Make your presence felt, stick in that dibber

April 30, 2004

An adapted sports timing system is just one of the innovative ways the attendance of students at lectures is being monitored. Jon Brooke reports.

Lord Lucan, Mickey Mouse and Osama bin Laden all have something in common: at one time or another (perhaps apocryphally) their signatures have appeared on attendance sheets handed round at university lectures. But such minor abuses, or even the forged signatures of bona-fide students gone AWOL are only part of the problem. The real grind in monitoring attendance is first, the disturbance it causes during valuable lecture time, and second, the administration required to transfer the information from paper to a spreadsheet or database so that it can be analysed.

Despite these difficulties, many universities carry out attendance monitoring this way because, at least anecdotally, non-attendance at lectures, particularly at level one, can be linked to poor results or even failure to complete. If spotted, non-attendance can alert directors of studies to individuals with problems that may not become apparent through other forms of assessment until much later, perhaps too late.

And it is not just concern for student welfare that has led to attendance monitoring in lectures. At Queen Mary, University of London, for example, attendance monitoring was initiated five or six years ago as a response to the teaching quality assessment process, though it was left to each department as to how this was implemented. In physics, students sign an attendance sheet at the start of lectures, with non-attendance generating increasingly severe warning letters. The final sanction is de-registration.

According to Graham Thompson, deputy head of the department, some staff and students have viewed this imposition as unnecessary bureaucracy. However, despite the gripes, student performance and retention have improved.

Some universities are turning to technology in the quest to bolster attendance at lectures. The chemistry department at Edinburgh University, for example, has a successful scheme that makes use of swipe cards. It involves students being issued with cards that they swipe through a card reader installed outside one of the department's lecture theatres.

Michael Paton, head of the teaching organisation in the chemistry department, says the aim is purely to identify problems, and no sanctions are applied to non-attenders. "It's a formative not a punative system," he says.

He admits, however, that the system is not ideal, not least because it is not portable between lecture theatres. An all-encompassing solution using matriculation cards would have been beyond the resources of the department, but he argues that what they have is still a vast improvement on manual methods and could be implemented independently.

Barbara Maher, head of geography at Lancaster University, believes she has found a good solution to some of the problems associated with traditional attendance monitoring and swipe cards.

As an orienteer, Maher was used to using a sports timing system called SPORTident (SI), which she thought could be adapted for monitoring student attendance. A quick call to Martin Stone at SPORTident UK confirmed that it could be adapted to suit her purpose and the two got together to develop a useable lecture logging system.

With the new system, each student can quickly register their attendance by inserting a uniquely identifiable "dibber", a kind of electronic key, into a pocket-sized control unit carried by the lecturer and placed somewhere convenient in the room. This control unit stores its data until it is downloaded at a later time to a PC in the departmental office. The most important feature of the system is that the dibber need be inserted into the control unit for only a fraction of a second to record useful data.

Maybe it is because attendance monitoring has been presented as a service to students at Lancaster - what Maher terms "a student-centred process designed to catch them before they fall" - that there has been very little resistance to the new system, even though students were asked to pay a £15 refundable deposit on their dibbers. In fact, Maher goes so far as to say that the students even seem to regard the system as giving them some cachet compared with their peers in other departments who still sign in to lectures.

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