A Philosopher's Blog

The Challenge of Attendance

Posted in Philosophy, Technology, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 18, 2015

I recently attended a meeting discussing the use of Blackboard analytics as a tool for student retention and improving graduation rates. Last year I had attended multiple meetings on the subject of classes with high failure rates and this had motivated me to formalize what I had been doing informally for years, namely generating a picture of why students fail my classes. While my university is still implementing Blackboard analytics, I have gathered information from my classes and my students which has enabled me to get a reasonable picture of the failure rates, attendance rates and the reasons for failure and absences.

Not surprisingly, the new data still supports the old data in regards to correlation between a student’s attendance and her grade. Students who do fail (D or F) tend to have very poor attendance.  I have also found that attendance has grown dramatically worse in my classes over the years. This is not based on the usual complaints of the old about the youth of today—I have stacks of rumpled attendance sheets that provide actual evidence. Based on conversations with other faculty, the same is true of other classes.

Interestingly, while students who have good (A or B) grades tend to have good attendance, relatively large numbers of students are able to pass (C) despite poor attendance (missing more often than not). Perhaps they would have done better if they had attended more, but perhaps not.

Reviewing my gradebooks has shown that the main cause of failure is a combination of not completing work and getting failing grades on much of the work that is completed. The most common pattern is that a student does not complete 2-3 of the five exams, and fails some or all of the exams he does take. Somewhat less common is a student having passing grades on completed work, but not completing enough work to pass the course. This most commonly involves students who pass the exams and quizzes, but simply never turn in a paper. In some cases, students do pass the exams they take, but fail to take 2-3 of them. Interestingly, I have not had a student fail by completing and failing everything—the students who fail always leave some of the work undone.

In the days before Blackboard, students faced the challenge of coming to campus to take exams and turn in papers or assignments at specific times. In those days, I routinely had make-up exams and took papers late (when accompanied by appropriate documentation, of course). When Blackboard became available and reliable, I thought that I could address this problem by using Blackboard: students could take exams and quizzes and turn in papers and assignments at any time of day from anywhere they could get an internet connection. I also offered (and offer) very generous deadlines for the work so that students who faced difficulties or challenges could easily work around them.

While this did eliminate make-up exams and many problems with the papers, the impact on completion of work was less than I expected. In fact, class performance remained approximately the same as in the days before Blackboard. On the plus side, this showed that cheating had effectively been countered. On the minus side, I had hoped to significantly reduce the D and F grades resulting from people not doing the work.

While it is certainly tempting to regard the use of Blackboard as a failure in this regard, I do have some indirect reasons to think that it helped. As noted above, the attendance in my class (and those of others) has crashed. Despite this, the averages in my classes are remaining constant. One possible explanation is that the students would be doing worse, but for their ability to do the work in a very flexible manner. An alternative is, of course, that they are missing class because they can do the work on Blackboard. However, faculty who do not use Blackboard also consistently report attendance issues and generally have higher failure rates (based on general data regarding classes). So, I suspect that my use of Blackboard is doing some good, at least in terms of retention and graduation.

Naturally, I did wonder why students have been missing class. I have been conducting a study using a basic survey for one year and the results are here.

Over the year, I had 233 responses.  Interestingly 71% reported attending at least often, with the largest percentage (25.8%) claiming to attend 80-90% of the time. 24.9% claimed to attend 90-100% of the time. As might be suspected, this self-reported data is simply not consistent with my actual attendance records. This can be explained in various ways. One obvious possibility is that students who would take the time to respond to a survey would be students who would be more likely to attend class, thus biasing the survey. A second obvious possibility is that people tend to select the answer they think they should give or the one that matches how they would like to be perceived. As such, students would tend to over-report their attendance. A third obvious possibility is that students might believe that the responses to the survey might cause me to hand out extra points (which is not the case and the survey is anonymous).

In regards to the reasons why students miss class, the highest (by far) self-reported reason is still work. While this might be explained in terms of students selecting the answer that presents them in the best light, it is consistent with anecdotal evidence I have “collected” by overhearing students, speaking with students, and speaking with other colleagues. It is also consistent with the fact that many students need outside employment in order to pay for college-work schedules do not always neatly fit around class schedules. If this information is accurate, addressing the attendance and completion problem would require addressing the matter of work. This could involve the usual proposals, such as finding ways to increase support for students so they do not need to work (or work as much) in college. It might also involve considering some new or alternative approaches to the problem. I suspect, but cannot prove, that my adoption of a heavily online approach has helped with this problem—students can complete the work around their work schedule, rather than trying to get work done at fixed times that might not match the needs of their workplace.

