Class attendance plummets post-Covid

Global survey conducted by THE finds far fewer students turning up and engaging in lectures and seminars

June 9, 2022
A single spectator waits for the start of an event in Oslo to illustrate Norwegian rectors fear course closures if overseas fees come in
Source: Alamy

Student attendance and in-class participation remain at a far lower level compared with before the pandemic, according to a global survey of academics conducted by Times Higher Education.

Three-quarters (76 per cent) of respondents say they have seen lower numbers of students turning up to lectures despite Covid-19 restrictions easing across the world, while only 4 per cent say attendance is now higher.

Among students who do turn up, 54 per cent of respondents say engagement is worse than before the pandemic, with only 9 per cent noting an improvement.

THE Campus resource: Are your first-year students disengaging? Here’s how to get them back on board

THE’s survey received 339 responses, the majority of whom were based in the UK.

Asked what the typical level of attendance at in-person lectures is, 29 per cent say between 41 and 60 per cent of students turn up, while 26 per cent put attendance at between 21 and 39 per cent. This compares with pre-pandemic levels of above 60 per cent for more than two-thirds of respondents.

Typical attendance levels

Students not wanting to come to campus was the main reason given for why academics felt attendance and participation was lower, but the number of students undertaking paid work, experiencing mental health issues or failing to do enough preparation were also cited as significant factors.

Some suggested making attendance compulsory and reducing access to online recordings as ways to overcome the problems, but others highlight that most current students had never attended a lecture, and do not know the benefits of doing so.

Paul Taggart, professor of politics at the University of Sussex, said that academics who blamed students for not attending “miss the point that there has been a substantial cultural shift among students that we need to be aware of and respond to”.

Philip Cowan, a media lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire, agreed, saying that a “culture of expectation of attendance” needed to be rebuilt.

Student engagement before and after Covid

The findings raise questions over the push by ministers in sectors such as England’s to get universities to drop blended learning and restore in-person lectures fully, and over reports in the national media about perceived unrest among students about online teaching.

At the University of Cambridge, a campaign is being planned for the coming academic year to explain the importance of attending lectures, according to Graham Virgo, its pro vice-chancellor for education.

He said that concerns about catching Covid and having to self-isolate and miss other engagements were still a major factor in why many had chosen to stay away from lectures this year, and so he remained convinced that attendance levels could recover.

“Next year we will have a new bunch of students who have no experience of lectures and those in second and third year have had very little experience, so the tradition of attending lectures has changed,” he said.

“We are convinced at Cambridge that the lecture has an important pedagogical role. We are encouraging colleagues to be flexible and experimental in their lecture delivery and we’re not saying technology is irrelevant at all, but we do consider in significant parts of the university the lecture has an important role to play and we have a responsibility to explain that to our students, as well as why attending will really benefit them.”

Among the benefits of lectures that Cambridge plans to push are their importance in combating loneliness, ensuring a student feels more of a sense of belonging in their department and that they provide the chance to hear from exceptional lecturers who are experts in their field.

Other survey respondents say universities need to be more flexible in their approach to teaching because many students had embraced the benefits of being able to watch lectures whenever they liked. One idea suggested by many involved revising academic timetables so students had several lectures on the same day, which would make it more worthwhile for them to make the trip to campus.

A life sciences lecturer in Ireland, who said that attendance in her lectures had dropped below 20 per cent, said her students were taking paid work during timetabled lectures before catching up on studies at night-time. She suggested students should take fewer modules per year so they could better balance their education with other commitments.

Another respondent, a UK-based business lecturer, agreed that the rising cost of living and tuition fees had forced students to work part-time more often and more extensively, leaving no time for them to attend or prepare for classes.

She also felt that the online delivery of lectures had “created the impression that classes are like a movie – you watch it live or on-demand and are not supposed to actively engage”.

Several respondents said the experience of being in class should be made superior to watching the recording, with more of a focus on engagement and participation using question and answer sessions and group discussion.

“We find higher attendance of tutorials in weeks in which the tutorial activity includes working on their group project,” said Janice Loftus, associate professor in the school of business at the University of Adelaide.

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Reader's comments (16)

