Recently, I’ve noticed a few popular comments that got me thinking. The first were left on this question, asking:
What are some good ways to keep students coming to lectures?
One comment reads:
I think you're asking the wrong question. The right question is "How do I help struggling students better learn the material?" The answer might involve increasing attendance, but it might not.
As of this writing, this comment was upvoted 33 times¹.
Another highly-upvoted comment (more than 20 upvotes), is found a little further down; it says:
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.
I found similar sentiments in comments beneath an answer to this question:
Why do professors want to make sure that their notes … will not be published?
One particular answer suggested:
There are good reasons for this: .. if students have access to the lecture notes from previous years, they might decide not to come to class (or come and not pay attention)
That answer received half a dozen downvotes, along with some upvoted comments below, saying:
Professors do not need to have a reason, but .. the reasons you gave are bad.
“There are good reasons for this” — Maybe so, but you haven't given any
In one sense, I get what these comments are driving at (at least, I think I do). We live in a changing world – some might say in the midst of a revolution. Today's students have a wealth of information at their fingertips, so we are moving away from the “sage on the stage” model of learning. Shame on us if we play little games to coerce students into attending lectures that fail to contribute significantly to their learning.
On the other hand, though, I find myself wrestling with this. Taken to an extreme, it's almost as if we're encouraging professors to structure their courses so that students who choose to skip lectures could still learn the material equally well. We could give traditional lectures to those enjoy lectures (or learn better from them), while at the same time providing the same information in alternative forms for those who would rather take a course heavy on self-study, and light on mandatory attendance in the classroom or lecture hall.
I've taught in both the online and face-to-face environments, so I understand that both approaches can be effective. Up until now, though, I've taught my face-to-face sections differently. I try to leverage the advantages that each modality offers; in the case of face-to-face courses, that means relying heavily on in-class discussions using the Socratic method.
Consequently, many of my PowerPoint slides steer clear of bullets, favoring pictures instead. (A picture will prompt me to launch into a particular discussion, but prevent me from reading aloud
to the class – in other words, using pictures instead of words will force me to speak more extemporaneously). If I do have a slide with bullets, I often add an extra text box with a question, such as, "Why is this important?". Such prompts remind me to stop talking and yield the floor back to the class regularly. The goal is to get their brains out of a passive listening mode and into an active thinking mode.
I've found this to be rather effective, yet past students have told me, "Your slides are good for lectures, but they don't make good study aids for exams." I've told them that's true, and that it's also by design – which brings me back to my conundrum. Based on observations and overheard comments, I think more than a handful of today's students get into the habit of skipping classes because they've found lectures to be unhelpful and a waste of their time. I try very hard to make sure this isn't the case in my class, but sometimes I sense that students have made up their minds before we've even gotten underway, to the point where these students happy-go-luckily convince themselves that, by and large, college lectures are strictly optional.
I guess my question is this: Should I cater to such students? That is, should I invest more time into developing additional materials that would make it easier for a student to do well in my class, even if that student decides to skip half my lectures? Or is the onus on the student to be more selective about which lectures should be attended, and which can be considered more optional?
¹ I am one of the 33 upvoters, so I have no problem with the sentiments expressed in that comment.