Adventures in Ethics and Science

Over sushi last night, Julie and I had one of those “kids today!” discussions so common among people teaching college students. The locus of our old-fart incomprehension was the reluctance of a significant number of students to actually attend class meetings, even when not attending class meetings has disasterous (and entirely predictable) consequences. (For example, some significant number of Julie’s students are now at the point where it is numerically impossible for them to pass the course, and this is strongly correlated with their absenteeism — not their writing skills.)

We didn’t ditch our classes when we were undergraduates. Wasn’t that where the learning was going to happen? Wasn’t there a reason we weren’t just buying textbooks and trying to teach ourselves? (And what would our professors have thought of us if we had cut more classes than we attended? Who would want to carry around that kind of shame?)

Clearly, our students are making decisions differently than we used to. Just as clearly, they seem to miss — to their detriment — that class meetings are frequently essential to their academic success. What could we possibly do to help them get themselves to class?

You might try requiring attendance, but that’s not permitted at our fine institution.

Why it’s not permitted is an interesting example of how policies seem to end up drifting away from their original rationales. Apparently, in the mists of time, there was a student who protested an F he earned in a course by claiming that he had attended every single class meeting and should be entitled to course credit on that basis. In response to his complaint, the university adopted a policy that you could not “grade on attendance” — which is to say, that you could not award points to someone just for being a butt in a seat. As it’s currently interpreted, however, the no grading on attendance policy means that you cannot make class attendance compulsory. You can, however, grade on participation, have a quiz every day, or otherwise make non-attendance a costly choice in terms of course grades.

A lot of the folks who don’t come to class very often, though, aren’t necessarily good at calculating how many quizzes they can miss without failing, or at keeping track of due dates, or even at deducing that some things for which they are responsible are explained in class rather than in assigned readings. Some approach their own final grades with the same optimism that makes for healthy lottery ticket sales.

“Is it because they don’t feel like they’re losing anything if they have to retake the course?” we asked each other. “Is tuition too low for them to take their classes seriously?”

But of course, each of us knows students who come to every class, who do excellent work, and for whom a tuition increase would be a serious financial hardship. So raising tuition didn’t strike us as the right approach.

“What if classes cost more to skip than to attend?” I ventured.

“Like a monetary penalty for cutting class?” Julie asked. “Maybe that would work …”

Indeed, my better half came up with the model by which to implement the plan: It would be like parking validation. For each class meeting you attend during the term, you collect a validation ticket that would let you recover a chunk of money that you’ve already paid in tuition (say five or ten buck per class meeting). Attending all your classes and collecting all your validation tickets would let you pay the lowest possible amount of tuition for the number of credits you’re taking. Skipping lots of classes … would cost you more. (There would, of course, need to be some process for getting validated for an excused absence, and for determining what sort of absence counts as excused.)

To me, this sounds like a plan that might actually make attending class the default position for students who currently have their default set to ditching. However, it’s possible that the wasabi was clouding my judgment, so you all should tell me what’s wrong with this approach and what would do the job better.

UPDATE: Julie has posted on this as well now.


  1. #1 ck
    April 9, 2007

    Some approach their own final grades with the same optimism that makes for healthy lottery ticket sales.

    Then I’d say let ’em learn like the rest of the population has learned that playing the lottery is foolish. Sure, most of them won’t figure it out (as you say, tickets are still bringing in state revenue)–but the students are in college, right? In my opinion, the parking ticket option treats attending class like you should get rewarded for it… when that’s the bare minimum you should do.

    I give daily quizzes. Students who can bring in a doctor’s excuse etc. are able to make them up. And sorry if you just overslept, or had homework due for another class. That was your choice and they carry consequences.

    And honestly, I think your plan would result in innovative students finding a way to collect and resell these validations, turning a profit in the progress. So you’d still have students ditching, but the crafty students would be enabling them and not only getting validations but an additional fee on top.

    But I do applaud your attempt to get students to show up…

  2. #2 meerasedai
    April 9, 2007

    Why even hand out incentives to attend class? Those that ‘get it’ will succeed, and those that don’t, won’t. Clearly some kids are just arrogant enough to beleive that they will do well in class without attending lecture. For them, poor grades should be the penalty!

