Unproductive Student Behaviors – ABSENCES
It’s depressing to see students making poor decisions about learning. They don’t come to class, or come unprepared. They miss deadlines and make excuses. Many teachers try to prevent negative learning behaviors through a variety of course policies that punish the offenses. Today’s post on absences is the first in a series on unproductive student behaviors.
Syllabi often including intricate details about the penalties associated with absences, late work, missed assignments, etc. This kind of negative reinforcement can work, but is it the best strategy? What are the consequences of an adversarial syllabus, or a syllabus that implies teachers expect students will engage in these negative learning behaviors? Faculty expectations, thus explicitly stated, are powerful. If we focus on poor behaviors in the syllabus, we probably shouldn’t be surprised if students behave in ways we seem to expect.
Negative reinforcement has other implications. Do we want students to do the work, in order to avoid losing points, or are we hoping students will develop a desire for learning? What will happen when the negative consequence is removed? Have students learned anything about the value of reading in the discipline? Have they developed better study habits? Are they improving their note-taking skills?
Why should students attend class?
From the teacher’s perspective, class time is for lecture, note taking, practicing concepts, engaging in discussion, asking questions, and participating in learning activities. I wonder if students answer this question differently? Have you ever asked your students? I haven’t. This could be an interesting conversation starter during the first or second meeting.
To frame the conversation, we could ask students: What happens when someone is absent from team practice, performance rehearsal, or work? Who is impacted? How are they impacted? This links class attendance to students’ personal experiences. It would be difficult to find a student who hasn’t been negatively impacted by someone not showing up for a practice session, work or an important event. A discussion that taps into those memories provides a valuable context for establishing class norms.
In light of the consumer model of higher education, some students may believe: I paid tuition; it’s not the teacher’s business if I choose to be absent. How does this position relate to students’ ownership of their learning? Compulsory attendance seems to conflict with students taking responsibility for their learning. Yet, without sufficient attendance, learning in the classroom may be negatively impacted (too few discussion participants, limited opportunities for collaboration). Do students have an obligation (to themselves, their peers, or the teacher) to attend? Don’t faculty have an obligation to make class time so valuable that students attend voluntarily? A conversation about expectations and the “whys” of attending class, or not attending, would provide valuable insights for both teacher and students.
Students and teacher could also share perspectives as syllabus attendance policy is created or reviewed. Including students in policy setting increases ownership of the policy as they consider: What’s a reasonable standard for attendance? What will be the guidelines for this class? What, if any, should be the consequence if class is missed? What will be the protocol for obtaining notes or information about class activities? A policy that students and teacher set jointly should result in fewer questions like “Did we do anything last meeting?” It also reinforces student ownership of their learning by clearly delineating the rights and responsibilities of students when class is missed.
If all we want students to learn in our class is some content, then negative reinforcement may be the most straightforward way for the teacher to manage attendance. For those hoping to accomplish more, other kinds of strategies are needed.
What are your strategies for encouraging attendance as part of students’ taking responsibility for their learning?
Recommended reading: Lin, T. 2014. Does Missing Classes Decelerate Student Exam Performance Progress? Empirical Evidence and Policy Implications. Journal of Education for Business, 89(8): 411-418.