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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Why do professors want to make sure that their notes … will not be published?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.

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    What do you mean by "should I"? A contractual duty? A moral obligation? Or is it another way to ask "Do I want to?" – Dmitry Savostyanov Nov 22 '15 at 12:17
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    Skipping lectures is not the only thing you can do with notes. A lecture will usually go to fast for one set of students, who will be left behind, and too slow for another, who will (barring exceptional self-discipline) get bored and stop paying attention. Notes are a good way to get both groups to follow. – darij grinberg Nov 22 '15 at 13:30
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    We live in a changing world — No, no, no. Students have had a wealth of information at their fingertips for decades, if not centuries, in those funny buildings you never go into, called "libraries", which are full of those things you never read, called "books". And instructors have been providing photocopied/mimeographed lecture notes for decades as well, either in class, in a department office, or at local bookstores/copy shops. And instructors have been flipping classrooms since Socrates. Ain't nothing new under the sun. – JeffE Nov 22 '15 at 22:26
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    @JeffE - Yes, I realize libraries have been around for a long time, but you must admit: what used to take a good hour or two in a microfiche room might now take a few minutes using a phone that fits in your pocket; what used to be far too many books to cram into your overloaded backpack can now get loaded on your Kindle; downloading a set of .pdfs from the LMS is a snap compared to mimeographing lecture notes. Libraries weren't usually open 24/7/365, either. Information may have always been available to those willing to do the work – but it hasn't always been this easy to get that information. – J.R. Nov 23 '15 at 0:50
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    I think it is important to note that good material which supports students learning for an exam is also very valuable to the students who actually came to the course! Especially if you drive very interactive classes, taking detailed notes might be difficult for students. So it could well be that at the end of the course when people try to study for your exams, they don't have much more to fall back to than your slides. – fgysin reinstate Monica Nov 26 '15 at 12:52
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To answer your question: No, you shouldn't. Yes, it'll be nice if you have time to invest into it.

Ensuring that your lectures provoke in-class discussions with your students and using a Socratic method is a very good thing, and you have my praise. It will, without doubt, encourage students to come to your lectures. However, there will be those who a) orders of magnitude better in learning through reading than through listening, b) who slack and skip lectures, c) who work part-time (depending on the country you're in, this might be acceptable or not). So, do your best to deliver thought-provoking, bright and inspiring lectures, and first cater to those who come to your lectures. There are some ways to help those who don't come; I can think of two.

Personal experience: I've been a TA on a graduate-level physics course. While the professor slides were exactly as you describe (images to seed the conversation) and I liked it, I also felt that the slides will not be enough for me and for the students to retain the content of the lecture. I started writing down the lecture notes (in an electronic format, to be corrected and shared with ease). So, if you are willing to cater to such students but have limited time, the first option is to ask someone to scribe for you.

Another option, which required substantial effort but might be beneficial in the long run, is video recording the lectures. Learn if your university has some kind of video recording initiative; if they do, there will be people who deal with the technical side of recording, and you'll just have to wear a mic. I recall our university did it for a class of 10 people; the recordings were useful when I was preparing for an exam, even for the lectures I attended.

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I think you've missed the point.

It is not the responsibility of the instructor to provide ways for the student to learn without coming to class. But there will always be the possibility that one of the students has access to better external resources.

Consider if one of the students is the nephew of the textbook author (or, if you wrote the textbook, the sister of your recent PhD student who extended your work in significant ways after the book was written). It's entirely possible for that student to be mentored outside of class, and become more knowledgeable and practiced than any of the other students, even if the class is taught exceptionally well.

In such a case, you shouldn't consider the student's absence from your lecture a problem that needs to be solved. And a grading system that penalizes this student for poor attendance, rather than assigning a mark based on competence and ability to apply the material, would be a failure.

Some students will use outside resources. It's the instructor's responsibility to devise a grading system that properly evaluates the student's performance, but not to provide the outside resources. Spending your effort on alternative resources dilutes preparation for the class, which harms the students who take the traditional approach.

Focus on handouts, notes, and problem sets that aid in understanding your lectures, and any student who chooses a different approach also has to take responsibility for it.

