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Having taught calculus for several semesters, I've noticed that the number of students attending lectures are gradually declining (especially for the 9am session). I would not be worried if they have learned the material by themselves so don't see the need of coming; However looking at their exam scores I concluded that a lot of them are not doing so well in the class when they miss lectures.

So what are some good ways to keep students coming to lectures?

14 Answers 14

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Here are my suggestions:

  1. Make sure your lectures actually add something to their learning experience. Ask one of your coworkers or someone from the teaching support center (if you have one of those) to come watch a class every now and then and give you feedback on how to improve. (Even if you are a teaching super star, there is always something you can improve.)

  2. Take 5 minutes to ask the students to fill in anonymous "exit tickets" with three questions: Something you should keep doing, something you should stop doing and something you should start doing. This should be done in class after a few weeks, but before the attendance starts dropping. Actually follow any reasonable suggestions.

  3. Over the long term, create a scatter plot of number of lectures attended versus final grade. If your lectures are useful, then there will be a strong positive correlation between the two. Show students the plot during the first class every semester and tell them to make their own decision about attending or not.

  4. If you really want to make them attend class, schedule daily quizzes that account for some not insignificant percentage of the grade. If they don't attend class, they receive a zero.

  5. Remember that your students are adults. They are responsible for their own learning, and if they decide to sleep in rather than come to class no matter what you do, that's still their choice and their responsibility. You can't force them to attend. If your lectures add value, and they still choose not to attend, that's ultimately their problem.

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    +1, especially for #3 (and #5, although it technically doesn't answer the question). Let's call #3 "evidence-driven encouragement of attendance", or EDEA ;-) – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Nov 5 '15 at 17:45
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    I have some qualms about 3; the sorts of students who are more likely to skip class are also more likely to do worse in general, to the point that the correlation between attendance and class performance isn't a convincing showing of correlation. Of course, people often see it as one, but as teachers, I don't think we should further that confusion. – Henry Nov 5 '15 at 18:00
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    @Henry I must not understand you correctly. "The correlation between attendance and class performance is so strong that the correlation between attendance and class performance isn't convincing evidence of a correlation between attendance and class performance"??? – JeffE Nov 5 '15 at 21:37
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    @JeffE: That's an awful mistyping on my part. I meant to say that it isn't convincing evidence of causation. – Henry Nov 5 '15 at 21:47
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    Please don't do number 4. If missing your lectures means students don't learn the material, they'll fail the exams anyway. If missing your lectures does not mean that students don't learn the material, then what's the problem? Maybe the student just learns better from reading on their own (or maybe there's a problem with the lecture... or the time at which the lecture is scheduled.) – reirab Nov 6 '15 at 6:24
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Academic literature

A study found that "motivation, prior GPA, self-financing by students, hours worked on jobs, quality of teaching, and nature of class lectures" to be significant factors influencing attendance. Let's focus on the latter two.

Quality of Teaching

It sounds like you are a new educator at the university level. In my opinion, the think the single biggest thing you can do to improve your lectures is to prepare them well. Most of us could teach, say, factoring quadratics, in our sleep. That easily leads to little to no preparation, especially when there's other work we feel we must do. Unfortunately, just because we're clever enough to lecture extemporaneously, doesn't mean we do it well. I have found the quality of my preparation has the greatest effect on the quality of my lectures.

As you prepare on lectures, try to develop empathy. Ask yourself: where will students struggle? How can I can help them understand the difficult parts? Your ability to prepare lectures well will improve with practice, so work hard at it.

Try to bring your passion into the lecture. Some teachers yell and jump around, others are quiet and careful, but every great teacher I've ever seen brings their passion for the material into the lecture. Work to give your students a taste of the power and beauty of mathematics.

Type of lecture

How can you design your lecture to increase attendance? Engage the students in work of learning actively. A few things I have seen used with success:

  • Give students a problem and few minutes to work it out. Ask students to share and discuss their solutions.
  • Put students in groups, and have each group work on a challenging problem together. This works best if the problems are on the board so that each group is standing and working a section of the board.
  • Begin each class with a short quiz. Make it easy problems related to the previous day's lecture, but award no partial credit so you can grade them in a minute.
  • If the lecture is large, consider using clickers for quick quizzes during your lecture.
  • Use the Socratic Method.
  • While difficult to get right, you might consider using a flipped classroom, where students watch recorded lectures outside of class and work problems in class.

