Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Why don't they come to the lecture?

Shamim Khan
Department of Information Technology
Murdoch University

Introduction

None of us expects to deliver lectures to a packed lecture theatre except perhaps during the very first lecture of the semester, but everyone would agree that a well-attended lecture is something we all wish for. Attendance in lectures may be indicative of a number of factors related to the unit being taught, but good attendance is probably the most important and direct reflection of the students' perception of the effectiveness and usefulness of the lectures delivered. The actual level of attendance probably varies across disciplines as well as class sizes. This report is not based on any organised investigation along those lines, rather it is the result of observations in two specific disciplines taught at Murdoch University - Computer Science and Information Systems. Experience in these two disciplines shows that a high percentage of students choose to stay away from lectures, giving rise to concerns about the utility of this particular mode of teaching. This report is the result of an early attempt to address this concern by raising questions rather than providing answers.

Experience in Information Technology (IT)

Computer Science and Information Systems are two Programmes of study in the Department of Information Technology at Murdoch University. Study units in these Programmes have a mix of theoretical and practical assessment components. The practical components are in the form of laboratory exercises, assignments and project work and may amount to as much as 40% of the overall assessment. Student numbers in individual undergraduate study units range from around 25 to over 350.

Attendance in general has been found to range from about 75% for smaller units to as low as 30% for larger units. A typical average attendance figure over the semester for a small to medium sized class (up to around 100 students) has been found to be around 50% to 60%. Attendance tends to drop off after the beginning of the semester. There are further noticeable fluctuations during the semester such as during weeks when assignments are due or before mid-semester tests. Lectures scheduled early in the morning or late in the afternoon also appear to have lower attendance.

Are lectures really important?

Lectures are the lecturer's principal means for introducing students to a subject, creating interest, clarifying issues and providing guidance on learning the subject matter, or at least that is how this mode of teaching has been viewed traditionally. For most students, the lecture theatre is also the opportunity to come into formal contact with the lecturer on a regular basis. Preparing and delivering lectures also take up most of the lecturer's time devoted to teaching. Providing for the infrastructure and backup to support this method of teaching costs the university a considerable amount of resource. Can we justify all this investment in time, effort and money?

In a survey involving students from two IT units, one with an enrolment figure of around 100 and the other with about 300 students, 36% of the students agreed to the suggestion that lectures are not essential if text books, course notes and tutorials are good. Have we been giving lectures too much emphasis? In recent years, other modes of teaching such as tutorials and laboratory sessions have suffered due to increasing budgetary constraints. Tutorial sizes have been increased and tutorials hours have been reduced as part of the belt tightening exercise while lecture theatres are becoming better equipped than ever before. There is of course no doubt about the central role of lectures in the learning process but do we have the right balance? If lectures are essential as most us would believe, how can we ensure full use of them is being made by the students?

What causes poor attendance?

The obvious first answer to the question above is - poor lectures. There is no denying the fact that a well-prepared and well-delivered lecture that students find interesting, easy to follow and relevant will always attract them. But the reason this whole issue has been raised is the opinion that lack of attendance has more to it than just the quality of the lectures which no doubt remains one of the most important factors. Evidence for this could be seen in the surveys carried out on the two IT units mentioned above. While quality of lectures was given as the reason for low attendance by about half of the students in one of the two units, only about 9% of students surveyed in the other unit thought students were staying away because of the lectures were not good enough.

It had been observed in the past that most students spend almost all of their time during the lecture copying whatever is displayed on the lecture transparencies. One undesirable consequence of this is that the student gets to spend very little time in listening to what is being said by the lecturer and misses out on the all important extra explanations and clarifications provided by the lecturer. These days, students have access to copies of lecture transparencies and/or lecture notes ahead of the lectures for most of the units. The effect of this on lecture attendance has been noticeable. There seems to be general agreement among lecturers that providing copies of the lecture notes to the students by including them in the unit Study Guide or by making them available through the computer network lowers lecture attendance. From the feedback on the two units mentioned above, student opinions on this seem to vary depending on the actual unit in question. In the more intellectually challenging unit (Principles of Computer Science) where a lot of explanation of the concepts and techniques were given during the lecture, only a minority (about 18%) of the students agreed to this notion. With the other unit (Introduction to Information Technology), where breadth of coverage rather than depth was the main characteristic of the lectures, about 59% of the students thought attendance was affected because of the availability of lecture notes in the Study Guide. Regardless of the expressed opinion, most students thought it was good idea to make lecture notes available in advance.

