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.

By Doug Ward

The beginning of an academic year is a time of renewal. Our courses and our students start fresh, and we have an opportunity to try new approaches and new course material.

The beginning of an academic year is also a time for sharing advice, information, experiences, and insights. Here are some interesting tidbits I think are worth sharing.

Motivating students (part 1)

Aligning course goals with student goals is an important element of motivating students, David Gooblar, a lecturer in rhetoric at the University of Iowa, writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Many students say they are motivated by grades – actually, many seem obsessed with grades – but that type of motivation doesn’t benefit them intellectually in the long term.

Graduate teaching assistants share their thoughts during an exercise at the opening session of the new GTA conference. About 350 GTAs participated in the conference earlier this month.

To help stimulate intrinsic motivation, Gooblar uses a low-stakes writing assignment in which students explain their goals for the course and how they hope the course will benefit them in the long term. Gooblar draws on those goals to adapt his class during the semester. Flexibility is important, he says, because it helps show students that he is willing to respond to their needs. That can be a powerful motivator.

I have also had success with having students write about their goals. I frame that in terms of learning goals, explaining to students that I have goals for the class but that I want them to pursue individual goals, too.

Most students struggle with writing individual learning goals because they have never had to think about learning as something they have control over. That thought makes them uncomfortable. They generally see school as a place where someone tells them what to do. I have found that waiting until the second or third week of class makes the process go more smoothly. By then, students have a good sense of what the class is about and they generally offer more thoughtful goals than they might in the first week.

Returning to those goals later in the class is important. I have students reflect on their learning goals at midterm, revising them if they wish, and again at the end of the class. That helps students assess what they have gained intellectually and what they still need to work on. It gives them a sense of accomplishment and helps them gain confidence in self-guided learning. It also gives me additional assessment information, as I ask students to explain which elements of the class helped them learn the most and which didn’t work as well.

Motivating students (part 2)

Shannon Portillo, associate professor of public affairs and administration, offers additional advice for motivating students.

Writing in Inside Higher Ed, Portillo, who is also the assistant vice chancellor for undergraduate programs at the Edwards Campus, has students help set guidelines for class engagement, using the exercise to help them feel invested in the class from the start.

At the end of the class, she asks students to evaluate their participation. They give her a suggested grade on their participation and provide evidence to back it up. She doesn’t always agree with their assessment, and ultimately determines the grade herself. Men tend to give themselves high marks, she says, while women tend to be more critical of themselves. The evaluation process helps students reflect on their contributions to the class and on their own learning.

Motivation (part 3). Faculty Focus offers additional tips on motivating students, including offering good feedback; helping students understand how learning works; providing engaging course materials and activities and explaining their relevance; and making greater use of cooperative and collaborative work.

Technology can help, but …

In a survey by Campus Technology, 73 percent of faculty members said that technology had made their jobs easier and 87 percent said it had improved their ability to teach. On the other hand, 19 percent said technology had made their job harder or much harder.

The survey did not say how technology had made things more difficult, but a comment on the article blamed it on a lack of training that ties pedagogy to the use of technology. That makes sense, but sometimes instructors fail to take advantage of the many available resources. KU has many resources for learning technology, including desk-side coaching and frequent workshops.

Student writing: No help needed?

Brianna Hyslop, associate director of the KU Writing Center, explains some of the center’s resources during the new GTA conference. Carmen Orth-Alfie (in red) represented KU Libraries.

In a recent survey by the Primary Research Group, only 8 percent of freshmen and sophomores said they thought they needed help with grammar and spelling. Yes, 8 percent.

Just as troubling, 46 percent of all students said they needed no additional writing instruction in their college classes.

Apparently, those 46 percent haven’t read any of the papers they have turned in or the email messages they have sent.

My intent isn’t to bash college students. Rather, it’s to remind instructor that as we help students, we sometimes need to remind them that they need our help and that resources like the KU Writing Center can provide crucial assistance.

The survey was reported by Inside Higher Ed.

Mental health and students

A growing percentage of students say they suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. That holds true for both undergraduates and graduate students.

At KU, for instance, Counseling and Psychological Services reported year-over-year increases in visits of 1 percent (November) to 73 percent (May) in the 2017-18 academic year.

