How Important is Student Attendance?

A student's decision on whether or not to attend class is tied to their learning and how they can best use their limited time.

Attendance has been a cyclical hot button issue since long before any of us writing or reading this blog were involved in education. Which means if you work in health sciences education, you’ve likely to have had at least one heated discussion in the past couple years on attendance at your program. Whenever I’m in those conversations, it seems like these three general opinions are always expressed - and strongly:

  1. Students need to be in class because that’s where they’re going to learn the’s expected as part of their professionalism that they will show up (not to mention, it’s disrespectful to the faculty when students don’t attend class).
  2. Students are adults … who cares if they come to class or not? It’s their education and their money.
  3. I don’t care. I’m staying out of this.

When you try to enforce a strict policy, you know what a pain it can be to keep track of everything—counting absences, students trying to sign in for each other, what constitutes an excused absence, etc. If only we just didn’t have an attendance policy - what a relief that would be.

But then again, having an attendance policy will at least get students into the classroom … and more students in the classroom can only be a good thing, right? Or is it? Is having students physically present in the classroom while they’re mentally somewhere else actually a benefit to them and others?

Oh…and if only we didn’t use lecture capture! Sure, it allows some students to review and study, but really it’s just a way for students to not come to class and watch our lectures at double time, right? Students would definitely come to all classes if we didn’t have lecture capture - wouldn’t they?

Wait, I’m falling in the attendance trap in my own article about how we need to avoid this very thing! See how it is easy to get caught up in this stuff?

Student Engagement

Physical attendance doesn’t necessarily equal improved student outcomes

Here’s the thing with the attendance debate—it isn’t really about attendance. Students don’t skip class because they know they can watch a replay of it later. A student's decision on whether or not to attend class is tied to their learning and how they can best use their limited time. 

As educators, we can’t expect students to show up to class when we’re simply talking at them for fifty minutes while breezing through the PowerPoint presentation we created years ago. Our high expectations need to be met with the effort and energy to incentivize students to come learn valuable information that is relevant to their future career. 

Consider the following exchange I had with a medical student recently:

Me: “Did you skip class?”

Student: “Of course.”

Me: “How did you decide which classes to skip?”

Student: “The ones that weren’t worth my time.”

Students (especially students in fast-paced, high-pressure professional programs) don’t choose to skip class simply because they can watch the video later—they skip class because we don’t add value to coming to class with the way we engage and teach. Talking at students from behind a PowerPoint allows educators to be replaced by the video. So taking a pass on coming to class is a pretty easy decision for students to make. However, when we actively engage students in course content and provide formative assessments with feedback, allowing them to walk out of class each day having actively acquired new knowledge, they’ll be there because it will be worth their time and professional energy.

So, let’s throw out the attendance debate. Physical attendance doesn’t necessarily equal improved student outcomes. Skipping class doesn’t necessarily mean lower performance. Engaging students with course content and providing feedback on their performance will lead to an improved performance on their summative assessments. (It’s true! According to data from the last two medical schools I supported, students performance on exams is 8% higher when content is taught with active learning methods with formative assessments.) 

If you or your institution desires better attendance and/or better scores, evaluate teaching methods first - not attendance. That is the core of the issue—not attendance, lecture capture, or even student professionalism. If we demand a certain standard from our students, we should demand that same level of commitment and excellence from our faculty.

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