Attend to thought

October 6, 2016

When I was a first-year undergraduate, I recall a notice that went up: “If attendance at the optional lecture on Friday morning does not improve, it will be made compulsory” (“Academic double standards: freedom for lecturers, compliance for students”, Opinion, 29 September). Yet in those pre-tech days, attempts at passing around a sign-in sheet generally revealed that Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and at least two incarnations of Adolf Hitler had attended class that day.

It’s easy to confuse things such as showing up to a lecture and genuine academic freedom, however. Choosing to come to class is based on a number of factors – we generally say that if a student’s grades are good, it doesn’t matter if they attend; but if they are struggling with their work and their attendance is poor, they should consider showing up more often. The higher education world believes that “Attendance = Success” (I have even seen this posted on a wall), and it is a reasonable argument that if you are not there it is harder for you to learn what is being taught.

True freedom comes with encouraging students to think for themselves. In teaching ethics for computer science, I tell them that I want them to come away from the module with the ability to reason and to argue their case – the conclusions they reach are of lesser import. I tell them that they will get a better mark for a well-argued opinion that I disagree with than a bald statement that accords perfectly with my views but that has no supporting material to back it up.

This makes for interesting examination papers. I once asked “Is computing a profession?” and the marking notes read: “The answer may be yes or no, award marks for how well argued the student’s position is.”


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