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    +1 The students who learn best outside of class have developed or found their own learning methodology. All the lecturer needs to do is make sure that information presented in class is available in some form (e.g. lecture notes, or the textbook if you stick to that). – mhwombat Nov 22 '15 at 14:54
  • While I agree that the context you describe makes sense, my experience is that increasingly the view of students, and sometimes also of university staff, is that it is the responsibility of the instructor to cater for the students who don't come to lectures. – Jessica B Jan 3 '16 at 20:50
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    @JessicaB This is probably country-specific. In Finland, the general trend is the opposite. People used to say that university is not a school. Instructors provided pointers to textbooks and other material, and students were expected to take responsibility for learning. They could study in any way they liked, as only the results mattered. The situation has changed significantly in the last 10-15 years. Students are now often expected to attend the lectures and/or to study in the way the instructor prefers. – Jouni Sirén Jan 3 '16 at 23:04
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    I mostly agree, but I would say the lecturer should at least make clear what content would have to be looked at if you did not attend a lecture. There are many courses where you can look at all the slides and still not know what is important to look at more in-depth and what just a fun fact – lucidbrot Jan 2 '18 at 9:45
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Are we mere facilitators of glorifed correspondence courses?

Unfortunately in the current environment probably yes.

The “chalk and talk” or “sage on a stage” model of instruction is a minimalistic model. That does not mean it is ineffective or old-fashioned. We call it “traditional” because traditionally teachers have to cover a lot of material for a lot of students in a little time, with copious extracurricular responsibilities. Without additional faculty and programme support, what other choice do instructors have?

It is a method we select for efficiency. But if the benefits of being face-to-face are lost when the number of students in the class/lecture exceeds 10–30, then maybe what we have is not even a glorified correspondence course, but a stunted correspondence course. A single lecture is given on a fixed day at a fixed time in a fixed place with fixed seating capacity. In an online environment, any number of students can watch lecture videos in their own time, watch them again as many times as required, pause to check other sources, talk to friends or classmates, take coffee breaks and breathers, and move between effortlessly (depending on the quality of the technology) between different class materials and media.

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?

Ideally, yes. Practically, no.

Three people are responsible for a students’ learning: the student, the teacher, and the teaching institution. Without a institution that supports progressive approaches to teaching and learning, it’s impossible to truly tailor your student-teacher interaction times for individual students’ needs.

If I were a university academic (I am not, I am a secondary mathematics teacher), I imagine it would be wonderful if I could post amazing notes and videos publicly online. If others were doing the same, I wouldn’t even have to produce all the necessary resources myself. Then I could use lecture time as an open communication forum – probably using some kind of technology for students to submit talk items to an agenda. This is probably a bit too progressive (or prematurely progressive) for most tertiary institutions today.

P.S. I very much appreciate your approach to PPT!

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Personally I think there are arguments on both sides of this, and the controlling factor may be priorities/policies at your institution.

I would say your first priority is to give good lectures. It sounds like you are already doing that.

If you still have time, creating extra resources may be important for students who have good reasons for not being able to attend lectures (personally I don't consider being too busy to be a good reason, but I've found that more students than I would have expected have health problems, family emergencies, or similar), and also students with disabilities. To a greater or lesser degree you do have some responsibility for helping those students. If those resources also help students who can't be bothered, then that's the way it is.

However, making things too easy for students can actually be harmful. Students will need to learn to behave responsibly if they're going to get on well in the real world, and university is a good time to do so. Also, without digging up references now, there is research, in maths at least, showing that explaining things too well can result in less effective learning, presumably because there's no need to do the fighting with the material that builds a proper understanding of the underlying ideas.

What I've read suggests the best thing is to provide resources (within your time constraints), but to also make it clear to the students what the purpose of each resource is (and what it isn't). For example, in your shoes I would plan to tell the students right from the start that the lecture slides are not intended to act as a study guide for exams. The chances are they will still complain about it, but you can point to where you told them (write it down somewhere in the notes/syllabus). But you should also tell them what you do expect them to use as a study guide.

  • RE: creating extra resources may be important for students who have good reasons for not being able to attend lectures - I agree with what you're saying in theory, but I've found that, more often than not, students who habitually skip lectures tend to strike me as lackadaisical students with flippant attitudes, not the ones with disabilities or family hardships. More than once I've thought, "This student has lulled themselves into a mindset where they think they can coast by, skim over some slides at the last minute, and glean enough knowledge to get by." – J.R. Jan 4 '16 at 9:19
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    @J.R. I quite agree. My point is that there will be a small number of students who do have good reasons for needing the additional resources, and they deserve them. Having created resources for those who need them, it's hard to justify not also providing those same resources to the students who don't deserve it, even though it is potentially frustrating for the lecturer and detrimental to the students' learning. – Jessica B Jan 4 '16 at 16:52

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