Can students be bothered to come to campus?

For much of the year universities have been worried about students not coming to classes. Jim Dickinson reveals the results of new research on why that might be

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

One of the aspects of post-pandemic, cost of living crisis related campus life has been chatter for much of the academic year concerning attendance.

At the surface level this has manifested in unhelpful, knee jerk “gotcha” commentary of the ilk that suggests that students saying they wanted a return to in-person teaching were lying and/or to be ignored – an example for some of consumerist “students know best” nostrums when they usually don’t.

Others, as we covered back in December, have argued that motivations have changed – where the instrumental student in the neoliberal university will only do that which they need to do to get the grade they need.

Some are more curious – wondering whether students’ health, lifestyle or other factors might be causing the attendance drop off.

Maybe it’s the timetable. One new poll says that nearly eight in ten students (76 per cent) found it challenging to attend scheduled teaching – citing classes scheduled at inconvenient times of the day, not having enough time to get from one class to another or not being able to find the lecture room or seminar location.

The research also shows students believed universities could do more to help them secure a job and/or more hours of paid work, by advertising job vacancies (30 per cent), allowing students to attend classes remotely, having consistent timetabling of classes over the academic year and allowing students to decide what day they attend classes (each 27 per cent).

And more than more than seven in ten (72 per cent) students working part time said their timetable got in the way of securing more hours at work.

I’m sure that the polling is accurate, and there’s no doubt that timetabling makes things tricky, but you’ll forgive a raised eyebrow at findings urging better timetabling in research commissioned by a Timetabling software firm whose solution “optimises timetabling, resource booking and exam scheduling to deliver an enhanced student experience and help maximise resources and efficiencies for universities.”

Maybe there’s more to it than another piece of software. As part of our work with our partners at Cibyl and group of “pioneer” SUs – where we’ve been developing a new kind of monthly student survey designed to help SUs and their universities not just know students’ opinions, but understand and learn from their lives too – we thought we’d try to find out what’s been going on with this issue of attendance.

Results are from January and February, around 90 higher education providers are covered and the sample of around 1600 has been weighted for gender and age.

The skip they do is the double dutch

First some straightforward results. When we asked students about the last 5 hours of in-person teaching that they could have attended, we got the following back:

  • 1 Hour 7%
  • 2 Hours 7%
  • 3 Hours 11%
  • 4 Hours 14%
  • 5 Hours 61%

So on the basis that around 4 in 10 had skipped at least an hour, the question was then whether there were characteristics or contexts related to those numbers.

Our first hypothesis concerned burdens, where we also asked about round trip time to campus, and average hours worked in part time employment. Surprisingly, neither seemed to impact attendance hours – with the above split pretty much reproduced regardless.

We also looked at characteristics – neither ethnicity, gender nor domicile seemed to make much difference, and nor did the proxies we have in the survey for socio-economics and class.

So while it’s clearly not the whole story – what we had left was perceptions about the actual teaching, and there there was clear tale to tell:

How good are staff at explaining things and making the subject engaging?
How many of the last 5 hours of in-person teaching have you attended?Very goodGoodNot very goodNot at all good
1, 2 or 323%23%36%53%
4 or 577%77%64%47%

Maybe it has become too easy to identify external factors for poor attendance when it looks like students will battle all sorts of disadvantages to attend when the teaching is worth it.

While there was a link to belonging and community, this was not a question where the correlation was strong. But on other aspects of the teaching and learning experience, the link was clear:

How well have teaching staff supported your learning?
How many of the last 5 hours of in-person teaching have you attended?Very goodGoodNot very goodNot at all good
1, 2 or 317%22%40%63%
4 or 583%78%60%38%

And we found a clear link between attendance and students feeling that they were performing to the best of their ability on their course:

How many of the last 5 hours of in-person teaching have you attended?
I am performing to the best of my ability on this course1, 2 or 34 or 5
Not really28%17%
Not at all21%4%

The above is not to say that good teachers should automatically be disheartened if they’ve seen poor attendance, though.

