An unexpected consequence of the student-centered classroom

You have reduced your lecture time to short events that are bookended by student activities and discussions. Most class sessions include group work like discussions, debates, collaborative problem-solving. Sometimes the students lead class, serving the role of teacher.

I’ve noticed an important consequence of all the student-centered formats. Class attendance is crucial, most often required. Gone are the days when a student’s presence in the back of class just didn’t matter to the workings of the class.

You need your students to come to class to make the activity work. For example, if you are using the jigsaw discussion format, each individual has a role in the class. If you have one or two students missing, the structure needs serious rearranging. If you have students taking turns presenting to others and one doesn’t show up, it’s hard to re-structure things last minute. And, it sure doesn’t seem fair to the students who are there to have someone just not show up and participate.

Increasingly, as class formats become more student-centered, attendance is becoming “mandatory.” Required attendance has existed for laboratory sessions for a long time, but required class attendance has increased in more recent years. If you require attendance, then you have to develop a policy for what happens if a student chooses not to come to class. Then, you have to enforce that policy.

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When I was in college, the lecture was a major format for most classes I took. Even though the class size (except for introductory science classes) was pretty small, I still felt like it was okay to skip class. I skipped class quite a bit my first couple of years (to my detriment, that’s for sure- I eventually wised up). The only one I hurt seemed to be me.

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Nowadays, if a student skips my class there are consequences. The student receives a zero for class participation. If more than just a few unexcused absences happen, the student can fail the course. These harsh rules are pretty common. But, the student’s absence also hurts the other students. Group sizes become awkward and the other students definitely notice when a classmate doesn’t show up.

How do we really feel about class attendance? Sure, it’s important to be in class. But, on the other hand, if we are putting the “teaching” more into the hands of our students, shouldn’t we also put it more into their hands for their learning as well? If students can skip class and still master the material, shouldn’t that be okay? Instead, a bright student who masters the material, but who missed class because of things like job interviews, or because of juggling other academic work, or because he/she wanted to attend a political rally, might end up with a substantially reduced grade. In these cases where the absences were essentially personal choices, as opposed to illness or family emergency, the grade doesn’t reflect actual learning/mastery, but reflects punitive adjustments from having not come to class.

Not sure how I feel about required class attendance.

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