Student attendance & lecture notes on VLEs: part of the problem, part of the solution?

Contact: Dr. Paul L. Latreille
School of Business and Economics, Swansea University
p.l.latreille@swansea.ac.uk
Published April 2008

Introduction

Falling lecture attendance among university students has become a major concern in the last few years. While the precise extent of the problem may vary, the phenomenon exists across subjects and has been documented in several countries (e.g. South Africa, Australia and the US, as well as the UK - see for example the references cited in Clearly-Holdforth, 2006). Various explanations have been advanced, including intrinsic factors (e.g. interest, motivation, learning styles and preferences), extrinsic factors (e.g. socio-economic considerations (such as the need to work), family commitments, assignment deadlines) and factors related to the lectures themselves (e.g. quality, value, interest). With such a range of contributory factors, it is clear no single 'magic bullet' will solve this problem. Instead a range of responses is required (see http://www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/ for some suggestions) (note 1). The present case study suggests and documents a further option used with some success by the author on a second year module this year.

Among the set of lecture-related factors explaining low attendance rates, one regularly crops up in conversations with colleagues about the problem: the reduced incentive for students to attend when notes are made available via institutional Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) such as Blackboard and WebCT (note 2). While such discussions are typically based on anecdotal evidence, there is some survey-based support that it matters, albeit (perhaps) rather less than lecture quality/clarity, assignment deadlines, use of relevant examples, lecturer ability to engage/entertain and (alarmingly) lack of sleep (Clay and Breslow, 2006; but see also Burd and Hodgson, 2006). Worrying, as Mark Thoma has noted on his blog:

[students] would skip class thinking they could make up what was lost with web-based material later, then find out when the test time arrives that the posted material is not an effective substitute for coming to class, or that they have waited too long to get started making up missed material... It appears... that it is the students on the margin who most easily fall victim to this temptation.

Whereas most educators see the availability of notes as a complement to lectures, many students see them instead as a substitute, notwithstanding the fact that such notes are often - for both sound pedagogical reasons and in order to encourage attendance - incomplete (note 3).

One response is simply to withdraw the lecture notes altogether. However, this penalises students with good attendance records as well as those whose attendance is problematic. As Mark Thoma so graphically puts it (op. cit.):

I don't think my classes should be less effective for the best students just because other students cannot resist the temptation to sleep in on a cold and rainy morning knowing that lecture materials will be posted to make the sleep less costly.

From an incentive perspective, one would ideally wish to make the notes available to the former type of student who comes to the lecture, but not the latter. This can be achieved most easily by providing photocopies in the lecture, but such an approach is expensive financially and in terms of staff time. And both of the above solutions significantly reduce the value of the VLE - rather "throwing the baby out with the bath water".

Fortuitously however, a (perhaps somewhat) less well known tool recently added in recent upgrades of the first of the VLEs listed above (Blackboard) allows instructors to exercise precisely the selectivity suggested above via the VLE itself. Thus, while making notes available via VLEs may be part of the problem, the technology potentially also provides the means to be part of the solution.

The technology (and how to use it)

The tool in question goes under the heading of 'Adaptive Release'. This provides various options to control when, how, and most importantly here, to whom material is made available. To use this facility to restrict material availability to specific groups of students, one first needs to set up a 'Group' defining those permitted to access particular materials. This group will obviously consist of those whose attendance is deemed sufficiently good to enjoy this privilege; at the start of the module all students would start off as members. This is done via the Control Panel. From there select Manage Groups from the User Management block and then click Add Group and give it a name. Clicking on Submit brings up a list of groups. Click to Modify your new group and select the option to Add Users to Group. Use the List All option to bring up a list of the first 25 students. The next part is a little cumbersome since one has to click the box for each student and Submit, and then repeat this process adding the next 25 and so on.

