Absent and failing: The cost of not being there

empty chairs Skipping a lecture or two isn’t really bad, right? Well, maybe not – or maybe yes.
Most academics and teachers are likely to have a gut feeling that people who are not there tend to fail – and right they are. Let’s take an example: Of the 5 people who failed the programme I’m the programme leader of last year, 4 were notoriously late or often absent in class. But while that sample is pretty small, more studies have been carried out on the link between poor attendance and poor performance of students. In fact: student attendance has been found to be a positive indicator to performance in a variety of subject areas, including accounting (Catriona and Nicholas 2004), economics (Cohn and Johnson 2006) and pharmacology ( Hamdi 2006) to name but a few.
Apart from poor results, poor attendance also leads to high drop-out rate: Maybe not very surprising, as students who don’t attend are unlikely to make friends and participate fully in university life – and that is a bit more than just listening to lecturers.

Of course, poor attendance may be the result of a number of factors: Students may have a chronic health condition, such as astma. Though research suggests, students with absenteeism because of astmas have shown no or only a very weak link between their condition and poor performance (Taras and Potts-Datema 2005)
But by far the one excuse I hear most often is that students are under real pressure to earn extra money. Yet the calculation is pretty simple: earning £5 an hour may look a lot less favourable once one calculates the potential loss of earnings by not gaining a degree (in the UK, or in the US), or even by simply thinking what one would loose by having paid the fees for a course – and not getting a qualification in return.

Of course completely failing a degree is not always what happens – but maybe one can just muddle through and get by with a bad degree. Bad move if the data is to be believed: Again, a worse the class of degree gets has a much lower “graduate earnings premium”, than a student with a good degree. Data collected by the University of Warwick shows that while overall the earnings premium is positive for first class and upper second class degrees – the earnings premium is in fact negative for a third class degree, resulting in a loss of 6.3% decrease.

The problem is, what should be done when the good arguments of educators fail? How ethical is it, from us as educators, to not do all we can to ensure that our students get a positive earnings premium? If a students doesn’t turn up for lecture after lecture without good reason, or is always late – and then retakes the module over and over again, only to finally possibly scrape by with a mere pass – should we just stand by and not care?
Should we maybe in the one lecture the missing faces turn up spend an hour explaining again what we explained before – and giving a bad deal to all the other students who were there in the first place?

The arguments in higher education have always been that students are responsible adults (I am not trying to contest this), and therefore regulating their attendance is somewhat seen with suspicion. But I am wondering frankly about those students that every year fail my class – and I know it isn’t because they are not intelligent enough but because they have never turned up, but once it was too late.

Our institution has the great “X” grade – a grade, where a student is barred from being assed in a particular module because the attendance was less than satisfactory. Unfortunately, too few colleagues use this grade (or even bother monitoring attendance pro-actively). But at least in one module where I introduced X-grades and (crucially) policed it, the failure rate halved – and those failing are now usually failing with an X.
OK, that approach is not the softly, softly approach some people like and are comfortable with – but to be honest, sometimes I at least prefer to be a Rottweiler who makes students work and proud of their achievements, than the cuddly little toy… that is soon forgotten.

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