A Philosopher's Blog

Solving the Attendance Problem

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on October 21, 2015

While philosophy is about inquiry and students should be encouraged to ask questions, there used to be one question I hoped students would not ask. That question was “do I need the book?” I did realize that some students asked this question out of a legitimate concern based on the often limited finances of students. In other cases, it arose from a soul deep hope to avoid the unbearable pain of reading philosophy.

My answer was always an honest “yes.” I must confess that I have heard the evil whispers of the Book Devil trying to tempt me to line my shelves with desk copies or, even worse, get free books to sell to the book buyers. But, I have always resisted this temptation. My will, I must say, was fortified

by memories of buying expensive books that were never actually used by the professors in the classes. Despite the fact that the books for my courses were legitimately required and I diligently sought the best books for the lowest costs, the students still lamented my cruel practice of actually requiring books.

Moved by their terrible suffering, I quested for a solution and found it: technology. Since most of the great philosophers are not only dead but really, really dead, their works are typically in the public domain. This allowed me to assemble free texts for all my classes except Critical Inquiry. These were first distributed via 3.5 inch floppies (kids, ask your parents about these), then via the internet. While I could not include the latest and (allegedly greatest) of contemporary philosophy, the digital books are clearly as good as most of the expensive offerings. The students are, I am pleased to say, happy that the books they will not read will not cost them a penny. Yes, sometimes students now ask “do I have to read the book?” I say “yes.”

Since I make a point of telling the students on day one that the book is a free PDF file (except for the Critical Inquiry text), I rarely hear “do I need to buy the book?” these days. Now students ask “do I have to come to class?” I have to take some of the blame for this—my classes are designed so that all the coursework can be completed or turned in online via Black Board. Technology is thus shown, once again, to be a two-edged sword: it solved the “do I have to buy the book?” problem, but helped create the “do I have to come to class problem.”

When I was first asked this, I was a bit bothered. After all, a reasonable interpretation of the question is “I think I have nothing to learn. I believe you have nothing to teach me. But I’d rather not fail.” Since I have a reasonably good understanding of what people are like, I am confident that this interpretation is often correct. Honesty even compels me to admit that the student could be right: perhaps the student does have nothing to learn from me. After all, various arguments have been advanced over the centuries that philosophy is useless and presumably not worth learning. Things like logic, critical thinking and ethics could be worthless—after all, some people seem to do just fine without them. Some even manage to hold high positions. Or at least want to. However, I am reasonable confident that the majority of students do have something to learn that I can teach them.

After overcoming my initial annoyance, I gave the matter considerable thought. As with the “do I have to buy the book?” question, there could be a good reason for asking. This reason could be that the student needs the time that would otherwise be spent in my class to do things for other classes. Or time to grind for engrams and materials in Destiny. The student might even need the time to work in order to earn money to pay for school.

This was not the first time that I had thought about why students skipped my class. Since April, 2014 I have been collecting survey data from students. While as of this writing I only have 233 responses, 28.8% of students surveyed claimed that work was the primary reason they missed class. 15% claimed that the fact that they could turn in work via Black Board was the reason they skipped class. This reason is currently in second place. 6% claimed they needed to spend time on other classes.

There are some obvious concerns with my survey. The first is that the sample is relatively small at 233 students. The second is that although the survey is completely anonymous, the respondents might be inclined to select the answer they regard as the most laudable reason to miss class. That said, these results do make intuitive sense. One reason is that the majority of students at Florida A&M University are from low-income families and hence often need to work to pay for school. Another reason is that I routinely overhear students talking about their jobs and I sometimes even see students wearing their work uniforms in class.

While it might be suspected that my main concern about attendance is a matter of ego, it is actually a matter of concern for my students. In addition to being curious about why students were skipping my class, I was also interested in why students failed my courses. Fortunately, I had considerable objective data in the form of attendance records, grades, and coursework.

