How do you solve a problem like attendance?*

*You’re welcome for the ear worm.

This term, I have had the excellent opportunity to teach on a first year French film module. I have led all three seminar groups, and even had the chance to do some lectures, which is a great opportunity in itself for a PhD student. I have absolutely loved leading seminars, and I have witnessed some really great discussions in response to the module material; however, attendance has consistently been an issue. It’s something that affects a lot of the other teaching staff I know, and so I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect a little on the issue and what I’ve learned.

At the end of the day, you cannot force grown adults to turn up to seminars or lectures if they don’t want to attend, and that is, after all, what university students are (however much we may like to believe otherwise). But that doesn’t mean it feels like less of a kick in the teeth after you’ve spent hours preparing presentations, resources, seminar activities etc., and only half of your students turn up. There are 53 students registered on the module I teach, and each week I have only printed 30 seminar handouts. I always have spares left over. By the same token, why, when you’ve spent those hours preparing, should you then spend yet more time chasing the students who didn’t turn up? It can be just as disheartening to receive no reply (or worse, an “oh sorry, I forgot” email).

I can’t claim to have attended every single lecture or seminar in the time I was an undergrad, and if I did I would be lying. But something I can claim is that any time I missed a seminar, I would email the seminar leader to give my apologies in advance. And if it wasn’t possible to do in advance, I would always email as soon as I could afterwards. This seems like common courtesy to me, but sometimes I think students feel that if they don’t email in advance, maybe we won’t notice that they’re not there.

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Note: we do notice, and we do care.

In a time when the “value” of teaching is being constantly monitored (here’s looking at you, TEF), when universities are under more and more pressure to prove what that £9000 is paying for, and when students, especially in the humanities, bemoan how few teaching hours they receive each week, but still don’t turn up to seminars, it can seem a bit like fighting a losing battle.

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But, for all the frustration that comes from half-empty seminars (especially when you’re in a room that seats 30), it’s not all bad. I’ve learnt a lot of things during my time teaching, and have learned to reflect on how to overcome the difficulties presented by a lack of attendance, rather than let myself get too disheartened. So, without any further delay, here is my list of things I’ve learned about attendance:

  1. Don’t take it personally.

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The first time only 1/3 of my students turned up to a seminar, I immediately thought it must be my fault for being such a crappy teacher. As such, I was so worried about making the seminar the best it could be for the students that did turn up, I’m pretty sure I just garbled about nothing for the majority of the hour and convinced them all that I was insane. Once I’d talked to other teaching staff and graduate teachers about it, I realised that it wasn’t just me; students don’t turn up for anybody. That might not actually be better, but at least it’s a college-wide problem, and not an individual one.

2. Focus on the ones that do turn up

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This links to point 1. I have some students that have turned up to every single seminar, some even when they’re unwell. This could be because they think their attendance is reported, or it could be because I’m doing something right. I like to think it’s the latter.

3. Don’t waste money on resources

The first week of the module, I printed enough handouts for every single registered student to have one, plus a couple of extras because, you know, it never hurts to be prepared. Imagine my disappointment when I then had to throw nearly half of them in the recycling. It’s better for morale, and the environment, to be realistic about attendance figures.

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4. Adapt to group size (and dynamic)

The most important thing I’ve learned is to be flexible. There might be times you’ve planned an excellent, all-singing, all-dancing group work activity, but then when you get to the seminar, only the six quietest students have turned up. Adapting to different group environments is an excellent skill, and while I’ve definitely not mastered it yet, I have got much, much better. If an activity isn’t working, don’t force it: there is nothing more awkward, and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s awkwardness in the classroom. The students that have turned up are there to learn, so adapt to their learning styles and make sure everyone gets something out of it. That way, you can’t lose.

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Anyone else out there have any attendance-related tips (or trials)? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

 

 

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