  3. #3 Brian
    April 9, 2007

    When I was an undergrad, I tried to attend classes as much as possible, but found an interesting ‘attendance inertia’ effect: If I attended every meeting for a class for the first month or two, it seemed more likely that I’d get through the entire semester without missing anything. If I missed a class (because of an appointment, meeting, or laziness), I had a terrible time motivating myself to get there in the future.

    I think early misses, combined with inflated self-efficacy, probably leads to students ditching class. It’s that same “oh, there’s plenty of time to read the book” mentality that leads to 160-page cram sessions the night before the exam, but students apparently take more than four years to catch on.

  4. #4 Leah
    April 9, 2007

    That sounds like a huge pain, logistically speaking.

    One of my professors would tell jokes during class. Not every class meeting, but often enough that you could get one a week or so. Then, one of those jokes would be on the test for extra credit. That’s one pain to make sure students attend.

    I’m surprised by your school’s policy. My undergrad had a three strikes policy: after three unexcused absences, your professor was perfectly within rights to fail you in the class. That generally kept people coming. (that, and it was a small school. Hard to skip classes with 10-18 students. Heck, hard to skip the 40 person lectures.)

    I’m now at the huge University of Michigan, and skipping is rampant among my students. I grade on “participation” in my lab/discussion section, so that generally keeps students coming. Even then, I’ve noticed students tend to skip on test days. Based on my participation scale, the unexcused skipping will be noted in their final grade. But I too wish there was a better way to keep my students attending and engaged; somehow, they don’t think the 2 points they miss for every absence is worth it. Strangely, they will argue for a half point back on an exam if they feel I graded poorly.

    I wish I had a solution for you. I’m toying with the idea of requiring my students to track their own grade (as in, add up their points versus possible points to see how they’re doing). This would be both a reality check and an incentive to come to class for those smaller assignments. But I also don’t want to be a babysitter for college students. At some point, you might just have to say “look, it’s not my fault they don’t come to class. If they are willing to suffer the consequences of missing class, I’m willing to fail them.”

  5. #5 WiseWoman
    April 9, 2007

    I’m trying something fun this semester. We are not allowed to require attendance, either. I tried to help a teacher of *oral presentation* require attendance, the top powers-to-be decided that students are allowed to skip all but the sessions where they themselves are presenting. The rationale is, I suppose, to let them “work” to support themselves…… Many want me to award them a bachelor’s degree right the first week….

    We are using Moodle as a learning management system. Moodle has a “Journal” module, where the students write something, only they and I can see it, I can give feedback and points.

    So I went through and set up one journal entry for every class (groan, we meet twice a week for 13 weeks) with one point per journal. The deal is: if you write at least 5 sentences about what class was about that day within a week, you get a point. There is a maximum of 20 points (so I don’t have to listen to the bitching about being sick or at Grandma’s birthday/wedding/funeral).

    This means you go into the final examination with 20% of the final grade under your belt for little more than attending class and writing a synopsis for every class (which is what they should be doing after class, anyway).

    For the exam they can take a cheat sheet with them. Yup, you guessed it – the printout of the journal entries. Moodle makes it one big HTML file.

    This avoids mussing with money or things (universities don’t like refunding money) and actually should teach good study habits.

    This is not my idea, I just read about it in a book that was complaining about the stupid things that professors do (a really silly book) and the authors were bitching about a professor that made students write a 5-sentence synposis of the last lecture the first 5 minutes of the next class. Seems this is classified as cruel and unusual punishment.

    I already have 11 entries (out of 40) this weekend, and they have until Tuesday night to finish up. We’ll see how it turns out! The first entries are really great – some people figured out that if they put *all *of their notes in here, they will have them all for the finals :)

  6. #6 Steve
    April 9, 2007

    I’ve been worried about this same thing quite a bit lately. I’m a grad student in philosophy, but I’ve been teaching a lot this year, and attendance has been awful. Right now I teach five classes, and in four of them, I’m lucky to get half the students there on a given day. Those four are all ethics courses, and my intro to philosophy class actually gets pretty good attendance. I think part of the difference is that I’m more excited about my intro to philosophy class, which makes the students look forward to showing up there a little more. (I like ethics fine too, but my training is more in philosophy of language and metaphysics, so I’m naturally more excited when we’re reading Descartes and David Lewis.)