I found a clear correlation between lack of attendance and failing grades. None of the students who failed had perfect attendance and only 27% had better than 50% attendance. This was hardly surprising: students who do not attend class miss out on the lectures, class discussion and the opportunity to ask questions. To use the obvious analogy, these students are like athletes skipping practice and the coursework is analogous to meets or games.

I have been testing a solution to this problem: I am creating YouTube videos of one of my classes and putting the links into Black Board. This way students can view the videos at their convenience and skip or rewind as they desire. As might be suspected given the cast and production values, the view counts are rather low. However, some students have already expressed appreciation for the availability of the videos. If they can reduce the number of students who fail by even a few students each semester, then the effort will be worthwhile. It would also be worthwhile if I went viral and was able to ride that sweet wave of internet fame to some boosted book sales. I do not, however, see that happening. The fame, that is.

I also found that 67.7% of the students who failed did so because of failing scores on work. While this might elicit a response of “duh”, 51% of those who failed did not complete the exams, 45% did not complete the quizzes, and 42% did not complete the paper. As such, while failing grades on the work was a major factor, simply not doing the work was also a significant cause. Interestingly, none of the students who failed completed all the work—part of the reason for the failure was not completing the work. While they might have failed the work even if they had completed it, failure was assured by not making the attempt.

My initial attempt at solving the problem involved having all coursework either on Black Board or capable of being turned in via Black Board. My obvious concern with this solution was the possibility that students would cheat. While there are some awkward and expensive solutions (such as video monitoring) I decided to rely on something I had learned about the homework assigned in my courses: despite having every opportunity to cheat, student performance on out of class work was consistent with their performance on monitored in course work. It was simply a matter of designing questions and tests to make cheating unrewarding. The solution was fairly easy—questions aimed mainly at comprehension, a tight time limit on exams, and massive question banks to generate random exams. This approach seems to have worked: student grades remained very close to those in pre-Black Board days. Students can, of course, try to cheat—but either they are not cheating or they are cheating in ways that has had no impact on the grades. On the plus side, there was an increase in the completion rate of the coursework. However, the increase was not as significant as I had hoped.

In the light of work left uncompleted, I decided to have very generous deadlines for work. Students get a month to complete the quizzes for a section. For exams 1-3 (which cover sections 1-3), students get one month after we finish a section to complete the exam. Exam 4 deadlines at the end of the last day of classes and the final deadlines at the end of the normal final time. The paper deadlines are unchanged from the pre-Black Board days, although now the students can turn in papers from anywhere with internet access and can do so round the clock.

The main impact of this change has been another increase in the completion rate of work, thus decreasing the failure rate in my classes. As should be suspected, there are still students who do not complete all the work and fail much of the work they do complete. While I can certainly do more to provide students with the opportunity to pass, they still have responsibilities. One of mine is, of course, to record their failure.


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34 Responses

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  1. TJB said, on October 21, 2015 at 10:26 am

    The limitations of the Sage on the Stage. Have you thought about a flipped classroom?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 21, 2015 at 1:03 pm

      I’m more of the Grunt in the Front. Flipping classrooms has become all the rage in some circles, but I have learned to be wary of academic fads. But, I do utilize technology after testing it out.

  2. jjaneswift said, on October 21, 2015 at 10:04 pm

    While many students do have practical challenges to overcome (work or finances), some terrific insights pop up during casual conversations with classmates or even while marking notes in margins of old fashioned books….a bit of a sad social – technological – educational – financial reality.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 22, 2015 at 6:32 pm

      True-students can lose out on a great deal by not attending class. That said, I have to consider both the “ideal student” who wishes to learn and the “practical student” who just wishes to get that degree and move on to fill a job for the job creators.

    • WTP said, on October 22, 2015 at 4:47 pm

      Iakovos, this a a sophist/polemicist blog. You can’t be coming in here presenting a perspective of history and so-called facts based on the crazy idea that geo-global politics has any power-based fluidity to it except for the obvious, unidirectional progressivist march to a steady, glorious collectivist victory. It’s what is best for everybody. You’re just all wrong.

