Flip this

Here’s an innocent little grenade-with-the-pin-out question rolled into the conversation about whether TED-ED has provided us with a whole new way of engaging students by moving content out of class time: on the same day, Plashing Vole is asking whether we shouldn’t be making attendance at conventional university lectures compulsory?

It looks like exactly the kind of retro thinking that academics get accused of, given how much we hear about flipping, collaborative learning, students as producers etc.  It could be dismissed as a product of the British higher education system, some kind of wistful cultural preference for discipline and proper behaviour. But as it happens I’ve recently been a bystander to the same deliberation, so it’s global.  If we put so much effort into preparing lectures, if we pay a higher rate for their delivery, and if we still structure quite a bit of the discussion and assessment in our teaching around the lecture as marquee event, the logic goes, then why don’t we back ourselves up by making students attend them?

There are some messy vanities bundled up in this question.  What does it say about my lecturing style or content if students vote with their feet and don’t show up?  (Worse, what if they do, but spend the whole time quietly sledging on social media?)  On the other hand, what happens to the students who do continue to attend, and start to feel like the last parishioners in a declining Anglican congregation?  Surely they have a right to feel aggrieved?

But pride isn’t the real issue.  My colleagues are genuinely worried that students who bypass lectures miss out on key content that would help them perform effectively in assessment. None are sure how far to go in providing compensatory alternatives, including lectures slides, lecture recordings, and even potted versions of key points in person afterwards.  We’ll do our best, but there’s a point at which the email that says “I wasn’t at your lecture this week, if I missed anything important can you send me the notes?” does touch a tiny nerve.

So cheer up everyone: the case for the correlation between lecture attendance and grades is on our side, apparently.  The data is presented very effectively in the presentation embedded in this post by Jon Tulloch. Jon is responding to Plashing Vole, and the detailed evidence he’s gathered is worth working through (it’ll take two minutes, you won’t even need a cup of tea.)

There’s just the small problem—and Jon himself raises it in the final slide—that the clear correlation between attendance and grades doesn’t prove that attendance results in good grades; things could just as easily swing the other way.

So is there a good reason to make students attend lectures? Should we try to manipulate attendance like a kind of loyalty program or radio competition, with prizes for showing up? Or are we looking at it like welfare reporting and parole, with penalties for missing an appointment? And how are we going to know who shows up, as class sizes increase? If you’re going to make something compulsory, you do need a standard of evidence on which you can make a case for either incentives or penalties stick.

Obviously, Blackboard have a future vision for student end-to-end-lifecyle swipe cards at every corner of the campus, and will no doubt eventually microchip students for us, but until then we’re left with the pen and paper methods that already make the seminar roll call one of the most anachronistic and school-like of university practices. Is this really the tone we want to set, as we also try to explain the complexities of self-managed professionalism that university graduates will need in a churning employment market?

Perhaps a better question is this: if we were going to invent higher education right now, using all the tools available, and knowing what we know about how people learn, what would we include?

Dean Dad is asking if we’d include the standard length term or semester, for example; or whether we’d trial teaching broken into smaller chunks of time, given that completion rates weaken the longer it takes to complete a standard course.  In the same vein, I think we can ask whether if we were starting the whole show this week, we’d think “I know! In order to deliver the most important concepts and ideas, that I’ll want students to be able to retain accurately and review extensively over time, I’ll use spoken word.  Brilliant.”

Of course we wouldn’t. In one of today’s articles about TED-ED and the capacity it offers for teachers to customise high quality content that can be used as preparation for time spent together, high school teacher Aaron Sams puts it like this:

“I asked myself, ‘What’s the most valuable thing to do with the face time I have with my students?'” he says. “And the answer was not, ‘Stand up and lecture them.'”

So that’s one thing: lecturing isn’t the best way to use people’s time together.  It just isn’t.

But the big thing for me is that university education itself is post-compulsory. This is both simple legal practicality, and a principle that we should be careful not to mess with.  Our governments might want more students to enrol, and they might want to hold us reponsible for their retention.  But we have the privilege of working with adults who have chosen to enrol in a university degree in the context of each of their lives, and it’s this hard and entirely personal choice—rather than any sparkly edtech solution or educational philosophy that we rustle up—that is the foundation of their agency as learners.  That’s worth defending.

4 thoughts on “Flip this

  1. Everything you say is wise – but the most important paragraph for me is the last one. We have to trust students and allow them to make their own decisions even if we think they’re wrong. The way to attract them to classes is to be enthusiastic and to make it worth their intellectual time – which isn’t the same as being entertaining or pandering. My students split between bright and hardworking, bright and lazy, struggling but hardworking and struggling and lazy. I’ve got all the time in the world for the hardworking ones, even if they’ll never manage higher than a D. If the lazy ones are impervious to my efforts, I’m not going to act as their gaoler.


  2. Yikes, PV, the rumours about Gen X are all wrong! Where’s your slacker side gone?

    Seriously, the thing about your list of adjectives is the slippage between things that describe what people do (hardworking, struggling), and things that describe something more fundamental — what they are (bright, lazy). The first two are context-sensitive, and the second two are more like a kind of embedded attribute of the person.

    But what if what you’re seeing and interpreting as lazy is something context-specific — a person who is at the moment unengaged, unmotivated by the experience of being in your class or achieving the outcomes it promises? What if they’re rethinking the whole debt:outcome ratio and they’ve concluded that it’s not in their favour? I’ve known all sorts of people (including me) who can come across as quite unproductive in particular situations, but I’m not sure it’s fair to slap the ‘lazy’ ticket on them (me). They might be fantastically hardworking in the areas of their lives in which they are engaged.

    The hard question is whether their motivation is your problem. I think it isn’t.


  3. i agree that motivation is key, so is retaining the individual’s agency. but maybe we could make it clearer to students the context in which they exercise their agency and how they can best engage with our subjects?
    i trialled shifting the mandated (by faculty) attendance requirement from tutorials to lectures last semester, the students responded very positively. tutorial attendance remained strong, and in the (informal, anonymous) feedback i solicited six weeks into semester, a large number said that the compulsory attendance was a great idea because it made them feel connected to the subject (and improved the quality of tutorials). i think we have to consider the messages we send students about our expectations of them, and spend a little bit of time talking with them about why we teach and assess the way we do. if they can see the sense in it, and understand how you work as a teacher, maybe they’re more willing to be motivated? it’s a complicated issue… thanks for the interesting post.


  4. I think this is the real dilemma — the relationship between lecture attendance and other practices of participation. I feel conflicted about this myself. But I’m also not sure that talking to students about why we teach and assess the way we do would necessarily lead us to say “I lecture because it’s a great way to teach”. So I’d be up for this if we could say “The continuing dominance of the lecture mode, complete with suite of tools and approaches that attempt to make it more interesting and at the same time help you remember what we said especially if for any reason you find fast-spoken casual English hard to follow, relates to the fact that university architecture/timetables/workload calculations/economies of scale/international student visa requirements are all designed around this normative mode of face to face seat time and we really can’t figure out how to fix this just yet.”

    That’s the bit that bothers me. I wish we could reserve lecturing as a high stakes strategy for those occasions when it’s the best approach, and then really focus on the skills and opportunities it brings up, including concentration, reflective note-taking and even participation while in big spaces, which is genuinely confronting for many students with quiet voices.

    Lovely to have your comment, AP, thanks for coming by.


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