One other reason for low attendance given by students was lack of time due to study workload and other commitments. The figures for the two units surveyed were 20% and 42%. There seems to be a common perception among colleagues that students are not really interested in learning, they just want to know what and how much they need to study to pass the final exam and then to be left alone to do the practical work they must do to meet the unit requirement. This may be a rather sweeping statement to make, but to what extent is this true?

One suggestion put to the students was that those who do not attend the lectures just did not care, especially as attending lectures was not a requirement for successfully completing the unit. Surprisingly about half the students agreed to this idea as a possible explanation for students missing lectures. Once again, this has to be considered carefully in light of the fact that most of the students, if not all, were not speaking for themselves - as one student commented during the survey: "Why ask us, we are the ones who do come to the lecture!"

What can we do?

Improving the quality of lectures to make them attractive to students and how to do it has been the topic of much research and discussion in various forums for a long time. What are the other options open to encourage greater attendance in lectures? To start with, what can we do to underscore the significance of lectures in the learning process? After all, there is little chance of success in this unless the students themselves think it is important to attend lectures.

Are our students overworked? In an area like information technology, new advances are constantly being made resulting in the addition of new material on top of the basic principles which have to be learned. While this may not necessarily be true for every discipline, reduction of course workload and a review of the assessment procedures may be worth looking into.

We certainly provide a lot more in the way of handouts or notes on-line than in the past. Some lecturers provide notes with essential sections missing. The students have to attend lectures to fill in these gaps. Is this a reasonable approach? Perhaps there are better ways of encouraging student to attend lectures.

In conclusion

Despite the tremendous amount of resources being spent after this particular mode of teaching, attendance in lectures has been a problem in our experience. As stated at the outset, this report has raised more questions than answers on this vexed issue. It would be of great interest and usefulness to find out how much of a problem non-attendance in lectures is across the disciplines and how others may be facing and possibly dealing with it.

If we cannot make the students come to the lecture, should we be looking at alternative methods of teaching?

The entire discussion presented is based on the premise that attending lectures is essential for the students and that we should make every effort to ensure maximum possible attendance. If the students disagree on this, who is right? University education has now become a user-pay system. If the students do not turn up to lectures, do we say that it is their option to select the mode of study that they prefer, eg. lectures, working from text books or on-line course materials, multimedia teaching tools etc?

Should we be doing (or not doing) things to make the students attend the lectures? - For example, not providing exhaustive lecture notes.

I am finding the same. Its probably going to get worse for me because they don't have an exam and it is getting harder to persuade the students that the lectures are essential for how they complete the projects. All they want to do is be left alone to do the programming!

I have found the same thing over 7 years at ECU, so it is not specific to Murdoch.

Haven't a clue how you solve the problem - Eve

From memory this seems similar to my experience with M104 last year. I don't know what percentage but certainly attendance was less than full enrolment. I had some 8.30am lectures (particularly Mondays) where it would have been less than half.

To follow up your observation - what should/can be done about it if anything?
Paddy

How about attendance at practical sessions? Assuming that they need to practice to be able to program, are they still attending Pracs? A reason why I started allocating marks for pracs was to encourage them to come!

Paddy

I'd guess at around 50% attending my unit (M226). About 10-25% have clashes for at least one. Even at start of semester, 75% was about average. Last semester M326 was around 30-40%.
Paula

I would get maybe 40 out of 70 on a good day at this time of semester. On a bad day maybe 30. There would be about 15-20 people who I have never seen in a lecture since day 1. Mike will tell you that you need to do quizzes (assessable) to make them turn up!

Please cite as: Khan, S. (1997). Why don't they come to the lecture? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p163-165. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/khan.html


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