If you design your lectures to include learning activities, you can grade students based on their participation and performance, and this encourages them to attend. Allow some grace: students may sometimes be preventing from attending by illness, work, childcare, etc.

Work to create a social fabric that enmeshes the students. Learn their names. Ask and answer questions. If they know that they will be missed (by their peers and by you), they will be far more likely to attend.

Why bother working on attendance? The above-mentioned study found "strong empirical evidence of the positive influence of class attendance on student performance."

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    As a high school teacher, i agree with all of this. Content knowledge is honestly about 5% of teaching. The rest is preparation, planning, behavior management, etc. Make sure you are prepared, i.e. plan out everything that you are going to go over, how long you think it will take, and make sure everything is ready to go when the class starts. And to the second point, also, i agree. Mix it up every once in a while to get kids more active. – celeriko Nov 5 '15 at 20:09
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    @celeriko: Skills other than content knowledge are 100% of teaching. Content knowledge is also 100% of teaching. It's not additive, it's multiplicative. – Ben Crowell Nov 6 '15 at 1:57
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I'm a bit suprised that no-one else seems to have said: make sure the lectures are different to the online/handout material.

If you put up slides that the students can read online not at the lecture, and work off them, you are just inviting them to do this "more efficiently" themselves.

Make the lecture an interesting and valuable exposition on the material in the handouts/online material. Add value to those materials. "Here's something I think you might struggle with in the material" and explain it in a different way.

Then your students have twice the opportunity to learn: the way it is in the online/handouts and the way it is in the lecture. Those who want to learn will soon find that your lectures are a worthwhile and irreplaceable addition to to what they can do themselves without attending.

The only lectures I ever skipped in my time at Uni were the ones read off the slides.

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Let's assume that your lectures are as polished as you can make them, that you teach passionately and in an engaging fashion, that you have active-learning in-class exercises (which is, thankfully, trivially easy in a math class), etc. Then I'll be somewhat contrarian and say that it might be best to not worry about student attendance; they have to meet you at least halfway and that's the part that's their responsibility.

I teach at a large open-admissions urban community college, and many of our students are poorly prepared for college work. I could and have in the past made attendance mandatory, assessed points for it, ejected students with over-absences, etc. But what I found was that I then had numerous surly, combative, argumentative students in the room just barely complying with that requirement, and more-or-less sabotaging the learning process of the other students (talking, playing music, laughing at students asking questions, egging other students into fights with me, etc.).

By lifting those requirements, I have lower day-to-day attendance numbers, but what I find is that the quality of the learning has gone up. The students in the room are highly motivated, they are engaged, and the level of our discussions is much higher. I have more time to spend on individual inquiries and work. I don't spend time on attendance or tardiness arguments (in-class or after-the-fact). I don't have any saboteur students. I am personally much happier specifically due to the higher level of mathematics conversation. If a student really doesn't want to be there, then it's a good thing for them to not be there.

I actually say on the first day that statistics show that regular attendance is the #1 best practice and predictor of success in a college math class. And then I let them take responsibility for how they act on that information. Give regular assessments (for me: weekly online quizzes and monthly tests) so that students can check and re-align how their study habits are working for them. Be clear and transparent about grading protocols, and don't scale any tests just due to low class performance. Around the midterm (2nd test), I have a number of heartfelt conversations with individual students about why they're not succeeding on tests, and what in their life needs to be re-prioritized to reverse that. But having a small, focused, motivated number of college students in the room is no bad thing.

(P.S.: I have had a small number of winter-session trigonometry classes at 8 AM in which I started lecturing to an empty room, and when students started showing up they could catch up based on what was on the board.)

