Student Attendance: explaining the post-Covid Crisis

Possibly the biggest question in the sector right now is “Where the heck are the students?”. Attendance in classes appears to be down across the HE sector leading to some understandably frustrated tweets (here & here) and students aren’t necessarily replacing face-to-face learning with online activity. Attendance always falls over the course of the academic year as students prioritise coursework over learning new stuff and shift expectations away from attending, but this feels in a different order of magnitude.

If you work in the field, you’ve probably already drawn your own conclusions about why they’re not attending. And you’d be right, but you’re probably also wrong. 

Literally a coin on a tipping point (I know, I can’t do extended visual metaphors either)

So what are the arguments being put forward?

It’s the economy, stupid

One of the strongest arguments is that students have changed their behaviours in response to the changing economic circumstances. Student loans and grants haven’t risen with inflation, so students have less money available to pay for essentials. This has been made worse by the cost of living crisis following the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Furthermore, the 2020 COVID pandemic showed that it was possible to study in a more semi-detached manner, either by commuting from home or by engaging online and so potentially just working a few extra shifts becomes even easier. 

But this is an argument that fits a political narrative, it’s sympathetic to students as victims of a negligent funding system and sympathetic to universities because it’s the fault of great big societal forces and low attendance is not our responsibility. Undoubtedly, this version is partly true. For some students, making ends meet is a major problem and will have a potentially detrimental impact on their quality of learning, but does it account for the dramatic drop in engagement seen during the past two years? I’d argue it’s not enough of an explanation. The most recent UK Engagement Survey (UKES) (Feb-June 2021) reports that 48% of students were working for pay whilst studying. However, the Unite Student Living Report 2004 (pg 15) asked “Do you currently have a job which you are paid to do either full or part-time?”: 42% of students did: working for an average of 14 hours a week. 

A significant minority of students have always worked whilst studying. I think that the current economics situation is a problem, but doesn’t explain the whole situation.

Computer says ‘whatever’

The second dominant argument is that it’s the fault of technology. Arguably we’ve stumbled into a world of blended learning without really thinking through the consequences for how students learn. There is good learning in the real world and there is good learning online; I’m not arguing that one is good and one is bad. However, I would argue that asking students to switch modes constantly may present challenges, particularly amongst first year students learning what normal looks like. One of the joys of Zoom or Teams interactions is that it’s possible to start instantly from anywhere without the bothersome commute. University isn’t like college, students aren’t normally required to be on campus all day, anything that gets in the way of learning how to commute is a potential problem.

The other technology-related problem (particularly since COVID) is that we haven’t quite balanced the needs to support students with ‘legitimate’ reasons for not attending and those who simply didn’t turn up. It’s clearly important to make resources available for students who can’t make a class, but doing so also makes it easier for everyone to not attend. Why get up for a 9am lecture when you could just watch it a few hours later online (or even live) from the comfort of your bed? It’s easy to be judgemental about what students ‘should’ be doing, but if you’re getting exactly the same thing from the comfort of your flat, why wouldn’t you?

Isn’t it the mental health crisis?

Perhaps the third commonly-cited strand is that the increasing prevalence of mental health and anxiety amongst young people. In survey after survey, students appear to be more anxious and have poorer mental health when compared to young people and society at large. The logic of this narrative is that being on campus and attending class is too uncomfortable either intellectually or socially for some students and so they cope by avoiding the stress of attending.

For example, the latest Student Academic Experience Survey (SAES) (2022) reports that only 14% of students have low levels of anxiety (I.e. Feel contented or happy with their lot). However, in the 2015 survey, only 12% of students reported very low levels of anxiety. Unfortunately, the 2022 survey doesn’t show all the data, so it’s not clear whether this is a direct comparison. Either way, it is clear that overall student mental health and anxiety is worse than the population at large, it’s just not quite clear whether the proportion of students reporting mental health concerns is stable or growing. 

Once again, mental ill health and anxiety is another reason why students may not be attending, but is not perhaps the whole picture.

COVID-19

Actually, I’ll come back to this … 

Follow the Money

One issue that I don’t think has had enough attention is funding. Like the proverbial slow-boiled frog, the sector has got used to coping with less and less money each year. In the UK, funding per student has remained static since 2012, meaning that by late 2022, funding had fallen by 28% in real terms. Some institutions may have been backfilling this income from other sources, but losing almost 1/3 of funding is enormous. It means staff are teaching and tutoring more students, with less time to form relationships and it incentivises financial, rather than pedagogic, reasons to adopt blended learning. I worry that the sector’s assumptions are still that the poor old personal tutor can cope by just doing a little bit more each year. Every year.

I have written previously about why I think students attend classes. Hopefully they turn up because the experience is rewarding, enjoyable and valuable. Hopefully they also attend because they have a personal relationship with the person teaching the class. Finally, some will attend because there are consequences of not doing. Reduced funding makes each of these harder. It is, of course, possible to make large classes rewarding, enjoyable and valuable, but it’s more difficult. It’s also much more difficult to have a professional relationship with students you hardly know, never mind the challenges of chasing up large cohorts of absent students.