Of course, I also need to consider that it is this online approach that is contributing to the attendance issue. While 28.8% of students reported work as their primary reason, 15% claimed that the fact that the work is on Blackboard was the primary reason they missed class.  Since the graded coursework is completed and turned in through Blackboard, a pragmatic student who is focused primarily on simply getting a grade as a means to an end would see far less reason to attend class. Since the majority of college students now report that they are in school primarily to get a job, it makes sense that many students would take this approach to class.  However, there is the obvious risk in this pragmatic approach: as noted above, low attendance tends to correlate with low grades, so students who skip the class on the assumption that they can just do the work on Blackboard might not do as well as they could and might get far less from the course—that is, just a grade.

Based on this information and other findings, Blackboard is still a double edged sword. On the one hand, it does seem beneficial precisely because students can do the work or turn it in more conveniently and around the clock. On the other hand, using it as the sole means for turning in work does allow students to skip class while still being able to do the work. What still needs to be determined is which edge cuts more. Given the above discussion, I believe that while the use of Blackboard does lower attendance, it also allows students to complete work around their work schedules. As such, I suspect that it has generally been positive in terms of the purely pragmatic goal of maintaining or even improving retention and graduation. Of course, this claim is counterfactual: if I had not adopted the online approach, then the grades of the students would have worsened.

As noted above, my university is adopting Blackboard Analytics and this will provide the data needed to conduct a proper student (as opposed to an unfunded project using surveys and data from just my classes). Students today are, obviously, different from when I was a student and professors need to adjust to the relevant differences—one key challenge is finding out what they are. I have made some guesses, but better data would allow better decision making.


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14 Responses

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  1. TJB said, on May 18, 2015 at 9:12 am

    Why not just “redistribute” the grades and let everyone pass? Do the people with A’s really need all of those points?

    • WTP said, on May 18, 2015 at 9:47 am

      Or specifically to the attendance issue, why not pair up the people who regularly attend with those who don’t. Use the “successful” people as a tool to encourage those who don’t show up to show up. Hold them responsible for the others’ poor behavior. After all, if the successful weren’t so successful, the others would not feel so discouraged. It’s all their fault, really. There’s only so much good-feeling to go around. How can one person feel good about themselves without others feeling less so?

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 19, 2015 at 5:08 pm

        There is some merit in the idea of having good students mentor bad students. I recall my high school has a program that tried to do just that. But, I certainly would not want to punish a student mentor for the failure of the bad student. I always dreaded group projects-I was worried I’d get stuck with some screw-up and end up doing everything myself. I did try group projects once, but allowed people the option of working individually. As might be guessed, the bad students tried to grab onto the good students. The wise students were quick to abandon the dead weight. I stopped doing group projects after that-too much anger in the class.

        Doug will tell you that I have no problem with inflicting crushing defeat on people and I really, really hate to lose. I’m not an ass about it though. So, I am totally fine with people failing themselves. In my class, I give the students every reasonable chance. I fail no one-I merely record their failure.

        • WTP said, on May 20, 2015 at 8:37 am

          But, I certainly would not want to punish a student mentor for the failure of the bad student. I always dreaded group projects-I was worried I’d get stuck with some screw-up and end up doing everything myself. I did try group projects once, but allowed people the option of working individually. As might be guessed, the bad students tried to grab onto the good students. The wise students were quick to abandon the dead weight. I stopped doing group projects after that-too much anger in the class.

          Hence the problem with socialism. You seem to be fine with punishing the wealth creators of our society by taking away what they have earned, which was earned by the application of their time to solving a problem other people wanted solved, to alleviate the failure of those who cannot or will not make the effort.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 20, 2015 at 4:10 pm

            I’m not sure what you mean when you claim I’m fine with punishing the wealth creators. Do you mean that I think the rich should pay taxes like I do? Or something else?