It would be good to do a study on tutorial attendance, since the recording of lectures is not going to cease. At my uni in Australia, the Arts Faculty no longer has synchronous lectures, and they won't be back, apparently. We have pre-recorded lectures and posted them online since the start of the pandemic. I've noticed attendance at tutorials is very good, even though we no longer have attendance requirements. But attendance at online classes has been poor, and online engagement is getting worse and worse.
Is it because online delivery has improved significantly and makes learning more flexible, accessible and engaging ? I'm not underestimating the value or benefits of face to face teaching, but students as customers should get what they want not what we think they should have.
As someone has said on another thread, students are not just customers, but also our product.
A return of approx 330 and mostly UK students hardly constitutes a 'global survey' Engagement is all about incentives
The comment from kjk is rather depressing. If we do not know more than our students then they really are wasting their money. Pandering to their every demand will produce low-quality degrees and make graduates less employable since companies cannot afford to be so soft on them.
I think the opposite may actually be true. If we give students content in a format which better suits their needs then they will be more engaged and motivated leading to better results and improved employability. You also get the added benefit of learner analytics on the digitally delivered material allowing for earlier interventions if students are experiencing problems. This is simply not possible in a face to face lecture environment. I'm also not sure that giving students information in a format they prefer is pandering to their every demand, particularly as their success is the reason we are in business.
"in a format which better suits their needs ". Who is deciding what suits their needs? Are academics cut out of this decision? What learner really useful analytics are you getting that you cannot get using face to face lectures? What would you do with those analytics really?
It would be good to get the students perspective on attendance; perhaps we are right in that they are having to juggle work/caring responsibilities around teaching, but there could be more in scope with the students' expectations of lectures and any barriers we may not have identified?
My youngest has dyslexia and is a first year student. She finds recorded lectures essential as she can pause and rewind. It is impossible for her to keep up and take notes in a live lecture. My eldest doing a masters told me of the experience of trying to engage in a lecture (in her UG degree) and it being made clear that student participation was not wanted by either the person giving the lecture or her peers, who saw questions as delaying the end of the class! (So peer pressure needs looking at?) I have heard some students complain about the "reading out of the PowerPoint slides" lectures which they say they could do themselves and they question why they are attending and paying for something so dull. So is the future fewer higher quality lectures when they really matter (e.g. with special industry guests)? This is the norm on many courses where I work, with more focus on workshops and seminars as the key learning opportunities. Perhaps the THE should run a lecture series on the future of lectures?
The recurring comment here of attendance at workshops/seminars being higher than lectures is interesting, as it totally contradicts experience across my institution (colleagues and student interns have just been carrying out research on student attitudes to/motivations for attendance/non-attendance). Attendance at lectures has slumped, but attendance at workshops and seminars has plummeted. Many of the themes identified have shown up in our findings - but an interesting finding indicates that a disincentive to attend may well be the overprovision of online materials (not simply lecture recordings), which is seen to produce a perception that there is no need to attend or engage, since there is more than enough material available to access at will (i.e. just before a deadline). Our students may be 'customers', but they are not OUR customers, they are the institution's customers. The 'product' they purchase is not the knowledge and expertise we present them with as educators, it is the ACCESS to that knowledge and expertise provided by the institution. What they 'want' in their relationship with us is frequently very different to what they need from that relationship.
One issue on my mind is that universities suddenly became distance-learning institutions for around 12+ months. A lot of students got quite used to that and continued to act in a similar way once campus re-opened. Some were working long hours in paid employment, and some appeared to be living in different cities or countries. The problem is, we already have many distance learning / online learning courses and, if we embrace that approach heavily in on-campus degrees too, then we risk trading away the traditional values and advantages of in-person teaching. Of course, both modes can be done well or poorly and both rely on students and academics to engage fully in order to make the courses as engaging as possible.
@ianscott I was thinking the same... having said that, the pandemic has changed how school pupils and then university students access their teaching sessions. A mixture between a genuine need to work to pay bills and eat, but also a small group prioritising anything over lectures to "watch later"- and then realising six weeks later that they need to get through one hell of a boxset quickly, leaving them no time to engage with or digest concepts. The concern here is real, and whilst the sample size is disappointingly small, the same ideas are reflected in the data. As a society, we have increasingly valued convenience- recorded lectures, for many, fall into this category. Students who like to add to their notes or revisit lectures obviously benefit from accessing the recordings after actively engaging in the sessions. I don't like the idea of students passively watching a recording- but is it so different to students who "turn up" but don't actively participate in a physical lecture?
There is a fairly extensive literature generally indicating that attendance at lectures is positively correlated with exam scores. Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean that students have learned at lectures! It could be that lectures help them form social networks which then support success, or that motivated students both attend lectures AND prepare well for exams in other ways. But the data are hard to reconcile with the idea that lectures are bad for learning.
Shouldn't we be focusing on learner engagement instead of learner attendance? If a lecture is a purely passive transfer of information then is this not better delivered in a format where the viewer can pause, rewind, etc? Supplement lecture recordings with quizzes to reiterate key concepts and check understanding. Better to use face to face campus time for engaging, discussing, collaborating, building a supportive community of learning, and the students will make the effort to turn up
There seems to be a continued focus here on lectures as the key method of delivery. I'm not convinced that sitting in a lecture is necessarily a good way to feel connected with a department or community. There many are other forms of synchronous activity that also contribute and provide deeper interaction, particularly in science and engineering: workshops, practical labs, examples classes and so on. That's not to say we haven't seen a drop in attendance at those.
@ #13 Submitted by John McLachlan “ There is a fairly extensive literature generally indicating that attendance at lectures is positively correlated with exam scores.” Or, is it a case of Motivated students turn up, do additional work, and do well in exams …