We talk a lot about belonging in the sector. I’d argue that it’s just possible that some students have a stronger sense of belonging (loyalty even) to the bar or shop that employs them than they do to their course or institution.

I feel this is an invisible factor that we partly ignore because it’s too painful to think about.

COVID-19

Of course it’s bloody COVID. 

All the elements were already there: the lack of funding for both students and universities, the tentative moves to online, and student wellbeing issues. COVID was just the flame that ignited the dry kindling. COVID created a further shock to the economy, caused anxiety, pushed students to living at home and forced lecturers to make all of their teaching resources immediately accessible online. Perhaps, most of all, students missed opportunities to bridge the gap between college and university. Some of these opportunities are academic: developing the confidence in the discipline and in learning. Other opportunities are social: the chance to grow, test themselves and develop. Arguably, students are less prepared than ever to learn in ways that universities expect.

But none of these are satisfactory explanations

Well they’re all satisfactory explanations. They’re all true, to differing degrees for different students. But I feel that the miss something important. Students don’t work in big structural models, they (like all of us) make decisions on what feels right, within the context of what is going on around them. 

There’s a paper I keep returning to about retention (Castles, 2004). The author puzzled the essential question: why do some students stay on the course despite immense complexities and problems in their personal lives and some drop out after a short cold? Students don’t stop attending because they have a job, they stop attending because turning up for work at that point in time is more valuable than turning up to a lecture. In some cases, turning up for work will always be the right decision, but in others I think it’s far more nuanced.

The other dimension is that (non-) attendance is socially driven. Whenever academics study attendance (for example Newman-Ford et al., 2008), it shows the same essential pattern, it starts well at the beginning of the year and declines steadily over time. Students stop attending collectively. Once a few stop attending, it becomes more and more normalised, until a tipping point is reached when at the end of a module, not attending is more normal than attending. 

I think that what we are seeing at the moment is that there are more reasons than ever not to attend and collectively they are quickly pushing students towards the tipping point where not attending becomes normal. I don’t think that the battle is lost yet; but I do think that just assuming we are going to get back to normal after a few years of COVID disruption is a mistake. Our students are going to continue to face challenges that most colleagues in HE didn’t have to when they were at university. We can’t change those external factors. However, we do have control over learning and teaching, transition and induction and we can make our estates more appealing. On top of that I think we also owe it to ourselves to think about how we set expectations, use data and re-think systems to target support at those students who disengage most quickly.

References

Castles, J., (2004), Persistence and the Adult Learner: Factors Affecting Persistence in Open University Students, Active Learning in Higher Education 2004 5: 166, DOI: 10.1177/1469787404043813

Newman-Ford, L., Fitzgibbon, K., Lloyd, S. & 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 2008, 33, 6, 699-717

18 thoughts on “Student Attendance: explaining the post-Covid Crisis

  1. Yinka Fedden

    Very interesting article. I lecture apprentices who are, naturally, already employed. At the moment I am enjoying 90% attendance, but I am wondering what action I should take if this number were to increase.

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    1. Hi Yinka

      I don’t know enough about how students feel about having lecturers, link tutors and their employers monitoring their engagement, but on one level it’s a more comprehensive system with clearer roles and expectations. I think from what I know of how degree apprentice course are delivered, the systems are in place to spot and respond to non-attendance.

      I think the underlying social model is the same though, so for me: clear expectations repeated periodically and very quick (but supportive) responses to non-engagement so that you never get to the tipping point.

      (Unless the 90% attendance was all a humble brag 😂)

      Like

  2. Yinka Fedden

    Thanks for your reply, Ed. Actually, it’s a brand new apprenticeship – and not a degree apprenticeship. But you’re right about the expectation levels and three-part monitoring.

    As for my 90% brag – I only have 10 apprentices for this (first) cohort. And we started last October.

    So it’s all very new – for all of us! Exciting times ahead!

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    1. Sorry Yinka

      I didn’t really think you were bragging – I’m just certain that lots of colleagues would be in heaven to have your ‘problem’ of only 90% attendance whilst forgetting all the hard work and challenges you face.

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  3. Gavin Moodie

    But is attendance so important? Teachers’ ultimate responsibility is to pass students who demonstrate satisfactory performance, and to offer to help students to demonstrate satisfactory performance. If students don’t want to ‘attend’ perhaps teachers should try offering other forms of help.

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  4. Jenny Spencer

    Take away the benefits of in-person f2f teaching and adapting to individual needs, active classroom dynamics, social interaction and the nuances of communication; together with having to physically be on campus for lectures etc., …and perhaps students realise what poor value for money Uni’s/Colleges are offering once the kudos of contact with teachers and site/place are taken away? Perhaps they may regard generic herd management via online platforms e.g. Zoom/Teams as boring, unmotivating, impersonal, and superficial?