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    Your first sentence is a very big assumption. I agree with what follows from that assumption, but I question the assumption. – petehern Nov 6 '15 at 2:02
  • @petehern - especially the part that asserts: active-learning in-class exercises are "trivially easy in a math class." – J.R. Nov 7 '15 at 10:59
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    @J.R.: I'm currently facilitating a faculty group on STEM strategies, and it's made me appreciate how much harder other sciences have it: they need to arrange equipment, materials, space, etc. for in-class experimentation. In contrast to that we have it relatively very easy in a math class, as we deal with pure thought-stuff. – Daniel R. Collins Nov 7 '15 at 18:17
  • Meaningful grading is inherently subjective, so there’s a rather restrictive limit on just how clear and transparent one can be in describing it ahead of time. – Brian M. Scott Nov 7 '15 at 19:55
  • @Daniel - But when it comes to "active learning in-class exercises," that's a two-edged sword – isn't it? I mean, when students are using Bunsen burners or dissecting animals or wiring circuits, the kinetic activities are almost inherently "active" and "engaging." When dealing with "pure thought-stuff," however, it can be a challenge to keep the activities interesting. (At least, I wouldn't say that it's "trivial.") – J.R. Nov 8 '15 at 0:20
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The "obvious" solution is to find a way to incorporate attendance into grades. This has some disadvantages (it takes time and effort and is paternalistic), but for some classes it's the right solution.

There are a number of ways to do this which may be appropriate for different situations:

  • Literally write down who's there, of course
  • Have an in class quiz. (In a class where the pre-class reading was particularly important, I found this useful---it not only automatically took attendance, but it also gave quick feedback to me and them on how well they'd understood the pre-class work, and served as a transition from the pre-class work to what we were doing in class.)
  • If quizzes every day take up too much time, a few unannounced random quizzes have the same incentive.
  • If technological solutions are an option, using "clickers" to have students answer questions during class can be incidentally used to take attendance. (You could treat participation in the question as showing attendance, and not grade based on whether they get it right, which is often appropriate for such questions.)
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    That's not a solution. It's a punitive measure. If students don't want to come to class, then there is something wrong with the class. Forcing them to sit through it solves nothing. – Mohair Nov 5 '15 at 20:09
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    @Mohair: In many cases I agree with you. These aren't things I do in most of my classes. But students, like all humans, aren't perfectly rational decision makers, and the choice to hit the snooze button at 8am isn't necessarily the decision they'll be glad they made a month later when they're studying for the exam. Some of our students really do benefit from having a small but direct incentive to do the thing that they know is in their best interest. – Henry Nov 5 '15 at 20:56
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    I give a 5-minute quiz at the beginning of almost every class. In addition to encouraging attendance, it has the effect of encouraging students to show up on time. When I visit other people's classes I'm usually dismayed by the amount of disruption due to students trickling in gradually for the first 15 minutes of class. Enforcing promptness is not just paternalistic (although I'll cop to paternalism) -- it improves the educational environment for the students who do show up on time. And when a student shows up to class 10 minutes late with a Starbucks, it's not because the teaching is bad. – Ben Crowell Nov 6 '15 at 1:35
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From my experience as a student, I can suggest you:

  1. Don't be just the lecturer. Make the lectures interactive and fun, not only about the material you teach. Add something to the lecture that is interesting and cannot be found in the lecture notes (for example, if you teach something abstract, try to make people understand where is that useful).

  2. Make jokes. They are a nice way to make people relax and wake up if they are asleep.

  3. Make them curious in a similar way the movie series make us want to see the next episode. If your lectures are recorded, try watching them and asking yourself if you have the same curiosity you get at the end of an episode of a movie series to see the next one.

  4. Don't try to teach them everything. One of my best lecturers has very short lectures. And he is doing a good job since he has our full attention for 20 minutes or so, time when he presents the core ideas and says a few words about how it can be extending, letting us study the details on our own. And, in my opinion, this is a way better approach than lecturing for 60 minutes and nobody paying attention.

  5. Don't make the lectures compulsory. They will come and sleep.

  6. Be friendly. If you are lucky enough, you could get to know few good students better and be able to ask them in an informal environment for some advice about the lecture. Personally, I would be more open for a discussion like this if the lecturer manages to make me feel comfortable than to some piece of paper that ensures my anonymity.

  • +1 for point #3. Definitely worth putting it out there what will be interesting about next lecture. – GreenAsJade Nov 7 '15 at 5:07
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I'm answering this as a student.

Following some extra courses, it sometimes isn't possible (for me) to attend every lecture. Because of cases like this, it should be possible to follow a course without attending lectures. If you tell something that's not in the book, please publish slides or lecture notes. Please don't give quizzes or don't let them count to the final grade. Giving a bonus could be okay, but still it should be possible to get all points without coming to class.