    So I think that’s one element – that if you’re a really good, interesting teacher, you’ll draw students to your class. I don’t think that’s either a necessary or a sufficient condition for good attendance, but I have noticed that the best, most charismatic teachers around don’t seem to have problems with attendance. So I’m working on being a better ethics teacher, and we’ll see how that goes.

    Another thought that I keep going back to is that it really seems like any incentive used should be directly related to how much they’re going to learn. Not to their grade, nor to their bank account (although the validation system does sound interesting). So I think it’s good that being an interesting teacher gets them to class, because they’ll learn more if they find us interesting. Also, my tests are pretty difficult to do well on if they don’t come to class – but that’s just because philosophy is hard stuff. I don’t make them artificially hard, but the average student wouldn’t be able to do well by just reading the text.

    Beyond those things, it doesn’t seem right to me to penalize them for not showing up, and my main reason for this is that they’re paying for it. We’re providing them a service, and we have to think about what that service is. I think the service is to offer classes that will educate them in important stuff, teach those classes in fair and competent ways, and then evaluate their performance and their competence in a reasonable way. If they’re paying for that and I’m fulfilling my end of the bargain, then they should be allowed to not show up, so long as they’re willing to accept a bad grade if their absence keeps them from learning.

    One last thing – given how it’s set up in college, with them paying for their educations, I really don’t want students in my class who don’t want to be there. If the idea of saving 10 bucks a day (or more) will fill the class up with the rest of the enrolled students who wouldn’t be there otherwise, then those students will likely be dead weight, sitting on their laptops and distracting the others. So even though it bugs me that I often only get half the class, at least I generally have pretty good discussions, and I can be pretty sure that the students who show up actually want to be there.

    Okay, that was a lot. Sorry, I’ve been thinking about this way too much lately. But I appreciate your post – it’s good to know others are obsessing about the same things as me.

  7. #7 Eva
    April 9, 2007

    I didn’t attend any of the classes of a required History of Science course I took in third year, but skipped them because I was taking an elective Philosophy class at the same time (it might have been ethics!)
    I passed both courses, but for the history one, which I hadn’t attended at all (I didn’t even know what the professor looked like) I had one out of only two 100% grades that were given out that semester. There was no attendance record, so he didn’t know I had never been to class, otherwise I’m not so sure I’d have gotten that high.

  8. #8 Webs
    April 9, 2007

    First time reader and commenter…

    There are I think a few things at play here. First whether a student attends should be completely up to them. I for one get tired of babysitting students every once in awhile and I have only been in academic institutions for 6 years. If the student doesn’t have the sense to show up, why should we hold their hand? At some point we have to let them make mistakes and help them learn from the mistake.

    Second, I think the other issue at play here is how students pay for college. I have no idea your age, so I am strictly guessing here, but I imagine that you payed for the majority of your schooling and worked hard to get to where you are now. I know my parents payed for all of their schooling with little help from their parents and worked hard and got far as well. I think this leads to students caring less about their education because they do not make the financial connection. i.e. they are not paying for their own schooling or working a job to pay for it, so why does it matter.

    Personally I think the best way to solve this is strip out the cold war funding from the military budget and use at least half of it to fund higher education. To solve the immediate problems that would be caused by this switch we could only federally fund the land grant schools, and beef up their admission requirements (also giving students a reason to do good in lower ed). Then keep all the other schools on the same system we have now.

    Then once all the kinks are worked out other schools can be added to the system by applying for it, and showing their admission requirements and graduate rates, etc… This may also solve the attendance issue since most of those student that do not care will have to pay and work hard for their education and not get a free ride.

    Not a perfect solution, but anything I feel would be better than what we have now.

