Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Lecture Attendance at Irish Universities

"If I’m Not Learning, Why Go?" This is the title of a blog-post from last year by Stephen Kinsella. Here's an excerpt: "One answer MIT surveyors found was when students didn’t feel they were learning, they didn’t go. This is certainly because the penalty to not going to a lecture is reduced by the presence of online learning materials like power point slides and handouts." Here's a link to a newsletter about the MIT Survey: Clay, T. and Breslow, L. (2006) “Why Students Don’t Attend Class“, MIT Faculty Newsletter, XVIII(4).

According to the MIT survey, students’ attitudes toward lectures vary widely, from "I never miss them" to "they’re worthless," with most responses falling somewhere in between. Most students reported they try to attend lectures, and usually do, missing them from time to time as the result of academic, extracurricular, or personal conflicts. "When asked to estimate what percentage of their lectures they attend, about two of every three respondents (67%) estimated that they attend at least 90%, three of every four (76%) that they attend at least 75%, and more than nine in 10 (93%) that they attend at least half."

Recent research by myself and others from Geary has shown that approximately 12% of Irish university students claim to attend all of their lectures. 32% of students claim to attend 90% or more of their lectures. 47% of students claim to attend 80% or more of their lectures. 57% of students claim to attend 70% or more of their lectures. Finally, 67% of students claim to attend at least half of their lectures. However, one must be cautious in drawing comparisons between the results from the MIT survey and the survey of Irish university students. The figures quoted above from the MIT survey are based on 47 responses by students in one subject. The figures quoted above from the Irish Universities Study are based on 2,867 responses across all subject areas. And of course, another (perennial) problem is social desirability bias: that is, students may say they attend their lectures because they think they should (say that).

According to Paul Latreille (H/T Stephen Kinsella), "falling lecture attendance among university students has become a major concern in the last few years. While the precise extent of the problem may vary, the phenomenon exists across subjects and has been documented in several countries (e.g. South Africa, Australia and the US, as well as the UK - see for example the references cited in Clearly-Holdforth, 2006). Various explanations have been advanced, including intrinsic factors (e.g. interest, motivation, learning styles and preferences), extrinsic factors (e.g. socio-economic considerations (such as the need to work), family commitments, assignment deadlines) and factors related to the lectures themselves (e.g. quality, value, interest)." Those interested in the role of technology in student learning will find an interesting discussion throughout Latreille's article. Laitrelle also covers the topic of "paternalistic" approaches to encouraging lecture attendance.

In 1993, David Romer published an article which ignited a lively debate about mandatory attendance policy: "Do Students Go to Class? Should They?" Daniel Marburger has investigated the impact of enforcing an attendance policy on absenteeism and student performance. The evidence he produces suggests that an enforced mandatory attendance policy significantly reduces absenteeism and improves exam performance. Alternatively, attendance at classes could also be potentially improved if students made a contribution toward the cost of their education. Finally, another possibility may simply be to communicate to students the importance of attending their lectures. Research papers by Schmidt (AER, 1983), Romer (JEP, 1993) and Durden and Ellis (AER, 1995) all show that lecture attendance is important for attaining high grades. Other studies from Irish settings also show the same: Maloney and Lally (1998), Kirby and McElroy (2003) and Purcell (2007).

Addendum: as is often the case in relation to other questions, establishing causality between lecture attendance and grades is difficult. Papers by Park and Kerr (1990), Bratti and Staffolani (2002) and Martins and Walker (2006) discuss this issue well. I am also reminded of the cartoon below.


Kevin Denny said...

Based on my very subjective impressions of UCD, that is my classes and what my colleagues tell me, the attendance numbers you quote for Ireland seem a bit on the high side. My guess is that people are more likely to over-state attendance?
I think making attendance mandatory should be a very last resort. The essence of university is that students are adults and if we stop treating them as adults they may stop behaving as such. The counter-argument I suppose is that we have to be paternalistic here but having a group of people in class unwillingly is a recipe for disaster I would think. I am not interested in being a school teacher.
Its more important to understand why students don't attend and to address that. Boring lectures certainly don't help. Providing apparent substitutes for the class (e.g. one's Powerpoint slides beforehand) is also a bad idea in my view. Engaging students can be terribly hard especially when they are not especially interested in the course. With small groups you can do all sorts of clever things but your choices are much more limited with the big classes that many of us teach.

Liam Delaney said...

My instinct is the same as yours wrt to voluntary attendance. However, some elite programmes not only make attendance compulsory and enforce this with very rigorous sanctions but also award grades for quality of participation. The rationale seems to be that if a culture develops where people just show when they want and then free-ride off others notes etc., that it reduces the value for everyone in the class. I think you can, particularly with small classes, enforce a norm.

But in general, I agree we need to look hard at the structure of the interaction between students and the university and avoid oversimplified explanations blaming everything on one cause.

Martin Ryan said...

I am also concerned that the attendance numbers may be over-stated; and it is fair to suggest that social desirability bias may be an important factor here.

You raise a good point Kevin that is worth looking at the reasons why students don't attend. I am reminded of a quote by Dame Judy Dench from her movie, 'Notes on a Scandal', that what she was doing was "more a case of 'crowd control' than education". (H/T: Joanne Cleary-Holdforth).

According to the UCD Media Services blog (, studies from the University of Leeds, the Royal Veterinary College and Carnegie Mellon University have found that the provision of podcasts or lecture recordings seemed to have little effect on lecture attendance. For example, in a survey of Politics students in Leeds, Lightfoot et al (2008) found that only 7% of the students surveyed would choose to listen to podcasts rather than attend lectures. However, social desirability bias may of course be present yet again.

Lang et al. conduct an analysis of factors influencing the attendance of first year university students in an NUIG Accounting class in the 2006/2007 academic year.

"The variables that most significantly affected the poor attendee group were quality and style of teaching; prior knowledge of accounting; interest in the subject; availability of notes; social life and influence of peers.

The factors which most significantly affected the moderate attendees were the availability of lecture notes on the Blackboard e-learning system after the lecture, time of class and influence of peers."

The Lang et al. paper can be accessed here:

Liam, students from Cambridge give their views on mandatory lecture attendance here:

One way to advance research in this area would be to monitor student attendance (and its affect on grades) while maintaining student anonymity. This would be possible with smart-card technology, such as TDS:

A final point is that the stakes
are higher if there is a 'professional' element to a programme. For example, would you prefer if your GP had been forced to attend their lectures? What about your surgeon? In nursing instruction in Ireland, a high minimum attendance is stipulated by An Bord Altranais. Reflections on the operation of this mandatory attendance policy at DCU are offered by Therese Leufer and Joanne Cleary-Holdforth here: