Does attendance at lectures matter? An accidental case study

There is a lot of discussion in the University sector at the moment about student engagement and attendance at lectures. I know that several institutions (including my own) have ongoing pedagogic projects trying to ascertain why there has been a decline in the number of people turning up for face-to-face teaching sessions.

I was faced in March with the dispiriting spectacle of turning up to give one of my second year lectures and finding the room considerably under-populated. The attendance monitoring system suggests that there were 66 out of 185 students present, so that would be about 36%, so a smidge over a third (and this is before we get into the rising phenomenon of “swipe-n-go” students who log their attendance… then don’t!). Yes it was the last lecture in the entire module, yes there were probably looming deadlines in other modules, but part of my frustration at the level of absenteeism was borne out of the fact that I knew that my 15 mark Short Answer Question for the summer exam was based on the content of this session. I was therefore intrigued to see how the students would get on – would there be reams of blank pages (the outcome that leaves academics with mixed feelings – disappointment at missed learning, offset by a guilty acknowledgement that their marking burden is reduced)?

As it transpired, the question was tackled by most of the cohort. Only 10 got zero for it, most of whom had not troubled the page with any hieroglyph. A further 51 students (27%) scored 3.5 or less. I looked back over these after the marking process was completed and they were a mixed bag. Some had clearly engaged with the lecture material in some format because they regurgitated specific information from the session (albeit in a partial and/or muddled manner). Others secured their marks entirely by answering question in which the points noted could have represented application of knowledge drawn from other parts of their course or inspired guesswork rather than direct from this lecture. The remaining 60% of the group achieved higher marks.

So, how had a sizeable proportion of the class managed to give answers containing lecture-specific information without having been present? In keeping with usual practice, I had put two versions of the slides on Blackboard (one in colour, one black & white for printing) along with a Panopto video recording of the session. Popular wisdom has it that students do not really watch the captured lectures. However, and this may be the exception rather than the rule, this video had been thoroughly viewed. 106 students (57% of cohort) had apparently watched at least 75% of the lecture back, and 118 had watched at least a third. [I don’t have stats on the number of people who had accessed the powerpoint files on the VLE].

On previous occasions when I have had cause to look at the viewing stats for lecture recording they have generally reflect depressing levels of inactivity. The viewing figures reported here may be exceptional, or they may reflect a changing pattern – time, and further analysis, may tell.

So, is lecture attendance essential? It appears not. I remain convinced that there are tremendous educational and social merits to attendance at lectures, and that the recording ought to be primarily a tool for revision, not first exposure to the material. What this particular set of events does demonstrate, however, is that physical attendance at the lecture is not a requirement to be able to learn (at least some of) the content of the lecture.

As an aside on the subject of lecture attendance, and I can’t recall whether I’ve shared this previously via this platform, I was struck earlier in the year by a conversation in which someone pointed out that the natural inclination to be disappointed by poor attendance at a lecture needs not to be channelled into moaning at those who ARE present. To chunter at those who HAVE bothered to attend about the sins of those that have NOT is unfair. Better to channel those feelings into making the lecture experience as beneficial as possible for those who are there.



  1. I wonder for the high attaining students on that question where they the ones who were present? Maybe you don’t need to attend to pass but do, to do well?

    • Excellent question – I’m hoping to look at that in more detail (and also to ensure that none of those that got zero were at the session!) but not had chance to do more details analysis – hence blog post not more formal reflection

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