  9. #9 Phishstyx
    April 9, 2007

    Hmmm. I have mixed feelings about the idea. I actually skipped every lecture during the last quarter of my general chemistry class and only showed up for tests. I just didn’t find the lectures very helpful, so I just spent some quality time with the textbook. I wound up missing a field trip (they must have changed the date/time from what was listed in the syllabus), but I still managed to get a B. -Incidently, I am now a grad student in genetics, and was generally quite successful in college.
    I think the real problem is with students that just aren’t ready for college. I took a year off after high school, then took some classes at a community college while I got partying out of my system. By the time I transferred to a university, I made it a priority not to miss class, because that meant that I was missing valuable information and would be at a disadvantage come test time. College right after high school isn’t right for everyone. I would even go so far as to say that is isn’t a great idea for most students.
    I think a big part of the value of a college degree isn’t simply that it demonstrates that you have learned X amount of information, but that it demonstrates an ability to do what needs to be done to be a productive member of the workforce. If you have to be coerced into attending classes that you pay for, then what does that say about your future dependability as worker? Frankly, I think that if you fail your classes because you didn’t attend class due to irresponsibilty (as opposed to illness or other extenuating circumstances) then you SHOULD fail the class.

  10. #10 Colin Slater
    April 9, 2007

    We didn’t ditch our classes when we were undergraduates.

    The key word here is “We”. Many people make this statement, and mean “we” to be “all students X decades ago”. I think the more proper meaning for “we” is “all students X decades ago who eventually became professors”. Students X decades ago skipped class too, but they never ended up in a position to complain about current students. Beware of selection effects!

  11. #11 ceresina
    April 9, 2007

    Webs says: “I think this leads to students caring less about their education because they do not make the financial connection. i.e. they are not paying for their own schooling or working a job to pay for it, so why does it matter.” I disagree. I went to a Very Expensive School, with a lot of parents paying full tuition, and the classes were, for the most part, well-attended, with or without taking attendance. The difference? My school was also one of those schools for The Best and Brightest ™, full of strivers and achievers.
    I think that’s the difference between us (if I may include myself with you & Julie) and the students who don’t come to class: class is not their priority. Whether it’s because learning isn’t their priority, or it’s because they aren’t overburdened with a sense of guilt for skipping, they see no need to come.
    Finally, I agree with Steve: any incentives that are not paying-attention related will only created dead-weight and distractions. Skipping is rampant at my university also, but I’d rather they *didn’t* come to class, than they *did* and gossiped, or text-messaged, or played solitaire…

  12. #12 JM
    April 9, 2007

    Hey! I put up a post too, although it mostly says to come on over and read yours.

  13. #13 Kimmitt
    April 9, 2007

    Put a grade:attendance graph on the back of your syllabus and mention its value. The big thing is to make sure students are making informed decisions; if they decide to fail out of college, that’s their call.

  14. #14 Capella
    April 9, 2007

    I went to a large state university, where I majored in physics, and I ditched all my intro classes all the time. I’m sure the professors believed their teaching to be valuable, but it just wasn’t. The labs and recitations were worthwhile, more or less (they were also required), but the lectures themselves were just an eight a.m. slog to an enormous, overheated room where someone would read the textbook to you.

    Assuming your class isn’t like this, you are probably suffering from the fact that many of your students are not in college to learn or get good grades (the two things they might achieve by going to class); they are there to socialize. Very few college students are aware, on a gut level, of the fact that time passes and eventually they will graduate, or their parents will expect them to, and then they will have to get jobs or go to grad school and in order do that they will have to demonstrate that they’ve done something besides socialize.

    I don’t know how you can make them realize that it is important they use their college experience to learn. At least there’s a bright side – the students who do show up are getting more individual attention.

  15. #15 Tony Arkles
    April 9, 2007

    I hope I can bring a bit of insight from the other side of the table. I’m just finishing up the last of a 5 year combined Electrical Engineering and Computer Science double degree, and well, my class attendance has been … lacking.

    As some have stated above, a big part of class attendance has to do with the lecturer. Some of the courses I’ve been in have been extremely interesting, but have had professors who were extremely hard to pay attention to. I’ve actually left lectures feeling more confused about the topic than I did coming into it.

    There’s a few lectures that I attend religiously (because I feel like I’m learning more in that hour than I would have by reading the text myself), but other than those, it’s pretty much a matter of attending to make sure that what I’ve been studying on my own correlates well to where the professor is at through the material.

