Student attendance/ engagement policies – why do we bother?

The 2021/22 academic year was a bit of a surprise for the sector. Students were effectively released from the pressures of lockdown and social distancing and ended up more anxious, more confused and certainly less engaged than at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It may be that students were just catching up on two years’ worth of missed socialising, but that doesn’t feel to be the full picture at all. Staff reported that students often felt a little lost and less capable of engaging with their studies or seeking out help. It appeared that new students had missed valuable opportunities to develop and grow through their further education courses and returning students appeared far less comfortable on campus and more distant from their teaching staff.

Attendance/ engagement policies

I’m going to keep returning to the theme of the last post: where and how do we intervene? This time I’m going to focus on a capacity-building and academic domain oriented piece of work: attendance/ engagement policies.

Higher education attendance policies are probably universal across the sector, but almost certainly applied with different amounts of zeal. There are some thorny issues about the nature of monitoring students who are adult fee-paying customers. However, even in institutions where learner autonomy is sacred, there are still groups that requiring to meet legal, professional or funding requirements. One reason for having a universal attendance policy is probably that it’s important not to stigmatise some student groups, but this is an expensive and time consuming way to be inclusive.

What are attendance/ engagement policies supposed to do?

I think whenever I’ve looked at attendance policies they tend to have the same essential functions:

  • meet any legal/ professional/ funding requirements
  • emphasise the importance of attending/ engaging and set expectations that students should turn up
  • provide an early warning sign that students are in trouble and, if serious enough, trigger support interventions
  • In extreme cases, trigger the process for removing the student from their programme which then provides a plausible threat to encourage other students to attend/engage better

Is the association between engagement/ attendance and student success robust?

There is plenty of evidence to support the association between engaging with one’s studies and completing the programme. I have previously blogged about the association between engagement measured in our student dashboard and progression, but there’s plenty of evidence that shows the same essential truth: students who do more, on average do better. High student attendance at timetabled classes is strongly associated with high levels of attainment (Romer, 1993, Colby, 2004, Burd & Hodgson, 2006, Newman-Ford et al, 2008). Farsides & Woodfield (2003) reported that “application, specifically seminar attendance was by far and away the strongest and most consistent predictor of academic success” (p1239). It might reasonably be expected that this simply reflects the fact that ‘better’ students are those who are better motivated and acculturated to successful learning in higher education. However, Romer (1993) found that if academically successful students were also regular attenders they performed better. Woodfield, Jessop & McMillan (2006) found several personal characteristics associated with academic success (e.g. conscientiousness, extroversion, high A level points, etc.) however, attendance acted as a multiplying factor for improving attainment, particularly for males. Summers, Higson & Moores (2021) found that engagement in the first few weeks of the first term was a very strong indicator of the likelihood of a student progressing.

Colby (2004) argued that attendance had a cultural element: once not attending becomes normalised within a group, there is a downward spiral as students prioritise coursework, or realise that they actually can get away with not attending a class. I’m often struck by room usage data that shows that the Friday afternoon classes are the worst attended of all. Our own internal data suggests that there’s a very strong association between class and other socio-economic disadvantage and engagement.

At my institution, we face a bit of a crossroads about what we do with our existing attendance policies. We have an institution-wide set of principles and each school has its own attendance policy to reflect the diversity of learning and teaching experiences. There are some issues though: particularly fairness and consistency of experience. We are looking at the policy now and either make some fairly superficial changes to take into account new modes of study like degree apprenticeships, or we think more radically and consider how we improve communication about the policy, use nudges and other interventions.

I know that there is some evidence that attendance policies can affect attendance, but there is also a good argument that policy is probably quite a weak lever for change. As part of the process, I’ve been running focus groups with students and their views have been interesting:

  • Attendance in classes was largely based on how much the students enjoyed the learning experience a (no shit Sherlock). Obviously, there’s lots of complexity (what makes learning enjoyable and this doesn’t explain why attendance is poorer on Friday afternoons)
  • There was a second consideration, not quite enjoyment, but a sort of cost benefit analysis of attending/ not attending. Attending might not be enjoyable, but the students felt that they would generally be more likely to learn if they attended than if they tried to catch up with the lecture capture materials.
  • Most students were aware that there were expectations that they attend and engage, but not necessarily that there was an official policy. They also described how (other) students would use any linguistic ambiguity about attendance as a justification not to.
  • The students had various views about peers’ non-attendance, some were quite relaxed, others quite irritated, particularly when peers asked for lecture notes or the QR code (the way we capture attendance at our university).
  • There wasn’t much consensus on how to follow up low engagement/ attendance, but they felt that starting supportive and getting increasingly prescriptive was reasonable. Some students wanted there to be far more nudges and early interventions to encourage better engagement, but there wasn’t huge expectation that it would be effective.
  • The students preferred to be contacted by someone that they know (such as a personal tutor), but weren’t clear about what to do for students who never formed that relationship with their personal tutor in the first place.
  • None of them liked the idea of involving student mentors in interventions when a student had low engagement, but there was some interest in mentors communicating expectations.
  • As we’ve seen previously, when we’ve asked students’ views about communication, they were a little conflicted: both wanting communication via official emails and acknowledging that official email channels are a problem.

These views obviously aren’t necessarily representative and I often worry that we ask engaged students to help us develop support and interventions for their disengaged peers. Nonetheless, this has been a good grounding experience. It will be interesting to listen to the views of teaching staff next.

Bibliography

COLBY, J., 2004. Attendance and Attainment  http://www.ics.heacademy.ac.uk/italics/Vol4-2/ITALIX.pdf edn. University of Ulster: 5th Annual Conference of the Information and Computer Sciences – Learning and Teaching Support Network (ICS-LTSN).

BURD, E. and HODGSON, B., 2006. Attendance and attainment: A five year study  6th Annual Conference of the Information and Computer Sciences , 30 August–1 September 2006, Higher Education Academy, University of York.

FARSIDES, T.L. and WOODFIELD, R., 2003. Individual differences and undergraduate academic success: the roles of personality, intelligence and application, Personality and Individual Differences, 34, pp. 1225-1243.

MARBURGER, D., 2006. Does mandatory attendance improve attainment? Journal of Economic Education, 37(2), pp. 148-155.

NEWMAN-FORD, L., FITZGIBBON, K., LLOYD, S. and THOMAS, S., 2008. A large-scale investigation into the relationship between attendance and attainment: a study using an innovative, electronic attendance monitoring system. Studies in Higher Education, 33(6), pp. 699-717.

ROMER, D., 1993.  Do students go to class? Should they? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 7(3), pp. 167-174.

Robert J. Summers, Helen E. Higson & Elisabeth Moores (2021) Measures of engagement in the first three weeks of higher education predict subsequent activity and attainment in first year undergraduate students: a UK case study, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 46:5, 821-836,

WOODFIELD, R., JESSOP, D. and MCMILLAN, L., 2006. Gender Differences in undergraduate attendance rates. Studies in Higher Education, 31(1), pp. 1-22.

One thought on “Student attendance/ engagement policies – why do we bother?

  1. Pingback: Modelling how to ‘make students attend’ – Living Learning Analytics Blog

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