One of the most important things faculty members can do is to pay attention to students and help them find the resources they need. Make sure that students know about Counseling and Psychological Services. I’ve made several calls to CAPS over the years, helping students schedule appointments with counselors. CAPS has other resources like drop-in hours with peer educators and group therapy sessions.

The Office of Student Affairs is another important resource. Its website provides an extensive list of advice and services for students and faculty members.

The Conversation noted recently that two of the biggest challenges to helping students with psychological issues are reluctance to talk about mental health and a reluctance to reach out for help. Instructors can help break down that stigma by being empathetic and accessible. They shouldn’t try to be psychological counselors. That’s not their role. They can listen to students, though, offer empathy and support, and help them take that first step toward getting help.

A final thought

A quote from Ryan Craig, managing director of University Ventures and author of A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College, helps put issues of student mental health, attitude and motivation into context. In an interview with EdSurge, he said:

“We have developed this cult that you’re either going to go to college or if you don’t, maybe you’ll end up on Skid Row. I’m being a little facetious—but not that facetious. It literally has evolved to that point. A bachelor’s degree is the ticket to success and not having a bachelor’s degree is opposite.”

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Student motivation is one of the most vexing challenges that instructors face. Students can’t learn if they aren’t engaged, and serious classroom material often fails to pique the interest of a generation that has grown up with the constant stimulation of smartphones, social media and video on demand.

Some instructors argue that motivation should be up to students, who are paying to come to college, after all. Most certainly, instructors can’t make students learn. Students have to cultivate that desire on their own. Instructors can take many steps to stoke that desire to learn, though, by drawing students into subject matter and into learning in general.

student sleeping
Photo by Cassandra Hamer, Unsplash

In a pedagogy class I’m teaching this semester, students and I worked through some of the steps we can take to motivate students. This is hardly a comprehensive list, but it touches on concrete steps that any instructor can take to draw students into class material and into learning.

Find links. Helping students make connections among seemingly unrelated topics deepens their thinking and expands their ability to learn. By tying their interests (say, music) to more challenging subject matter (the workings of the brain, for instance, or American history), we can motivate students to further their exploration and broaden their learning. As John Bransford, Ann Brown and Rodney Cocking write in How People Learn, helping students understand the usefulness of a subject can improve learning, as can making sure material is neither too difficult nor too easy and providing opportunities to share with others.

Vary class time. Approaching class in the same way every time lulls students into a routine that can lead to their tuning out or shutting down. Put yourself in students’ shoes: They may have three or four classes in a single day. That alone makes concentration a challenge. Things like breaking a 75-minute class into three or four small topics, playing a short video or audio clip at some point, or even having students stand up for a minute or two can break a routine and refocus attention.

Give students choices. We all need some sense of control over what we do and how we do something. Giving students choices on project topics, readings or quiz questions gives them at least some sense of control and ownership.

Use hands-on activities. Evidence is clear that active learning, in which students engage in discussions, work on problems, or take on questions in groups, is a far better means of instruction than lecture. All instructors need time to explain things to students, but the real learning begins when students engage with material in authentic ways.

Move around the room. Moving about the classroom or encouraging students to move about and talk with classmates can help maintain students’ attention. This also helps instructors get to know students better.

Encourage students. A few words of encouragement can go a long way in keeping students engaged. Remind students that learning takes time and that their peers struggle, as well. Don’t resort to false praise, but point out good elements in students’ work and help them build on those elements.

Make individual connections. Show your humanity and help students understand who you are as a person. That doesn’t mean befriending students, but learning their names, remembering faces, and talking to students about their interests and aspirations helps personalize the learning process and helps draw students into that process.

Use humor. Instructors don’t have to be stand-up comedians, but displaying a sense of humor makes them more relatable, diminishes anxiety and sends a message that learning can be fun.

Use games. The gamification of learning has grown considerably since the turn of the century, but games that help students learn have been part of learning for as long as there have been games. So using a game strategy in a class doesn’t require great technical know-how. For instance, I have created “Jeopardy” games in PowerPoint to help students learn grammar, and crossword puzzles to help them practice research skills. Those strategies require preparation, but I’ve found them very effective.

There are many other approaches to engaging students. Some require prep time and trial and error from instructors, but many others require little more than an open mind. We’d love to hear the strategies that work best for you.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

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