    I’m not sure why I don’t get much out of most lectures. Sometimes it feels like they’re beating a dead horse; perhaps it’s just that I pick up the material quicker? I can only speculate.

    What I can say though is that my not attending lectures is in no way meant as a personal insult towards any of my professors.

    Please feel free to ask questions about my absenteeism, I’d be more than willing to try to provide meaningful answers :)

  16. #16 Tony Arkles
    April 9, 2007

    I suppose one more thing that I missed. I’m not top of my class, but I’m on the Dean’s list, and am typically regarded by my peers as someone to go talk to for help. During our final year presentations, a few of the groups gave me “special thanks”.

  17. #17 Ex-drone
    April 9, 2007

    I’m having a hard time seeing what the problem is. Aren’t college students adults? At the beginning of the course, you tell them how they will be graded, and then, it’s their responsibility to organize their time and participation to make the grade. They may decide to attend sporadically and pass, or they may blow it. If they fail for any reason, short of a personal crisis, then they fail. That’s life. When they get out into the real world, they will have to abide by employment and contract standards, conditions and requirements. They should learn accountability sooner than later.

  18. #18 PonderingFool
    April 9, 2007

    I am with Slater about your statement about “kids these days”. You are a selective bunch of the college population. Also, Dr. Free Ride didn’t you go to a small liberal arts college for undergrad? Wellesley is a very different college from SJSU. It draws different students. I would suspect SJSU brings in a greater percentage of students who are the first generation to attend college in their families than Wellesley. What this means is that a different approach is needed to engage these students especially considering these are the students who will benefit the most from college.

  19. #19 Chris
    April 9, 2007

    Frankly, I don’t see why any incentives are necessary. These kids made a decision (to skip class) and now they have to deal with the consequences (a failing grade). This is no different from a job: If you call in sick every day, you get fired (or at the least, don’t get that raise).

    If there are students that skip all the time and still do well, I say good for them. Knowing how best to manage your time is a valuable life skill, and if they aren’t gaining anything from the lectures, and would be better off reading the book at home, then why not let them?

    It seems to me that the system works just fine.

  20. #20 riptide
    April 9, 2007

    I’m a current biology graduate student, and woo-howdy, did I ever skip a bunch of classes… both in undergrad and in grad school. I certainly wasn’t unique, either – in college (a very well respected place indeed), most of my peers skipped classes at least occasionally, and some pretty much all the time.

    Why? Well, as Tony said, sometime the teachers were confusing, other times they were basically reading a textbook, and (especially in grad school) they were often flogging a dead horse. I don’t know how many times I had GFP explained to me.

    This really applies to big lecture classes – the professor may notice you’re not there in a class of 200, but he won’t care. Very few of my classes were small enough that it mattered who showed up. Also, it applies mainly to classes that you can learn out of a textbook. Most people I know went to their humanities classes, because there you don’t have that same ability.

    Other times it was work – when you’ve stayed up literally all night working on a pset, how can you go to class? So you turn it in, and then hit the sack. I followed that course with two classes of mine for an entire semester – and I was just one of a large group who did so.

    Anyway profs, my view is – they’re paying for you to show up and teach. If they don’t show up, it’s not your problem… and forcing people to show up to take quizzes, or make journals, is kind of ridiculous.

  21. #21 Amy
    April 9, 2007

    I started out diligently attending classes. I’m doing an engineering degree, so it’s definitely not something you can just coast through. By my junior year, I developed a chronic illness and started skipping classes constantly. My grades remained in the high A range. I am at the top of my class. Some students, in some classes really do have the ability to skip class and still learn all the material (assuming they have a way of getting that material from outside sources, such as the book). I really don’t like it when a teacher artificially forces my attendance. If I am only showing up to lecture because of an attendance grade, there’s really not much point in me being there. A significant number of my lecture classes had a boring lecturer who read power point slides to the class and who told us nothing that couldn’t be gleaned from doing reading. I generally tried to show up if there was a compelling reason to do so from a grade standpoint (required attendance, information that wasn’t available elsewhere) or if the lecture was interesting (my threshold for that is pretty low–generally, if the instructor seems to care, they’re interesting enough).

