Why are Students Not Attending Class?

A big challenge for universities in many parts of the world is rampant absenteeism. Studies have reported that many students choose not to attend lectures, seemingly prefering self-study, and prioritizing other activities. Yet, universities invest enormous ressources in teaching facilities, materials, and staff. In order to optimize these investments we need to understand more about student behaviours.

In 2009, I moved to the United Kingdom to work at a London-based university, and the first thing that struck me was the high level of absenteeism among students. On a good day, less than half the students (in a class of over 200) were present at my lectures, and on a bad day this could drop to less than 1 in 3. Until then I had mainly taught MBA students and smaller classes in Switzerland, and typically well over 80% of students would be present at any given lecture. So why did students not attend class in London? This became the topic of an exploratory aurvey I administered to students, the results of which have just appeared in the book Innovative Management Education Pedagogies for Preparing Next-Generation Leaders“. Four key conclusions can be made from the results, which I outline below.

Perceptions Drive Behaviour

Students who perceived attendance as more important also reported higher levels of attendance. This would suggest that attending lectures is a conscious decision, driven by perceptions. Worryingly, 35% of students responded that attending class is at most somewhat important, and 11% even responded that attendance is very unimportant. When students don’t understand the benefits of class attendance, or the risks of non-attendance, they will adjust their behaviour accordingly. If universities believe that classroom activities are important for learning and achievement, the challenge then becomes to convince students that this is the case. As one student told me: “We learn what it takes in the first semester, and behave accordingly for the rest of our studies.

Some Students View Online Materials as a Substitute for Class

Today all universities use a virtual learning environment (VLE) – such as Moodle or Blackboard – to assist in teaching. Lecturers typically deposit materials, such as slides or articles on the platform, and some will go as far as posting actual lectures, videos, quizes or other materials on there. These are rarely meant to replace classroom activities. They are more commonly meant as a complement. However, in my survey, 1 in 3 students (32%) declared that they view online slides as a substitute to the classroom. This is worrying because they were not designed to be. If this is a general trend, it indicates a need for universities to educate students on the purpose and limits of the VLE.

Reasons for Non-Attendance are Eclectic… to Say the Least!

When asked for reasons why they skipped lectures, students came up with a long list of reasons, including traffic, illness, being tired, not liking the tutor, family issues, not being prepared for class, and so forth. However, the most common reason for non-attendance was declared to be pressure from competing learning tasks. In particular, 65% of respondents said they had skipped lectures due to coursework deadlines. Over-all the picture is one of students constantly adjusting their attendance behaviour to the needs and emotions of the moment. Students juggle between work, study, and social engagements, and make last-minute decisions regarding their participation in classroom activities.

What Can Universities do to Increase Attendance?
Interestingly, 59% of respondents indicated that there are things universities and lecturers can do to improve attendance levels. Not surprisingly (in view of answers to the question of reasons for non-attendance), suggestions given by students were varied, reflecting differences in their perceptions and behaviours. Suggestions included allowing more flexibility in choosing what lecture and seminar times to attend, and improving the quality of lectures both in terms of making them more interesting, interactive, and applied. Surprisingly, many students suggested reward and punishment schemes as a solution to raising attendance levels. Suggestions included giving marks for attendance. One student wrote: “For those students who miss one seminar or walk in late to write up 1000 words on the topic covered for that week.” Another even suggested a cash compensation: “Give a bursary or some kind of bonus and also some percentage of the final grade could be attributed to attendance.

It seems unlikely that universities will start paying students to attend class, but if classroom activities are designed to arm students with the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed in professional life, universities need to pay attention to the problem of abseenteism. After all, how can we be sure our students have actually learned anything if we have never even seen them. Is it enough that they’ve passed the exam?

To reference the original research article:

Sund, KJ 2016, ‘Attendance, Employability, Student Performance and Electronic Course Materials: an Exploration and Discussion‘. in SR Tiwari & L Nafees (eds), Innovative Management Education Pedagogies for Preparing Next-Generation Leaders. IGI global, Hershey PA, pp. 108-118.