      • Iakovos Alhadeff said, on October 22, 2015 at 5:04 pm

        I need to find some readers

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 22, 2015 at 6:29 pm

          Comment spamming a link irrelevant to the post might not be the best way to do that.

          • WTP said, on October 23, 2015 at 1:52 am

            I’ve never seen you complain when such supports your leftist BS or slams Jews…but I repeat myself.

          • Iakovos Alhadeff said, on October 23, 2015 at 3:12 am

            I don’t know any other way friend. You are welcome to comment spam on my blog too.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 25, 2015 at 3:03 pm

              You can comment on posts that are relevant to your blog. People who read a post on the subjects you write about would be more likely to go to your blog. If you don’t have a Twitter account linked to your blog, you could do that as well.

            • Iakovos Alhadeff said, on October 25, 2015 at 6:29 pm

              I comment on various blogs. The blog owners do not have to approve my comments. They see the title, if they are interested they can read it, if not they can put it in the trash.

              I do not feel guilty. I do not need to find any other way. I know some people make too much fuss about it, but it really takes 1 second of their lives to delete my comment if they want to do so.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 26, 2015 at 12:19 pm

              I’m not trying to make you feel guilt, just making a practical suggestion. Putting a relevant comment with a link to a relevant post should draw more readers than an irrelevant comment and link in a post.

            • wtp said, on October 25, 2015 at 9:19 pm

              Oh I don’t know about that, Mike. I think this would be a good place to gather enthusiastic commenters for such a well written blog as Iakovos’ given that his subject matter seems to be a well collection of well documented, by blog standards anyway, arguments in support of the state of Israel. I would guess that about half of your regulars commenting here would have much to say on that matter.

              AJ? Nailhead? Ronster? Where’s your enthusiasm when it’s needed?

          • Iakovos Alhadeff said, on October 25, 2015 at 6:33 pm

            I see that you are a professor, so please note that I do not mean to be disrespectful. I am sorry if what I say sounds rude or something.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 26, 2015 at 12:19 pm

              Respect for professors went out with plain coffee. So, no problem. 🙂

            • Iakovos Alhadeff said, on October 26, 2015 at 1:05 pm

              I used to have a lot of respect for professors. Until I realized that the overwhelming majority of them belongs to the left

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 27, 2015 at 11:19 am

              It is very easy to be to the left of the right in the United States. Even Paul Ryan is being bashed as a leftist.

            • Iakovos Alhadeff said, on October 27, 2015 at 11:51 am

              It is not the left of the right. Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and the other silly economists of the American left, are all saying the same nonsense with their European counterparts

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 27, 2015 at 6:58 pm

              Some would say that “silly economist” is redundant. Like “silly philosopher.” But not me. 🙂

  3. TJB said, on October 22, 2015 at 9:27 pm

    Mike, I have a suggestion for a future post.

    Conscientious objectors are allowed to opt out of military service for religious reasons. Why should, for example, bakeries not be allowed to opt out of “gay wedding service” for religious reasons?

    Personally, of course, I support married gays with a closet full of assault weapons and a marijuana garden in the backyard. But I also can sympathize with the religious folks who do not support gay marriage and don’t want to participate in the ceremony.

    • WTP said, on October 23, 2015 at 1:55 am

      Speaking of ganja…in places where marijuana is legal, do you think it’s ok to discriminate against those who smoke it?

      • TJB said, on October 23, 2015 at 7:42 am

        No, as long as it is not affecting their job performance.

        • wtp said, on October 23, 2015 at 1:27 pm

          So if I choose not to hire someone because I know that they smoke pot, should I be prosecuted for doing so?

          • TJB said, on October 23, 2015 at 5:42 pm

            How would you know if they smoke pot?

            • wtp said, on October 23, 2015 at 10:59 pm

              How would they know if I was discriminating against them because “a little bird told me”? Similarly, how would I know if someone is gay?

