heart of the matter-what is needed is information about why students skip classes. To this end, I set up an initial study in which students self-reported their attendance and selected the reasons why they missed classes. I also inquired about the main reason students missed classes. Naturally, I also gather data about student attendance using the class roll.
At the end of the semester, I had 54 responses out of 140 students. Interestingly 73% reported attending at least often, with the largest percentage (30%) claiming to attend 80-90% of the time. 26% claimed to attend 90-100% of the time. As might be suspected, this self-reported data is not consistent with my attendance records. This can be explained in various ways. One obvious possibility is that students who would take the time to respond to a survey would be students who would be more likely to attend class, thus biasing the survey. A second obvious possibility is that people tend to select the answer they think they should give or the one that matches how they would like to be perceived. As such, students would tend to over-report their attendance. A third obvious possibility is that students might believe that the responses to the survey might cause me to hand out extra points (which is not the case and the survey is anonymous).
In regards to the reasons why students miss class, the highest (by far) self-reported reason is work. While this might be explained in terms of students selecting the answer that presents them in the best light, it is consistent with anecdotal evidence I have “collected” by overhearing students, speaking with students, and speaking with other colleagues. It is also consistent with the fact that many students need outside employment in order to pay for college-work schedules do not always neatly fit around class schedules. If this information is accurate, addressing the attendance problem would require addressing the matter of work. This could involve the usual proposals, such as finding ways to increase support for students so they do not need to work (or work as much) in college. It might also involve considering some new or alternative approaches to the problem.
I also found that of the primary reasons students report for missing class, the fact that the coursework is on Black Board was in second place. This certainly makes sense. Since the graded coursework is completed and turned in through Black Board, a pragmatic student who is focused primarily on simply getting a grade as a means to an end would see far less reason to attend class. Since the majority of college students now report that they are in school primarily to get a job, it makes sense that many students would take this approach to class. However, there is the obvious risk in this pragmatic approach: as noted above, low attendance tends to correlate with low grades, so students who skip the class on the assumption that they can just do the work on Black Board and pass might find themselves having chosen poorly.
Based on this information and other findings, Black Board is a double edged sword. On the one hand, Black Board has resulted in an improved completion rate for work precisely because students can do the work or turn it in more conveniently and around the clock. On the other hand, using Black Board as the sole means for turning in work does allow students to skip class while still being able to do the work. What needs to be determined is which edge cuts more. That is, is the (possible) reduction in attendance outweighed by the advantages of Black Board.
As a final point, the current sample (54 students) is rather small (leading to a margin of error of about +/- 14%) and not as diverse as it should be (the sample is made up entirely of my students). The sample, as noted above, could also suffer from bias since students freely elected to participate.
However, the initial findings do provide some useful information.
How regularly do you attend Dr. LaBossiere’s class?
|Always or Nearly Always (90-100%)||14||26%|
|Very Often (80-90%)||16||30%|
|More Often Than Not (51-59%)||6||11%|
|Not Often (30-50%)||3||6%|
|Almost Never or Never (0-9%)||2||4%|
If you miss class, why do you miss it?
|I am too tired.||7||7%|
|I need to spend the time on other classes.||6||6%|
|I am not interested in the subject.||3||3%|
|I do not value the subject.||1||1%|
|I already know the material.||3||3%|
|I do not like the professor.||1||1%|
|The professor is not very good.||1||1%|
|There is no penalty/punishment for missing class.||0||0%|
|I can learn the material on my own.||5||5%|
|Exams & quizzes are on BlackBoard and not in class.||11||11%|
|I can pass without attending.||5||5%|
If you do not attend class regularly, what is the primary reason?
|I am too tired.||3||6%|
|I need to spend the time on other classes.||2||4%|
|I am not interested in the subject.||2||4%|
|I do not value the subject.||0||0%|
|I already know the material.||2||4%|
|I do not like the professor.||0||0%|
|The professor is not very good.||0||0%|
|There is no penalty/punishment for missing class.||0||0%|
|I can learn the material on my own.||1||2%|
|Exams & quizzes are on BlackBoard and not in class.||10||19%|
|I can pass without attending.||3||6%|