By Doug Ward

Something has been happening with class attendance. Actually, there are several somethings, which I’ll get to shortly. First, though, consider, this:

  • Since the start of the pandemic, many students have treated class attendance as optional, making discussion and group interaction difficult.
  • Online classes tend to fill quickly, and students who enroll in physical classes often ask for an option to “attend” via a video connection.
  • Many K-12 schools report record rates of absences. Students from low-income families are especially likely to miss class, according to the Hechinger Report. In many cases, Hechinger says, parents have lost trust in school and don’t see it as a priority.A Hispanic professor in tan shirt and dark skirt talks to a class

The first two points are anecdotal, but faculty nationwide have reported drops in attendance. This spring, some KU instructors say that students have been eager to participate in class, perhaps more so than at any time since the pandemic. In other cases, though, attendance remains spotty.

So what’s going on?

Here are a few observations:

  • Instructors became more flexible during the pandemic, and students found that they didn’t need to attend class to succeed. They have continued to expect that same flexibility.
  • As college grew more expensive, some students began seeing a degree as just another consumer product. They have long been told that a degree leads to higher incomes (which it does, although less so than it once did), so the degree (not the work along the way) becomes the focus. A 2010 study, for example, said that students who see education as a product are more likely “to feel entitled to receive positive outcomes from the university; they are not, however, any more likely to be involved in their education.”
  • Many instructors say that a KU attendance policy approved last year has complicated things. That policy was intended to provide flexibility for students who have legitimate reasons for missing class. Many students and faculty have taken that to mean nearly any absence should be excused.

Broader trends are in play, as well:

  • Many students in their teens and 20s feel that they “lost something in the pandemic,” as Time magazine describes it. Rather than building social networks and engaging with the world, they were forced to distance themselves. As a result, the “pandemic produced a social famine, and its after-effects persist,” Eric Klinenberg, a professor at New York University, writes in the Time article.
  • Many students continue to struggle with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, with 50% to 65% saying they frequently or always feel stressed, anxious or overwhelmed, according to a recent study.

A reassertion of independence

Students have also reasserted their independence as instructors have revised attendance policies and stipulated the importance of participation. A Fall 2022 opinion piece in the University Daily Kansan expressed a common sentiment.Large room with high ceilings. Students sit individually at large tables

“If professors make every class useful and engaging, then students who value their academic and future success will show up and be present in the learning,” Natalie Terranova, a journalism student, wrote in the Kansan. “Professors have a responsibility to the students to teach, but the students have a responsibility to themselves to prioritize what is most important to them.”

She’s right, of course, and her peers at many other student newspapers have made much the same argument. We all make choices about where to devote our time. If something is useful and important, we make time for it. If it isn’t, we don’t. And though students have long sought to declare their independence during their college years, their experiences during the pandemic seem to have made many of them more comfortable skipping class, seeing that as a right.

At the same time, faculty have come under increasing pressure to help students succeed. If too many students fail or withdraw, the instructor is often blamed. Many instructors, in turn, have made class attendance a component of students’ grades, with good reason. Considerable research suggests that students who attend class get better grades. Class is also part of a structure that improves learning, and a recent study says that students who commit to attending class are more likely to show up.

A high school teacher’s observations

A recent Substack article by a high school teacher offered some observations about student behavior that further illuminate the challenges in attendance. That teacher, Nick Potkalitsky, who is also an education consultant in Ohio, says students are still stressed, lonely, and sometimes bitter about what they missed out on during the pandemic. They have trouble concentrating and require several reminders to focus on a task at hand. With more complex tasks, they need more scaffolding, direction, and oversight than they did before the pandemic.

He offered some additional insights from his interactions with students:Looking over the shoulder of a woman in a college classroom

  • They struggle to connect in person. Students were dependent on technology “for almost the entirety of their social, academic, and personal lives” during the pandemic, Potkalitsky writes. “Students hunger for connection,” he says, but they struggle to connect in person. If they don’t already belong to an online community, the strong connections among those communities make it difficult for new members to fit in.
  • They dislike classrooms, where they often struggle to stay focused. They gain energy from playgrounds, parks, hiking paths, and other outdoor settings that allow them to move.
  • They crave immersion and autonomy. They like to immerse themselves in a subject, something he attributes to social media. “When school does not and cannot provide these kinds of stimulation, many students disengage and await the next opportunity to use their handheld devices,” he writes.
  • They “are experiencing a crisis in trust in authorities and themselves.” They chafe at the idea of school returning to “normal,” and their wariness has been reinforced by schools’ clumsy response to generative AI. “This generation knows that it needs guidance, but desires the kind of assistance that empowers,” Potkalitsky says

Yes, those are high school students, but they will soon be college freshmen. They also exhibit many of the same behaviors faculty have observed of KU students.

Jenny Darroch, dean of business at Miami University of Ohio, writes in Inside Higher Ed that faculty and administrators need “to recognize that today’s students engage differently — and did so before the pandemic. They expect to be recognized for the knowledge they have and their ability to self-direct as they learn and grow.”

Clearly, student attitudes, expectations, skills, needs, and behaviors are changing. Attendance is perhaps just the most visible place where we see those changes. Many – perhaps most – students care deeply about learning and take class attendance seriously. Many don’t, though, and the challenges of addressing that behavior are unlikely to fade anytime soon.

We have much work to do.

Need help? At CTE, we have provided advice about motivating students, balancing flexibility and structure, and using active learning and group work to make classes more engaging and to make the value of attending class more apparent.

Briefly …

  • Online enrollment remains strong. A new analysis of federal data shows that enrollment in online courses remains strong even as enrollment in many in-person courses declines, the Hechinger Report says. That trend certainly holds true at KU, where the number of credit hours generated by online courses rose 17% in Fall 2023 compared with Fall 2022. The Fall 2023 totals are 49% higher than those in Fall 2019, the semester before the pandemic began in the U.S.
  • An AI pilot through NSF. The National Science Foundation has begun a pilot of what it calls the National Artificial Intelligence Resource. It describes the project as “a concept for a national infrastructure that connects U.S. researchers to computational, data, software, model and training resources they need to participate in AI research.” NSF is working on the pilot with 10 federal agencies and 25 organizations (mostly technology companies). You can contribute your thoughts through a survey for faculty, researchers, and students. The survey is available until March 8.

Doug Ward is an associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of Kansas.

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