Should student attendance in classes be compulsory?

As universities tighten attendance policies, an education professor has argued that scholars should be more prepared to accept absence

October 20, 2016
Female students chatting in empty lecture hall
Source: Getty

Students have sweated to get the grades and paid hefty tuition fees, so you might imagine that university attendance today would be fairly close to 100 per cent.

Many academics, however, will testify that is not the case. Undergraduates still regularly skip not just lectures but also tutorials and seminars, with some “phantom students” making only cameo appearances on campus, many scholars claim.

So is it time for universities to get tough and make attendance compulsory? Are policies that simply “strongly encourage” attendance sufficient in an era when the price of student failure is so costly for both individuals and now institutions, given that dropout rates will be used as a key metric in the UK’s teaching excellence framework?

Many universities are taking a stricter line, but one leading educationalist has argued that “coercive” attendance policies do little to help student learning or engagement and run contrary to the idea of undergraduates as independent learners.

In fact, many students who miss lectures and tutorials can be more engaged in their studies than those who show up without fail, argues Bruce Macfarlane, professor of higher education at the University of Southampton, in his new book, Freedom to Learn: The Threat to Student Academic Freedom and Why It Needs to be Reclaimed.

“Attendance proves nothing in terms of learning,” Professor Macfarlane told Times Higher Education.

“It is an academic ‘non-achievement’, but we seem to be getting keener on rewarding it because it is easier than assessing students properly,” he added.

Indeed, several highly successful individuals have gained hugely from university despite having attended very few classes. The actor, comedian and writer Stephen Fry admitted on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs last year that he attended just three lectures while at the University of Cambridge, Professor Macfarlane pointed out.

Compulsory attendance is “contrary to the idea of higher education as a voluntary activity undertaken by adults”, continued Professor Macfarlane, who believes that academics need to have “more awareness that students are adults and should have the freedom to learn in the way that suits them best”.

“Some of the best students engage very well with their studies – reading, contributing to online discussion, submitting excellent work – while others may attend but ‘in body only’ and then do very little work outside the class,” he said, adding: “What do we want: presenteeism or real learning?”

Some academics might argue that students have an obligation to attend classes, not just for their own benefit but because it is downright disrespectful to scholars running the courses, but Professor Macfarlane disagreed.

“We need to stop being so precious and sensitive,” he explained, saying that the higher tuition fees students paid meant that they were now customers who could choose how to use the facilities they have stumped up for.

“If a customer joins a gym, is he or she going to be told it is disrespectful not to turn up for an exercise class? I think not,” he said.

“Why should [students] have to attend if they do not think it is [valuable]?” he added, saying that they “need to develop judgement in the use of their time if they are going to succeed in life”.

However, Ed Foster, student engagement manager at Nottingham Trent University, said that there were very good reasons for monitoring and promoting high attendance, particularly in the first year.

“If all those who missed classes were dynamic go-getters who always made the best use of their time, it would matter less; but often students are making very short-term decisions [on skipping class],” he said. “It is often just the hassle of making it in on a rainy Tuesday morning.

“It’s right that students can choose for themselves, and even make mistakes, but they need to be making informed decisions,” added Mr Foster, who said that students were often “quite surprised” by the extent of their own absenteeism when asked to analyse their attendance record.

Mr Foster added that citing Stephen Fry and other “exceptional individuals” who often missed lectures was unhelpful and liable to mislead students into thinking that attendance was unimportant.

“There are very exceptional individuals who will do well no matter what – we remember them precisely because they are exceptional,” he said. “For most ‘normal’ students, attending is really important and there’s good evidence to support that case.”

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Print headline: Should we compel students to attend, or just grow up?

Reader's comments (2)

This cannot be an either/or arguement. Some professional bodies require attendance. Some students recognise that they might learn something if they attend. Some learn because they read or engage with VLE material. I think that manadatory attendance, broadly, sends a message to students that the university is responsible, rather than the student. We need to educate students about the ways they might learn, their metacognitive abilities need to be developed along with the cognitive ones, and that is before we even begin to think about the affective ones. Without some kind of teaching/learning students (humans?) don't ' "just grow up." In addition, if we extend the gym metaphor, the 'gym' has to be suitable. Of course the parrallel is flawed as students are currently 'paying' a deferred membership fee. Much more discussion and conversation about learning is needed between teachers and students.
After reading the article, I was almost convinced that students' attendance is not a 'local' problem. I am teaching English in a technological institution in Tunisia, and I have always had the problem of many students skipping my classes, either because they are not interested enough or because their level of English is low. The problem aggravates because some learners would attend classes only when exams are approaching, which reflects their 'utilitarian' way of thinking. Although attendance may not be always rewarding, since some students would fail despite having been 'faithful' learners, skipping classes should not be regarded as a 'natural' phenomenon because students who regularly miss classes convey the idea that attendance is a trivial element in the learning cycle, and this has never been the case.

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