Improving attendance or reshaping the whole gig?

Posted by: Kylie Budge, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Recently on Twitter I came across an article: Five Techniques for Improving Student Attendance. At first glance I thought, “That’s helpful”, but I very quickly found myself thinking, “Wait, we’re still focusing on this?” Ten years or more ago I can remember reading articles about how to improve attendance in university classes. It seems we haven’t moved very far along the path of addressing this issue.

However, the landscape is radically shifting; it’s been doing so for some time, and in many ways this is a good thing for learning.

So here’s what I think: we need to reframe the question. The question now should be not so much how to improve attendance, with its associated faith that a student present is a student learning; it should be: what can I do to advance these learners within this time limit?

Despite all the technology at hand and all the research that’s been done into how to design learning environments to maximise student engagement and learning, it seems that many of us are still stuck in the rut of scheduling 12 face-to-face weeks of classes each semester (at RMIT University higher education semesters are 12 weeks long; in TAFE they are 16 weeks). For as long as we can remember that is how it has been done and many of us think this is what our universities expect us to do to fulfill our obligations as lecturers/tutors/teachers.

If we imagine a 12 credit point allocation for a course (or ‘subject’ – language depends on your institution) then what we are probably bound by is time – we meet our students on day 1 and we need to have completed delivery (two problematic words) of our course after 12 weeks. What can 12 weeks of tertiary education achieve? What are the intended outcomes for students in the course?

Let’s break it down into some detail. In higher education disciplines with the lecture/tute model, for example, one might consider designing the learning experience to include a whole range of ways to engage students instead of scheduling 12 weeks of 2-hour lectures with a 1-hour tute to follow.

To stay with the model above, if we can imagine that those 36 hours of attendance and participation  are necessary but not sufficient for success in your course, have you made it clear to your students what a successful learner would be doing week-to-week outside of those hours?

Even more radically, rather than expect students to come to classes 12 or more times over a semester, it might be that we ask them to come to 3 or 4 key face-to-face sessions during the 12 weeks where there is a learning task or series of activities that requires them to interact face-to-face. In short, we could stop asking them to attend classes where there is no reason for them to be physically present.

You  may well be asking: how will they learn then?  Well in many, many ways actually. Contemporary students have all the tools at their fingertips and are well-versed in finding out how stuff works, what things mean, and who was involved in doing it outside of class (they do it all the time in their personal lives).

But only if we facilitate a framework for learning for them.

In the modern world of learning that is our key role as experts in our field. We facilitate the learning because in the majority of cases, students can’t do this alone.

So over a 12-week semester students may be required to:

  • attend some face-to-face sessions;
  • complete a series of projects or tasks (this can happen any time, anywhere, depending on what it is they’re learning and what equipment may be required);
  • interact online with you (as the facilitator) and each other about learning tasks or projects (there are many forums in which this can occur);
  • read and analyse course information via the university LMS (learning management system);
  • watch online videos and listen to podcasts as set up by you as the facilitator;
  • participate in field trips or live events;
  • photograph work in progress and share it with you and their peers using online forums.

The above list is not exhaustive and of course there are any number of creative ways that learning can occur that are relevant to your particular disciplinary focus. The key is moving away from the notion that learning only happens when we can physically see students. Learning happens all the time and isn’t bound by the timeslot of a lecture.

If we focus on what an engaging learning experience that achieves the course outcomes might look like, rather than ask how we can improve attendance at a weekly lecture, we ask how we can improve engagement in our subject. We’re no longer putting our energies into getting students to attend classes every week just because it’s always been done like that. Instead, learning is conceptualised in a more varied, dynamic and interactive way, and – most importantly – the student takes centre stage.

Do you have ideas on restructuring the traditional model of attendance and participation at university? We’d love to hear about them in the comments.

References:

Sheridan, R. (2012, June 25). Five techniques for improving student attendance. Retrieved from:
http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/five-techniques-for-improving-student-attendance/

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