September 23, 2009

Student Absenteeism

by Lauren Hynicka - Assistant Professor, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy

The branch campus is becoming ever more popular in higher education. As a result, lectures are recorded for students at the distance campus to view asynchronously and often students on the "main" campus also have access. The University of Maryland School of Pharmacy recently started its own branch campus at Shady Grove. I have heard during my short time here that there has been a decline in student attendance since the adoption of the recorded lecture. [Editor's Note: Dr. Hynicka joined our faculty in August 2009]

Over the past several weeks, we have been discussing teaching and learning styles. I was curious to see if I could find any information that might give me a clue as to the types of students who would be more apt to be absent from lectures and what if anything could be done to encourage attendance. In my search I found an article by Westrick and colleagues entitled, “Factors influencing pharmacy students’ attendance decisions in large lectures.” (Citation: Westrick SC, Helms KL, McDonough SK, Breland ML. Am J Pharm Educ 2009; 73: 1-9).

The authors introduce the topic by identifying the reasons why educators should be concerned about absenteeism in the classroom. Negative impacts on both academic performance as well as professional development were identified as two major consequences of student absenteeism. In order to better delineate strategies to improve student attendance at classes, a study was conducted at the Auburn University School of Pharmacy. The study consisted of a two step process - the first step was to develop a survey instrument. All students were invited to participate in a discussion on student absenteeism. They were asked to identify reasons to attend and not to attend classes. Following the generation of this list, the students ranked the reasons based on how much they agreed or disagreed. In addition to student generated ideas about absenteeism, a literature search revealed two research studies evaluating similar research questions. A compilation of these sources lead to the generation of the survey instrument.

A cross-sectional survey was disseminated to 131 second-year pharmacy students via email. Students were asked to identify the number of times they were absent from 3 courses: integrated pharmaceutical sciences, management, and pharmaceutics. Demographic information was also collected. Finally, students were asked rate 14 reasons to attend class and 22 reasons not to attend class. Students were asked to use the following scale: main reason, moderately important reason, minor reason, or not a reason.

A total of 98 (75%) students responded. Three-quarters of the students were female and unmarried. Prior education was split down the middle, with half of the students earning prior college degrees. The majority of the students was not working during school and lived less than 10 minutes from campus. The average age was 23 with a cumulative GPA of 3.0. Student reports of absenteeism were highest in the pharmaceutics course with 38% of students reporting 11 or more absences and lowest in the management course with 100% of student reporting ≤ 2 absences. When analyzing the effect of student characteristics on absenteeism there were no statistically significant differences in the pharmaceutics or management courses. In the integrated pharmaceutical sciences course students were more likely to miss more classes if they lived more than 10 minutes from campus (p=0.04) and paid for their own education (p=0.04).

The main reasons to attend or not to attend class varied based on the course. A resounding reason to attend class (common to all courses) was the desire to take notes and to hear what the instructor considered important to know. In the management course a strong motivator for student attendance was the implementation of pop quizzes and activities that would impact student grades, with 97.7% of students reporting this as a reason to attend class. In terms of reasons not to attend class, students stated they would skip class if they were sick, they were studying or working on an assignment for another course, and the material was available from another source. These reasons were common to all three courses.

One thing I have gleaned from this article is that awarding credit (or points toward the student’s grade) for attending class is a strong incentive. I also think one of the students' justification for not attending class - the need to study or work for other courses - is an interesting one. In pharmacy education we have the unique advantage in that our students are taking essentially the same classes and we (the teachers and administrators) have access to their schedules. While I recognize that developing time management skills is important, perhaps we (the faculty and administration) are doing a disservice to ourselves and our students by not exploring better ways to schedule course-related activities that would enable more students to complete assignments, study for tests, and attend class.

Relative to the student reasons to attend class it is interesting to note that one is an intrinsic characteristic of the learner (a desire to take notes) and the other is a quality related to how the teacher presents the material (emphasizing what’s important). While the authors were not able to delineate which students were more likely to miss class based on demographic characteristics, I would argue that the authors failed to collect some important information. I believe information about the students’ learning style, perhaps by using an inventory such as Kolb’s learning style indicator, would have been helpful . This might have provided additional insight into student responses to the survey and may be helpful for instructors to design learning activities for large groups that would entice more students to attend. Instructors are the other piece to the equation of classroom attendance and yet this crucial stakeholder was not surveyed in this study.

I think that this study could be used as a tool for faculty development. Having faculty members participate in a similar survey to see what biases / beliefs they have as it relates to student absenteeism would add an interesting dimension. Taking this a step further I would like to see faculty members complete an inventory to identify their teaching style. A better understanding of their own teaching tendencies will allow faculty members to see what areas they should strive to develop to better meet the needs of their students.

[Editor’s Commentary: Should we force, coerce, or bribe students to attend lectures (e.g. take attendance, administer pop quizzes, give attendance points)? Is there any evidence that attendance (per se) improves outcomes? If students perform equally well (or perhaps better) on assessments and exams when they skip class, what is the incentive to attend? From the student’s perspective, if the benefits of not attending outweigh the potential consequences, being absent is a simple benefit-risk decision. Does absenteeism bother us (the faculty) because it reflects badly on us (the faculty)? Does it annoy us because its boring talking to a bunch of empty seats? Are we failing to measure and assess important aspects of learning that best occur during face-to-face encounters with and between students? Or are students simply making rational decisions about how best to use their time? Food for thought. S.H.]

1 comment:

TanyaT said...

This is an interesting topic. Having graduated in the recent past, I can recall mixed emotions on this very topic. The way that things went was something like this: Students attended class on the first day and maybe a couple of times after that as well. As time went on, the students knew which instructors were worth listening to and from which instructors they could glean more information from a textbook than from their lecture. Most students took this time to catch up on things that they had left behind (ie sleep, breakfast, work). Some students stuck around and many of them were net-surfing in the back rows of the room. Is that what the aim is? I know how resistant I am to learning when I am forced to do so, so forcing people to go to class I think actually creates a barrier to learning. It even goes as far as to distract the other students in the room as the student in front of them is checking out the latest posts on facebook.
Students should have the liberty to decide what works for them. When deciding on an institution the learner themselves should be responsible for choosing a school that meets their needs. Students, by the time they get to professional school, are aware of what works for them and know that the choice to attend class may benefit them or not. Maintaining interactions in small group work like cases and labs help keep that interpersonal learning interaction without requiring students to attend lectures. Students are motivated to come to these as they are not taped and there is likely some assessment for which their attendance will benefit.