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    1. Gavin Moodie

      I don’t see why in person meetings are necessarily different to online meetings in their adaptability to individual needs, active classrooms, or depth.

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      1. Greg Artus

        Then perhaps you should try to have an interactive discussion online with 30 students, all of whom have their cameras off and are only half listening to you while they check their social media (their own description of their engagement, not mine). If you’ve ever tried to teach online, I’m surprised you suggest there’s no difference between online and face to face. Online, students are just far more absent in general, often attending without really attending (or so they tell me).
        It’s difficult to adapt to student’s needs when you can’t see them and they don’t say anything because they are treating the class like a podcast in the background.
        Some colleagues and I have been trying to figure out whether two years of this has changed the way they approach learning more generally, and has bled over into their approach to face to face, not just in terms of attendance, but also in how they engage once in the classroom. There seem to be certain subtle differences now, but it’s difficult to pin down.

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      2. Gavin Moodie

        I am not claiming that there is no difference between campus based and online education, but that some differences are not a necessary characteristic of the mode but are contingent on the way the mode is practised.

        In particular, online education may be equally tho perhaps differently to campus based education adaptable to individual needs, active, and deep.

        Sure, there are bad experiences with online classes, but there are also bad experiences with classes on campus.

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  5. I think we are seeing some changes in behaviour, some might be because we’re just noticing it more, but enough colleagues are describing how students engage differently post-covid to believe it’s real.

    Tony Cook used to say that one of the challenges of becoming a first year student is that they are trained for the high jump and asked to do the long jump. Students think that they know what learning in higher education looks like, but it’s not the same thing. In a normal year, a pretty large proportion end up treating the freedom offered in HE as licence to get away with ‘it’. I’ve always felt that we don’t really teach the transition, we just expect students to bend to our way of working (some massive generalisations I accept), but I feel even more strongly post-covid and with increasingly mixed modes of delivery that teaching how to be a university student is even more important than ever. It’s a hard sell because psychologists want to learn psychology etc and psychology lecturers want to teach psychology(1), but we need to help students to ‘become’ students.

    (1) sorry – not picking on psychologists

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    1. Gavin Moodie

      I agree that it is highly desirable to teach pupils how to be a university student in their discipline. I do not think this is best developed as general skills in activities separate from teaching-learning in students’ core disciplines.

      So I don’t teach students how to be a university student, but how to be a university law student: the modes of studying, analysing, writing, and expressing oneself orally in law are rather different from those activities for a university education student, my other field.

      My faculty explicitly develops students’ abilities to be a graduate student in education: research methods of course, but how to search the literature, how to construct a scholarly paper, how to present at scholarly conferences, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m not arguing for teaching ‘becoming’ to necessarily be taught externally to the subject. My only hesitation is the willingness (and sometimes skill) of subject academics to teach it well. I think I was explaining that students themselves may not value learning stuff that’s not the subject canon even if taught by academics within the discipline. I’m a big fan of context and if it helps students to engage with it, that’s crucial.

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  6. Luke Millard

    Hi Ed, I like your thought process in this, but also wonder if our educational model is out of date. We expect a full-time student to study for five days a week when we only offer 10-15 hours on campus study. Isn’t it about time that we recognise our students are part-time and have other priorities as you cite (working to live and survive). So should we concentrate our teaching week to get our students to be able to focus and and attend a vibrant campus when the staff are also actually in. I agree these are testing times, but I am amazed that as a sector we are not all re-considering and re-imagining the product we offer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gavin Moodie

      Concentrating students’ timetables is known in the USA as block scheduling where most literature is about high schools but some about higher eduction:

      Biesinger, K. D., Crippen, K. J., & Muis, K. R. (2008). The impact of block scheduling on student motivation and classroom practice in mathematics. Nassp Bulletin, 92(3), 191-208.

      Soldner, L., Lee, Y., & Duby, P. (1999). Welcome to the block: Developing freshman learning communities that work. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 1(2), 115-129.

      Tinto, V. (1996). Reconstructing the First Year of College. Planning for higher education, 25(1), 1-6.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Is it possible that I’m wrong? Heck, yes of course.

      To be clear, I’m not advocating that students should be on campus 5 days a week for the sake of it. I understand timetabling at most HEIs is an absolute swine to deal with, but that feels it is an area where technology could help.

      It’s innately conservative to say that the model that served Edwardian gentlemen hasn’t been bested. But I feel it’s also a logical fallacy to say that with all the complex needs of our much larger student bodies with all their diverse entry routes, we can just assume that half of the time dedicated to learning can just be dropped with no consequences. Of course I’m speaking from a position of privilege and, in the UK, arguably degree apprenticeships have done that (filling the remainder of time with on-the-job learning). I’m scared that it suits students to just skip to being a graduate, and (if I’m being really unfair), suits those academics and senior managers who’d like to get on with the real world of universities: research.

      So I’d better stop before I just start being offensive to everyone. Must need a cup of tea

      Like

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