    As an aside, I’m here to learn, not socialize. Unfortunately, some lectures are so useless that my time would be better spent reading the book. I find it immensely frustrating when required attendance forces me to spend a few hours every week listening to the professor tell me stuff I already know or could read much more quickly. In a way, this is an obstacle to learning.

    In general, I like lecturers who encourage class participation if possible, are enthusiastic about what they teach, expand on material from the book rather than just repeating it, and limit use of power point. You probably do these things already, and I suspect that I’m not the category of class-skipper that you really care about. Unfortunately, the things I like to see from a lecturer probably aren’t sufficient incentive to students who truly don’t care about their classes and aren’t worried about getting good grades. And the tactics that you might use to get them to come would be coercive enough that I’d be penalized if I didn’t (or couldn’t) come.

    I guess I feel that if people skip when they shouldn’t, why hold their hands? It’s college, and they should be responsible for themselves. If all the students who don’t care aren’t in lecture, so much the better for those of us who do care.

  22. #22 jeffk
    April 9, 2007

    The problem I see with the “it’s their money” approach is that these students who don’t put in any effort are occupying spaces that could be used by less priveledged students – those who didn’t have the money to pay for or the rich suburban high school to prepare them to go to college.

  23. #23 John Wilkins
    April 9, 2007

    I am unconvinced that lectures work, propaedeutically. If a student hands in work that assesses well, then I really don’t care if she attended the classes, unless performance in tutorials is assessed.

    I had a student last year from Nigeria, who was working two jobs to attend university. He handed in the most polished and interesting essay of all the students (and he has a full-time class load as well!) in my own field (species concepts) – I gave him 95% for it. He attended none of the lectures. One might almost suspect that attendance lowers understanding… or maybe that’s just my lectures.

  24. #24 N
    April 9, 2007

    I’m only undergraduate freshman, but I’m taking a few advanced courses. And at my university, it’s policy – you have to attend. You miss more than the equivalent of two weeks in a course, and you’ve failed. In most classes, I skip as much as I can, except for my physics lab,which is graded on attandace.
    My physics class for example, started out with stuff that I learned in high school. So I have to go, but I don’t pay attention at all. I read asimov books, or do o-chem homework. It’s a waste of time for me to be there, it’s a waste of time for the professor as well. And this isn’t the only class I treat that way. Not because I don’t care but because they’re either slow, or boring as others have said.
    That’s my 2 cents. attendance does not necessarily correlate to success, and attendance certainly does not mean interest or attention to what’s going on in class.

  25. #25 jeffk
    April 9, 2007

    If your class is a repeat of what you’ve done in high school, it’s not the attendance system that’s failing, it’s the placement system. And it’s probably worth getting used to some repetition, because I can assure that as a physics graduate student, I’ve seen it all 5-6 times and I still don’t know it in and out. I think appropriate placement would put you in a course that was repeating material but at a slightly higher level.

  26. #26 Kurt
    April 9, 2007

    Hmmm, ‘incentivizing’ class attendance? For some reason that brings to mind that PETA ‘State of the Union’ campaign. Er, never mind, scratch that, scratch that.

    Like some of the other commenters, I’ve had classes where the instructor pretty much just read from the text, and in those cases I often started skipping class after a while. However, I got myself into trouble more than once doing this. Funniest example: I had signed up for a logic class offered by the philosophy department. I don’t remember what I was thinking at the time, but it turned out to be a lot more elementary than I was expecting and the lectures were just stultifying. About half-way through I stopped going to class except for test days. I showed up for the final exam to find an empty classroom. Turned out, the professor had decided a couple of weeks earlier to move up the final exam date, and had already turned in the grades and left town! I got, and deserved, an F for that class.

  27. #27 Vishvas Vasuki
    April 10, 2007

    I found the following quote by Murray Gell-Mann at , which I thought you might find interesting:

    “I’ve always thought that university education, including full-scale lecture courses covering the ground of well-known subjects on which excellent books have been published, are simply an illustration of how the universities have failed to adapt, after five hundred years, to the invention of printing. For those who prefer to learn by listening and watching, videotaped courses by some of the best lecturers in the world are now — or may soon be — available. Presumably universities will adapt slowly to such modern inventions as well. In medieval times, books were published by having a lector read his manuscript to
    a roomful of scriptores, who wrote it down. Many of the students at the university — say, in theology — were too poor to buy books produced by this expensive method, and so at the university a theology professor would read his book to the students, who would act as their own scriptores and write down what the teacher said.