The next step is for each set of lecture notes (or other materials) you want to make available selectively, to configure the 'Adaptive Release' settings so as to restrict who can access them to those in the group only. This is done from the Control Panel location where your lecture notes reside, and selecting the Manage option (Fig. 1) (note 4).

Figure 1: Selecting Adaptive Release

From the list that appears, select Adaptive Release, choose any date settings you wish to apply, and at the same time change the Membership settings (see Fig. 2). What you should see in the Membership section is a list of available groups, including the one you set up for this purpose. To restrict the visibility of the notes to those in the group, simply click the little right arrow button to move the group into the right hand box (Selected Course Groups).

Now the 'clever' part is that as those students with problematic attendance subsequently reveal themselves, their names can be removed from the group (note 5). This has the effect of rendering existing - and as they become available - subsequent materials invisible to those outside the group (note 6). It is not necessary to change the group membership for each item separately. That said, if it is desired to restrict particular materials to those present in a single lecture, this too can be achieved by defining a group for that specific teaching session (see my list of available groups in Fig. 2, the second of which is designed precisely to achieve this outcome).

Figure 2: Defining who can see the materials

Administrative arrangements

In implementing this arrangement on a module, one needs of course to make students aware of the policy and also to monitor attendance. The former can be dealt with by means of a prominent statement in the induction lecture, in the module outline/handbook and also on Blackboard along the lines (this can be seen in Fig. 1):

Please note that attendance will be monitored in every teaching session on this module, and that the facility to download notes from Blackboard will be withdrawn from students whose attendance is unsatisfactory.

The latter requires some form of record-keeping. For my module I distributed a photocopied signature sheet in lectures with the names listed in the same order as on an Excel spreadsheet. This meant information could be transferred quickly into Excel after each lecture , using 1, 0 and E to denote 'present', 'absence unexplained' and 'absence explained'). For each student, automatically updated columns showed total number and percentage of attendances to date (plus any explained absences, which I removed from the denominator in calculating percentages). Importantly, a separate column also contained students' e-mail addresses so as to facilitate the next stage of the process.

At various intervals, students identified as having problematic attendance records were e-mailed using the mail merge facility in Word. Information from the spreadsheet was used both to define the recipients automatically (e.g. attendance below 50%), and was also inserted as fields in the message, most importantly student name and information about their attendance record to date. Such personalisation is in my view important. Writing to the student by name means the individual knows their individual attendance is the subject of scrutiny, while the information about attendance is often salutary - in many cases they themselves are often unaware of, or underestimate, the extent of the problem.

Three messages were deployed. The first was a (final) warning e-mail, advising the student of the problem and stating that continued, systematic absence would result in their ability to access the lecture notes on Blackboard being withdrawn. For those whose absence triggered a second message, this advised them that the sanction had been implemented and required them to contact me to discuss the situation. Failure to do so, or a zero absence record resulted in a third message (which was also copied by formal letter to the student's physical address). This notified them that unless they contacted me by a certain date, the matter would be escalated to faculty with a request that they be removed from the module. All correspondence offered students an opportunity to disclose medical, family or other problems explaining their poor attendance record, and thus also serves as a useful additional means of identifying at an early stage students requiring additional support. A key feature of the policy is that it is also 'forgiving' - those with poor records whose attendance improves to a level considered satisfactory can have the facility to obtain electronic versions of the notes reinstated.

The upshot

The policy appears to have been largely successful (although it should be emphasised that the module still has 4 weeks left to run at the time of writing). In most cases where it was sent, the first warning message has been all that was required in order to change behaviour. A small number of students did however proceed to the second stage and had the sanction imposed, while 3 (out of 160) arrived at the third stage and received the final message/letter. In the last group, all have now contacted me, two of whom have subsequently started attending lectures, and the other to explain his circumstances and to seek advice. Among those in the second group too, there has been a positive impact on attendance among several of the students (albeit some remain recalcitrant): one for example, acknowledged that "You're right my attendance has not been up to standard though from now on it will be".