One of the courses I have followed recently had two blocks of two hours and didn't devote one to tutorial and one to lecture, what is common here, he devoted the first hour of every block to a tutorial session and the second to the lecture. This made the lecture less long for some people, and both the lecture and the tutorial sessions are attended better than similar courses. It of course depends on your course setup if this could work.

  • I agree that using quizzes is a horrid approach to forced attendance. – GreenAsJade Nov 7 '15 at 5:08
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    Indeed, and not only should notes/slides allow students to follow the course on their own if need be, they should in my opinion serve as a more-or-less complete reference that the students can refer to in the future, otherwise they are quite a waste of paper/space. For me, I go through my notes but my students confirm that listening to the verbal explanations and seeing the diagrams on the board help a lot, even though theoretically the notes contain everything in black and white. – user21820 Nov 7 '15 at 5:44
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I answer this from the point of view of a student. One approach that is NOT a good way to accomplish this goal is to make attendance mandatory. Courses with such policies have a very strong correlation to problems in all the other areas mentioned in other answers to thie question.

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I am a visual learner - I learn by reading and doing, and not by listening. The first thing I do on a new purchase is read the manual; then play with the controls; then read the manual again while playing with the controls. Take no offence, but recognize that most lectures are consequently a complete waste of my time, for most of their length. Only the most spectacular lecturers will say anything of true value to my learning process more than a few times a semester.

I also have dysgraphia, making it extremely difficult to take legible notes. Not only is my writing painfully hard to read, I can write (cursive) only as fast as most people print. In 4 years of undergrad and 3.5 years of post-grad studies, plus four years of part-time study to get my CPA CGA designation, I took meaningful notes for only 4 half courses given by truly superb lecturers who kept their notes concise; wrote them on the board clearly; and spoke to them after presenting them. Those notes I still have nearly 4 decades later.

So, if you want the attendance of someone with my learning disability you must not only add true value beyond what is available in the text books, you must write it clearly on the blackboard; before you speak to it. If you merely state your contribution to my learning I might as well be in Timbuktu. If you speak and then write I again might as well be in Timbuktu. For me to learn I absolutely must be able to read the material before it is spoken to. Any lecturer who insists on revealing his slides bullet-point at a time, after speaking to them, is not only wasting my time, he is deliberately wasting my time. I am likely to be spotted throwing paper airplanes at this lecturer.

I actually attended most lectures while at university, but was much more likely to be reading the text or looking at the pretty girls than actually paying attention. I am too much of a control freak to risk missing an announcement regarding exam contents or assignment due dates, but don't mistake my casual attendance with actually paying attention to a mediocre lecture.

  • Nowadays, at least in the U.S., with dysgraphia you can get a 504 plan that calls for notes provided. (Bravo for you for understanding how you learn best.) – aparente001 Nov 10 '15 at 6:15
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Pop quizzes! Make participation a part of the grade. And tell students that the tests will include material taught in class, not just in the book.

The classes I was most motivated to attend in college were ones in which the professor performed example problems that closely resembled the problems to appear on midterms. After the first midterm, pretty much the whole class realized the easiest way to do well on tests was to attend and take good notes. If any of us missed class, we would collaborate (i.e. scramble) to get notes from one another on the missed lecture. The students ended up bonding and cooperating to study together too, which was crucial in an engineering major!

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As a student at university I took a module on proposition logic which looked into Calculus. Our class behaved in a similar manner as yours. I would suggest using real life example of use of Calculus which can relate to students. Also I ask myself why am I studying this? as student can't see the relations to computer science so making the relations more clear would keep them interested. I learned using YouTube and a few books as the formal notation which is show in class puts me off, maybe just teaching the method first then introducing notation will make it more fun. These are my personal thought which I can relate to hope this helps.

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Just wanted to add my 2 cents:

I had a professor who played one of his and ours (the students) choice of music 15 minutes before the lecture started. I liked that a lot.

I find the best lectures are the ones where the professor tells small anecdotes that may or may not be related to the curriculum. It may just be a few minutes or so, but I find it to be a nice break and you get the feeling that it's really just another human being standing there instead of some robot going through a book. Bonus if it's a funny story.