            I’m against punitive taxes, but I am fine with taxes that are needed to pay for the requirements of a civilization-things like roads, police, schools, military, disease control, etc. I also believe that we have moral obligations to help other people who have fallen on bad times-that is also part of having a civilization: not leaving people to die just because they lost their jobs or were badly injured. I’m not for just handing money to people who refuse to work, though. Fortunately, the vast majority of people would prefer having a job over being on welfare. Naturally, I also think that public money should not be given to subsidize corporations.

            • WTP said, on May 20, 2015 at 4:59 pm

              I’m not sure what you mean when you say “Do you mean that I think the rich should pay taxes like I do? Or something else?” Are you saying the rich don’t pay taxes? The top 50% of income earners pay 97% of the taxes. The top 1% account for over a third of federal income. Thanks to the Earned Income Tax Credit, many in the lower percentage of earners actually get more money back than they put in. Not to mention those who pay no taxes and receive welfare benefits. The wealthy, by nature of a wealthy lifestyle, pay much more in sales taxes, the very taxes that support your salary, than the average person.

              As for your second paragraph there are more strawmen there than I care to deal with. And the implication that those of us who oppose creeping socialism are somehow evil bastards who ignore our moral obligations to our fellow man is a damnable insult. An honest man would note that many, many wealthy people make significant charitable contributions. A fact you ignore in your constant rants against the rich. Many, many wealthy people, and some not so wealthy, contribute considerable amount of their free time to helping others. This BS you keep repeating is a passive-aggressive “Fuck you” to their time and efforts.

              And for God’s sake stop pretending you’re not a socialist. I know it, Magus (the man who knows you best here) has acknowledged it, and so has even TJ to some extent. You consistently take the leftist slant in virtually every post. It’s a lie, Mike. One day when this education bubble finally implodes, if you’re still needing to work, which you likely will need to do if you’re still drawing breath, you’re going to need to stop lying to yourself if you want to survive and find a real job. In the real world, lying to yourself is a long term killer.

        • WTP said, on May 21, 2015 at 9:05 am

          God…I see your first nonsense statements and never read the ass-end of your asshattery.
          Doug will tell you that I have no problem with inflicting crushing defeat on people and I really, really hate to lose.

          WTF does that have to do with anything either TJ or I said? And in the context of this discussion, that being how to address students not showing up for class and TJ’s and my suggestions on such, why would “inflicting crushing defeat” have anything to do with this? Even for your worst students, I would hope you would have a problem “inflicting crushing defeat”. WTF does that have to do with teaching or more broadly, motivating others to learn?

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 22, 2015 at 4:07 pm

            You continue to impress me with your unceasing anger. But, I am a bit worried about your blood pressure. How is that?

            • WTP said, on May 23, 2015 at 12:14 pm

              You made a mistake. Admit it and deal with, but don’t play games by changing the subject. Here’s some advice regarding mistakes (admittedly I haven’t read it myself, but he seems like the kind of guy you could learn something from):


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 19, 2015 at 5:00 pm

      People get what they truly earn. Every student gets the same shot in class-the same basic tests (randomized questions, of course), quizzes and the same paper requirement. While I cannot make up for bad K-12, I do spend time providing the students with the tools they need to do well.

      If society worked like my class (equal opportunity, no nepotism, no corruption, fair evaluation) then I would be totally fine with the unequal distribution of wealth-it would all be divided based on actual merit.

  2. Bonnie said, on May 18, 2015 at 12:23 pm

    Did you intend to call to mind that “95% of life is just showing up”? More than knowledge, school taught me self-discipline, time managerment and responsibility.

  3. nailheadtom said, on May 18, 2015 at 9:12 pm

    Present course material on-line in the form of a television program popular with post adolescents, like the Simpsons or South Park once were. However, don’t post the last five minutes of the program so students would have to attend the class in order to find out how the episode ends. For instance, a Bart Simpson equivalent could be discussing dialectics with a cartoon Hegel speaking his particular form of jibberish. The unposted denoument could show the Bart figure instructing Hegel on how much to tip a waitress.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 19, 2015 at 5:10 pm

      I started recording and posting classes. Sadly, I lack the acting chops of the masters. Plus, the effects are not so special. An animated philosophy class, properly done, could be pretty cool, though.

  4. […] to note, if you read his post, is just how much effort he has put into figuring out why students in his courses do poorly. He […]

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