    With the invention of printing, this system became obsolete, but the universities have still not noticed that, after more than five hundred years. Of course, a lecture can serve very important purposes: It can convey brand-new information, along with the exciting character of that information. A dramatic lecture can serve to present the speaker as a role model to the people in the audience. I have nothing against the occasional lecture. But the idea that at each college and university some professor has to give a series of lectures covering the ground of a subject such as electromagnetic theory seems totally
    insane to me. If professors really want to assist learning, they can answer questions when students are stuck, assign challenging problems and fascinating reading, and give occasional exciting talks. And of course they can choose textbooks, and if necessary, series of videotaped lectures. In brief, they can serve as resources for students engaged in the complex adaptive learning process.”

    -Vishvas Vasuki

  28. #28 Joe
    April 10, 2007

    When I taught chemistry, I only consulted the text to know the sequence of the material (and to assign, ungraded, homework problems). For lectures, I made good notes that followed the way I approached those subjects. When it came time for a test, I chose one problem from the homework assignments, and then used my lecture notes to map-out the exam. The best students soon realized the value of attendance. Today, I might even explain my system on the first day of class.

  29. #29 Lex
    April 10, 2007

    Although I completely see your position, and am myself often frustrated when my students don’t turn up, I really don’t think that *making* them show up helps them at all. Uni is about these young adults learning about life, and finally being able to make their own decisions, for good or for ill. It’s better for them to learn these lessons for themselves, no matter how tempting it is to strongarm them into good behaviour. The students who love the subject and may take it further will always do the work, whether they attend class or just do all the reading at home.

  30. #30 Lab Lemming
    April 10, 2007

    Don’t students who fail and have to take the class over end up paying double tuition because they have to retake?

  31. #31 Alan Kellogg
    April 10, 2007

    We teach our children that learning is a duty and not a pleasure. Some see past the bullshit, but most buy into the tripe and so our imperialistic elites find their job of alienating and dividing the electorate made easier.

  32. #32 Malthus
    April 10, 2007

    Let me give you an example from my own experience:

    I came into college and wanted to take some CS courses, despite being a physics major. I had been told before coming that a 5 on the AP exam was sufficient to place me out of the intro course. I got a 5. I also had ~10 years of programming experience, including a college level CS course at the local community college (in which I got an A+).

    When getting there, I was told that this wasn’t sufficient to place out. The person who told me was the head of the department, so there was no appeal. She also happened to be teaching the intro level course at the time, _and_ was my assigned course adviser. The class was at 9 AM, in a packed auditorium. She handed out notes before class (which were also put up on the web), and then proceeded to lecture directly from the notes (which I would generally read in the 10 minutes during which people would file in). The notes covered things like the types of sorting algorithms, various data structures, and things I had learned four years prior.

    The only reason I attended that class as often as I did was because the chairs in that auditorium were unusually comfortable, and I could sleep in them. Which I did, extremely visibly, in the middle of the fifth row.

    So no, I don’t see that you should penalize students for lack of attendance above and beyond whatever this does to their homework and test performance.

  33. #33 catswym
    April 10, 2007

    i pretty much agree with malthus, above.

    the only classes i never attended (or very rarely) were my orgo, cell bio and genetics classes. the teachers were terrible and i could learn better by having slept in an extra two hours and reading the book.

    if the prof is good, then i NEED to go to class. if the prof is just reciting facts/ reading from a book…no, thanks.

    that said, many students are not at college necessarily because they ‘want’ to be there or ‘want’ to learn but because they are from a certain class background where college is just expected and provided for. those same folks are also the ones who aren’t going to care about a $10 credit back for attending a class.