  • On the other hand, I had a lecturer who gave us a coughing break (it was winter) and a story in the middle of each lecture. We still found those the worst lectures of the year. – Jessica B Nov 6 '15 at 10:55
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    The effectiveness of this may well depend on school culture. I had a professor who would tell a lot of jokes in lecture (in a school that is marketed as being full of nerds), and while they were indeed funny (at least to some people), they also became too excessive and detracted from the course. – user36992 Nov 9 '15 at 4:50
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Here are my answers (mostly from my experience), and by the way, the other answers above and below too are gems of knowledge worth any teacher's time (I have already made a note of all of them :)) -

1) Make sure you are teaching what students will find useful, and show them how / why this will be useful. Show them its relevance.

(If you feel it is not, you need to ask yourself why you are teaching it in the first place. And yes - it can come in the exam is as excellent a reason as "you will end up using this in your first year at work when xxxx happens")

2) Use Von Restroff effect to your advantage. Every 10-15 minutes, add / change something to break the monotony. Students like that. Say something funny, ask them questions

3) I tend to use the white board a lot, and many of my students like this as it gives them time to write. I also use cartoons as it helps them remember things better and makes them smile and thus remember by association. (Confession: I am a bad artist, which makes this even more effective!)

4) Reconsider if you really wish to upload ppts before the class - Students have told me that when all the ppts are uploaded in advance, they sometimes feel there is sometimes no good reason to come to class. They after all do not know that you have planned somethign additional

5) Related to 4 above - write your ppts such that they can only be understood if a person sat through your class. I tend to write questions in my ppts which are only answered in class (often through discussion)

6) Involve your students in activities. And do something (related to the subject!) that they will talk about later. This makes students who were absent curious, and they turn up next time sheerly for the entertainment value. It is left upto you next to merge this entertainment with teh topic at hand

7) Use good and creative videos - I used a vlog by Superwoman (!) to make my students understand how not to do their assignments. They loved it. And for the first time, there was not a single late submission.

8) Use Activities as far as possible ( My kpi is one activity per class - even if it is a short 5 minute discussion with their seat mate. I know I am saying this twice) -

Similarly, to teach the various downstream and upstream legs in supply chain management, I used DHL's short advert on hot pepper sauce from West Indies to China. This was followed by a team exercise where the students had to figure out each leg, and how this could be further optimized keeping in mind the restrictions of each country involved. The all discovered new hub ports in Miami, and our Jamaican and Chinese students were in much demand as students wanted to learn about transport systems and issues there.

9) Dont shout at students / Dont scold them unnecessarily This may not suit everyone, but I dont like to scold students in class, as it insults them in the peer group / in front of other boys and girls and embarrasses them. Some of them show their resentment by not coming for future classes. If you need to tell them something, as far as possible say it in private, or if telling in public, put it in a jocular fashion.

10) One of my lecturer friends always invested in a small bowl of candy that he would keep out 30 minutes before his class was going to get over. It became a ritual and the candy always changed each time. There were always a few special ones that he knew his students liked (he actually asked them!) - and those students came initially (a) for the candy (!) and (b) because they felt that the teacher cared enough for him / her to do this extra action

11) Related to 10 above - do something different from other lecturers. This is actually easily - just do what comes naturally to you, and most of the time it will be different from others.

12) Always focus on students assignment topics / their future career aspirations and relate what you teach in class to these. It is best to do the former right at the beginning - it is interesting how those magic words "this forms part of the answer to your assignment essay blah blah" miraculously result in pens and notebooks coming out.

13) Lastly - don't take anything, including their absence personally (I know that is difficult, especially if you are a dedicated teacher). Remember, sometimes students do sleep late and wake up late, they sometimes miss buses and trains, and sometimes, they may just want to not come. At the end of the day, your are answerable to yourself and if you did your best, that is it.

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You're asking the wrong question. It's not about getting students to come to lectures but getting them to understand calculus.

If you need them to show up for some reason, irrespective of their learning, just mandate a 10% grade attendance policy. If you'd like ideas to help them learn calculus, edit your question accordingly.

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    I make attendance 10% of the grade and I still don't get great attendance in lecture. – Kimball Nov 6 '15 at 0:37
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    Normal human intuition about normal human psychology suggests that attending more lectures will cause improved understanding. In other words, without further elaboration and conceptualization, I think this answer is pretty silly. – goblin Nov 6 '15 at 8:12

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