New college semester brings new questions about how to fill empty seats

January 20, 2023 3:33 am
chairs in a lecture hall with question marks

As a new college semester begins, instructors are talking about how to improve chronically low attendance. (Eric Thomas illustration)

Visit a faculty break room on a college campus these days. Or gather a group of university professors together for a Friday afternoon cocktail. Or call one on the phone to ask how classes are going.

Attendance arises first in almost any such conversation. Three semesters past the time when most universities proclaimed that classes should return to regular schedules and classroom formats, the world of higher education is still bucking and heaving.

Especially when it comes to attendance.

This week is the start of spring semester on many university campuses in Kansas, including Kansas State, Wichita State and the University of Kansas, where I teach. What you will hear in those faculty break rooms is frustration at the empty chairs in classrooms. If classes are fully registered, why are so many seats empty every day?

Lockdowns, remote schooling and lenient standards were a hallmark of pandemic schooling, starting in 2020. Kansas Reflector reported how chronic absenteeism in K-12 education led to nearly one-fourth of students missing “at least 10% of school days in 2021-2022.” Students now on our college campuses experienced high school in this era of sparse attendance.

Additionally, many students have watched their parents’ white collar workplaces scoot into home offices as employment arrangements became more flexible. If mom stays home and works in her pajamas while dad hosts Zoom meetings 15 feet from bed, why should I have to leave my residence hall room?

Scrawny attendance on college campuses has many effects. Students miss vital content that leaves them unprepared for the next project or exam. Professors watch their inboxes fill up with messages from absent students asking for the classroom materials to be delivered via email. And students fail classes, even when we as instructors reach out and beg them to attend.

For these reasons, instructors and professors are obsessed with attendance, now more than ever. How can we persuade more students to attend more regularly?

We have been pulling out every conceivable incentive to draw students back to class and wielding punishments for those who don’t.

As for incentives, I have presented surprise attendance points for students who attend class on a random day, hoping that will draw in students who are desperate to improve their grades. Perhaps long overdue, I have abandoned lectures packed with outlines and PowerPoints. Instead, I have supercharged my classes with interactions, discussions and in-class projects. Many of us not only learn better in these ways, but we also enjoy classes more. My hope is that this drives higher attendance.

Some instructors have pulled back the number of resources (such as handouts and assignment descriptions) they offer through their course’s website. Their hope is that students will attend if the vital currency of a modern education, namely points toward a passing grade, is dispensed only in the physical classroom.

The message is this: The classroom is here, not online.

Other instructors have employed attendance apps or clickers to reward students who attend — and monitor the students who don’t. In smaller classes, like mine, it’s easier to take old-fashioned attendance by calling each student’s name.

This week, the faculty senate for the University of Kansas, where I teach, provided the campus’ students, faculty and staff with the draft of a new policy about absences. The university community has until Feb. 7 to respond via written comments. Rather than steering down each cul-de-sac of language in the 800-word policy, I will focus on the second section, titled “University Excused Absences.”

The policy sensibly says: “Attendance policies may vary for individual instructors and shall be included in the course syllabus.” Everyone can agree on that.

However, things get murky afterward — especially for those of us who teach large classes.

The phrase “university excused absence” muddies these waters. The policy defines such an absence as one “for which a student cannot be penalized and shall receive an accommodation for completing the missed work.” Among the legitimate reasons for such an absence? Illness or injury, required military service, religious observance, participation in university activities (like sports or concerts), jury duty, and more.

The murkiest of this water comes in the fifth bullet point: “unforeseen life event or compelling circumstances beyond the student’s control.” Examples provided by the policy include divorce, birth or adoption of a child, death, loss of employment, sexual assault, and domestic violence. However, those are only examples of an unforeseen life event. What is to prevent that list from growing into a longer list of events?

Even if this policy isn’t adopted, instructors remain confused about how to handle attendance.

Should we clamp down and monitor attendance, signaling to our students that we care as much about their physical presence as their essay writing, their group project or their lab experiment? With students’ brains likely not fully developed until after college graduation, should we be incentivizing attendance at a basic level?

Or is tracking attendance a way of coddling students? Should we trust that they will attend class if they are authentically interested in learning? Is taking attendance not fit for an adult environment like a university campus?

We often reflexively believe that students resent attendance policies and would rather skip class.

My friend and colleague Carol Holstead found the opposite: Students appreciate being incentivized for solid attendance.

She discovered this by surveying her students in JMC 101: Media & Society, a large lecture class for students interested in journalism, public relations, advertising and such. After 175 of her 245 students responded with their reasons for skipping and attending class, she wrote a piece that ran in the Chronicle of Higher Education in September.

“A required-attendance policy helps students get to class (although they don’t like to admit it),” she wrote. “Some students said there were days when they just couldn’t get themselves to class, no matter what. (And many weren’t sure why.) Others said they never skipped class because they liked it and were supposed to be there. Still, fully a third of respondents said they went to class when they got credit for attending.”

As an instructor who has taught large classes before and is scheduled to do so again, one thing seems clear to me. Unexcused absences make handling attendance nearly impossible when you have more than 100 students in a lecture hall. How can you negotiate with dozens of students about what fits the definition of an “unforeseen life event?”

The proposed policy offers to create an office on campus to help mediate and legitimize these absences without informing the instructor of the student’s personal details. Even so, I can imagine how the waterfall of excuses — legitimate or not — might balloon the task of taking attendance.

At the outset of this semester, the challenge of attendance leaves me with more uncertainty than surefire solutions. What possible levers can we, as university instructors, pull as we try to boost attendance? What educational backgrounds do our students bring to campus with them? What policies should guide and restrict our universities? It’s a complex mix without obvious answers.

As academics constantly say, more research is needed into this question.

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.