  34. #34 dana
    April 10, 2007

    I skipped heaps of classes in university. The reason? In a 50 minute class, typically the instructor covered the following:
    – 15 minute review of the last class
    – 25 minutes of new content
    – 10 minute preview of the next class

    So if I attended half the classes, I still got all the materials. Add to this that most profs provided full notes on the ‘net or as handouts, and then read from them (as Malthus notes), and there was NO incentive to attend.

  35. #35 No1Uno
    April 10, 2007

    I can think of two, at most three, professors in my undergraduate years who gave lectures worth attending. I skipped classes very frequently, especially intro level classes with 400+ students and reqs outside of my field of interest. The classes I was forced to attend, through quizzes etc., I generally spent either reading the textbook or other books so as to get some useful return on my time.

  36. #36 Ponder Stibbons
    April 10, 2007

    I too think class attendance should not be automatically rewarded. Good students skip a lot of classes too. If the lectures are useful, they will attend them. But some just aren’t worth attending. I have had many courses where I learnt more reading the text for 50 mins than sitting in a 50-min lecture. Of course, I would attend the first few lectures of every course to get a gauge of how useful they are, and then decide how I should spend my time.

  37. #37 WiseWoman
    April 10, 2007

    John, don’t mean to rain on your parade, but did you check the polished paper for plagiarism?

    Some of the others who explain why *they* cut class: Much of why I want people there is because I want participation. I want to discuss the topic with the group. Kinda hard to do if there are so few people there. If everyone has read the chapter, then we can discuss the fine points together. If not, I’ll be glad to read to the group. And if you can’t attend the lecture, but you read the chapter on time (and not in one fell swoop, which will not stick in your mind as a continuous reading will) – then you can submit your 5 sentences to your journal as well.

    Learning is not just an individual thing – it is a group process, IMHO.

  38. #38 Ponder Stibbons
    April 10, 2007


    True for discussion-format classes. But science lectures don’t usually involve discussions. I’ve had just one science course that was partly discussion-based, and that was with an exceptional teacher. (Most science teachers don’t really know how to run discussions in science.) As I said, I skip lectures when I think I can get nothing out of them that cannot be gotten from a textbook. If that’s not true, I don’t.

  39. #39 greensmile
    April 11, 2007

    Why have I not yet seen one mention of “multiple intelligence” in this thread [confession, I used the FIND function after reading about 2/3 of the way down, a synonym would have escaped notice] Gell-Mann is quoted…but he was brilliant and could get by without recitation or lecture. There will be at least as many opinions on the value of attending a lecture as there are different styles [and abilities] of learner.

  40. #40 MR
    April 11, 2007

    For one small subset there is a very easy answer. I can read your powerpoint slides just as well as you can. If that’s all a lecturer has to offer me, then I might as well just read the slides in my dorm room. Not that all lectures with slides are like that, but some teachers stick so rigorously to a) the text or b) their slides, that they don’t contribute to the discussion. One of my professors reads from the text book (which he wrote) and demonstrates how to do the work… That’s it. Thankfully, I too am literate and can follow instructions reasonably well, so why listen to him? IF (and that’s a really big if) I can get the information elsewhere and do so, then skipping a lecture isn’t the same as skipping the material.

  41. #41 Frumious B
    April 20, 2007

    What could we possibly do to help them get themselves to class?

    Hold classes that are actually worth attending?

    Seriously, folks, get over yourselves. If someone does all the work, turns in all the work, does well on the work and on tests, then they clearly don’t need your instruction to learn the material. Leave them alone.

  42. #42 Jongpil Yun
    May 6, 2007

    Indeed, my better half came up with the model by which to implement the plan: It would be like parking validation. For each class meeting you attend during the term, you collect a validation ticket that would let you recover a chunk of money that you’ve already paid in tuition (say five or ten buck per class meeting). Attending all your classes and collecting all your validation tickets would let you pay the lowest possible amount of tuition for the number of credits you’re taking. Skipping lots of classes … would cost you more. (There would, of course, need to be some process for getting validated for an excused absence, and for determining what sort of absence counts as excused.)

    That is a terrible, terrible idea. Sure, make college more expensive than it already is. Jeez.

    Seriously, folks, get over yourselves. If someone does all the work, turns in all the work, does well on the work and on tests, then they clearly don’t need your instruction to learn the material. Leave them alone.


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