At the aggregate level, and in contrast to the pattern of attrition usually experienced (see for example, Burd and Hodgson, 2006) attendance actually rose over the course of the term (excepting the first and last weeks of term, which as might be expected were outliers with unusually high and low attendances respectively). It is evident too that the policy has had an important demonstration effect and impacted on student behaviour: in many cases I am now contacted either before or very shortly after the lecture by students seeking to explain an absence. Typical are e-mails such as:

Sorry, I was unable to attend the lecture today due to a doctors appointment. Just to let you know, that is why my name was not on the attendance list. I will be sure to copy up all work missed.

my name is [student] I missed your Managerial economics lecture today, due to my train back to swansea being delayed... i was sent an email about attendance a few weeks ago, an have been to every lecture since, I will catch up the work, and look at my friends notes, and be sure to attend the 11 oclock tomorrow [which the student did]

Although this last phenomenon is undoubtedly motivated in part by a desire to avoid later sanctions, as the illustrative quotes indicate, the policy does appear to have effected a change in culture and expectations, at least at the margin. Students are aware of the importance staff attach to lecture attendance (and notes), that their behaviour is monitored, and that there are immediately identifiable consequences arising from systematically poor attendance, including the inconvenience of having to obtain their notes from sources other than the VLE. On this last point it is important to emphasise that the policy does not prevent a student - even one subject to the sanction - from obtaining the notes. The notes can always be obtained from the lectures themselves - all that is needed is to turn up.

Conclusions

This case study suggests that among the various methods that might be deployed to address the issue of student attendance at lectures, one possibility is to make ongoing access to lecture notes on VLEs conditional on satisfactory attendance. In one popular VLE, namely Blackboard, this can be achieved using the 'Adaptive Release' facility. Of course pedagogical considerations are equally (if not more) important, and in particular the need for "individual educators to closely review, reflect on and revise their approach to teaching in [the lecture] format" (Cleary-Holdforth, 2007:10). Nonetheless, it may serve as a useful adjunct to other approaches seeking to effect improved attendance rates.

See Also

Notes

1. Some institutions have also started using electronic monitoring systems (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2006/oct/09/highereducation.students ).

2. See also Barrett et al. (2007).

3. A story I would suspect was apocryphal if I did not know it to be true, concerns a set of OHP lecture notes made available by a colleague on Blackboard that included two phase diagrams consisting only of the axes, the remainder of the diagrams being built up in the lectures. In the examination one student reproduced the lecture notes verbatim, including both sets of empty axes!

4. A short guide to the various options in Adaptive Release is available from the University of Southampton web site at http://www.southampton.ac.uk/isolutions/computing/elearn/blackboard/adaptiverelease.html .

5. This is done similarly to adding users, except one clicks the Remove Users from Group option from the Modify context.

6. Depending on how one sets up the materials, it is possible to leave the headings visible while hiding the notes themselves.

References

Barrett, R., Rainer, A. and Marczyk, O. (2007) "Managed Learning Environments and an Attendance Crisis?", The Electronic Journal of e-Learning, 5(1), pp. 1-10 (available online at http://www.ejel.org/)

Burd, E. and Hodgson, B. (2006) "Attendance and Attainment: A Five Year Study", Innovation in Teaching And Learning in Information and Computer Sciences, 5(2) [http://www.ics.heacademy.ac.uk/italics/vol5iss2/burd-att-italics-06-final.doc]

Clay, T. and Breslow, L. (2006) "Why Students Don't Attend Class", MIT Faculty Newsletter, XVIII(4) [online - http://web.mit.edu/fnl/volume/184/breslow.html]

Clearly-Holdforth, J. (2007) "Student non-attendance in higher education. A phenomenon of student apathy or poor pedagogy?", DIT Level 3, 5 [online - http://level3.dit.ie/html/issue5/cleary-holdforth/cleary-holdforth_1.html]