            • wtp said, on October 25, 2015 at 9:05 pm

              Curious if you understand my point, TJ?

            • TJB said, on October 25, 2015 at 10:31 pm

              Clearly, you could find any number of reasons not to hire someone that would not be legally discriminatory. Is that your point?

            • WTP said, on October 26, 2015 at 6:08 am

              Well, yes. But more broadly, to make such issues law is pointless and creating potential for abuse. Rather absurd to say, such is the mess our tangle of laws has created, but prosecuting an employer for such would be an attempt to legislate morality. Once upon a time, it was a liberal argument to say that you can’t legislate morality. Which of course you can’t. But the left only applies such logic when it’s their ox being gored. Which is why I generally don’t use the term “liberal” when referring to such people. Which is also where Mike mucks up the gay wedding cake issue. He pretends that laws can be passed to see into people’s hearts and make such judgements. In the abstract such sounds all good and righteous, but in practice such laws are used in a discriminatory fashion. A philosopher could understand this. A sophist or polemicist will ignore such moral/legal distinctions.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 25, 2015 at 3:06 pm

        I’d see it as the same as alcohol or tobacco use. If it impacted job performance, then it would not be discrimination. If it did not, it would seem to be unfair discrimination. This assumes that people have a moral right to use legal intoxicants when it does not actually impair their work.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 25, 2015 at 3:22 pm

      I’d say that the difference is that the conscientious objector is not running a business that serves the public. There also seems to be a key difference in the activity required. If a person opposes killing other people, then it would violate her moral injunction against killing. In the case of the baker, he is not being required to marry someone of her same sex, perform a gay marriage or even endorse it. She just needs to sell a cake-which is not against her values as a cake seller. Now, she can refuse to make a cake that contained text or images she regarded as offensive-just as a baker could refuse to make a naked lady cake for a different sex bachelor party.

      • wtp said, on October 25, 2015 at 9:02 pm

        And nobody should be allowed to serve the public unless they do it in a way that is agreeable to everyone. Good luck with that plan, charlie. It has failed everywhere it has been tried.

        Just stopped by to annoy you by trying to help and your comment above is a bit of a segue. You have no understanding of how things work and this plays directly into your frustration with attendance at your lectures. This is, I believe, the third or fourth such post of yours on the subject in addition to it popping up in other comments. You don’t hear the CEO of Coca-Cola or Apple or Honda complaining about people not buying their products. Why do you suppose that is? Mike, a while back you challenged me to watch some lectures that you posted and, much like you but less like me, I never responded. The reason was that I sat through about 3/4 of the first class I clicked on and realized what a waste of time it was. I’m guessing for some of your students, the experience has been similar. Much like the time I suggested that you drop the words “obvious” and “obviously” from your writing and it improved (though a quick search shows it was a short-lived experiment on your part), I have one simple suggestion that would improve your lectures significantly. That is assuming the 3/4 of the one I watched was a somewhat representative sample of the others. This suggestion is to drop the meaningless phrase “interestingly or boringly enough…”. Just stop it. I can’t imagine having to listen to someone drop that horribly awkward (is “boringly” even a word?…I’m afraid to even look it up) expression over and over over an entire semester. It consumes time and means absolutely nothing. Remember, it’s just a suggestion. I really am trying to help. Your students that is.

        But back to the subject of your not understanding of how things work and Apple and Honda, etc. Think about this. The product you are offering is not being consumed. And it’s a product that someone has already paid for. If large groups of people had paid good money for an iMac, an Accord, or a bottle of Coke and not consumed them, would this indicate a problem with the consumer or the producer? How often have you paid good money for a good, useful product and not consumed or used it?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 26, 2015 at 12:22 pm

          As always, I certainly appreciate all your efforts to make a better world.

          • WTP said, on October 26, 2015 at 2:57 pm

            Well, it’s just that when you speak of the frustrations of trying to impart a little bit of knowledge upon someone who is totally indifferent to your efforts, I can really, really relate. We’re actually a lot alike, you and me.

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