As I say, the raw “distance from campus” and “hours in part time work” factors weren’t biggies. But when we asked students if they were able to devote “most of their time to being a student” – which did differ by characteristics and proxies for socio-economics – that turned out to be a factor too:

I am able to devote most of my time to being a student
How many of the last 5 hours of in-person teaching have you attended?TotallyMostlyNot reallyNot at all
1, 2 or 317%22%40%63%
4 or 583%78%60%38%

This suggests that as well as teaching quality, it’s the complexities of students’ lives and the extent to which they are burdened by other responsibilities that is impacting their attendance.

And that was borne out in the qualitative responses too.

I got reasons

Here we gave the AI the free text responses on why students hadn’t been attending – and the ranking we got was follows:

  1. Illness/Health issues (both physical and mental – e.g., feeling ill, migraine, mental health, depression)
  2. Other course demands (e.g., busy with coursework, revision, focusing on assignments, deadlines, timetable clashes)
  3. Convenience/Online availability (e.g., online easier, classes accessible online, watching recordings)
  4. Personal circumstances (e.g., family issues, relocation, finances, childcare, bereavement)
  5. Lack of motivation/Interest (e.g., no interest, lack of passion, dissatisfaction with course)
  6. Course-related issues (e.g., lecture quality, relevance to assessments, poor teaching)
  7. Travel/Commuting (e.g., distance, train strikes, weather, expense)
  8. Anxiety/Stress (e.g., nervousness in seminars, social anxiety, stress from workload)
  9. External commitments (e.g., work, meetings, personal appointments)
  10. Timetabling (e.g., early morning classes, back-to-back classes)

We know from the research on the “missing million” from the workplace that health post-pandemic is a major factor in the vacancy rate. It hadn’t ought to surprise us – given what we knew about student mental health before Covid and what several studies have told us about its long-term impact – that health is having a direct impact on attendance at university too.

It points to a real need for the sector, the Department for Education and the Department for Health to be collaborating properly on a dedicated student health strategy.

Other course demands” are perhaps inevitable – particularly if we think about the period when students would have reflecting on – although proponents of block teaching would remind us that these types of uncoordinated pinch points of overlapping academic demands on students are managed much better when a student is only doing one module at a time.

Wild peaks and troughs in study demands might be familiar, but they not be helpful, and may not be inevitable.

In that Convenience/Online availability category, we get a clear sense that students are weighing up rather than just being lazy- the bulk of comments in that category compare the hour of teaching they anticipate with some other aspect of their life:

Didn’t feel it was worth travelling in for and I had other work to catch up on

I have a lot of workshops I find overwhelming so on the days I don’t have them I prefer to stay home and do my lectures there. Also sometimes it depends on the lecturers. Some of them just read from the slide and aren’t very engaging so I don’t find it worthwhile going in especially with the travel expense.

I commute and the class timings were very inconvenient for me

Then of the others, we absolutely shouldn’t ignore out the travel/commuting aspects of the feedback:

It was later in the day and would have been super dark and cold and overall just not very safe

I had to relocate back to my family home due to finances and mental health concerns, therefore I couldn’t involve myself in in-person seminars.

Train strikes

Depressed, living far from campus and having to walk for so long in the cold, I chose to watch the recordings instead

Too expensive to commute all the time so do the work at home

There were train strikes, so i have to get. home before they happened. this meant i missed 2 lectures

Too early to get to campus for a 9am (buses aren’t very good)

A weigh to go

There are those – including students themselves – who call for more intensive timetables and flexible deadlines that enable students to balance the burdens that they face.

Doing so might just be the thing that keeps a student from dropping out, and may be necessary in an age where government has given up on full-time students being able to be so.

But we should not confuse a call for those kinds of changes with a preference for them. We are very much in least worst option territory here, and if we bend too much we risk creating a new normal that nobody wants, and risk sending a signal that we think that we know what students want, when what we actually have spotted is what they, for time being anyway, need.

Put it all together and we see a complex picture – not of students that are lazily deciding not to come in, and not of students choosing to abandon attendance when the teaching is good.

Instead we see an unhealthy, busy and burdened student body – weighing up whether coming to campus is a better bet than working a shift, getting some rest, looking after their family or completing an assignment.

They may, in the process, be losing out on support from other students, the camaraderie of community or the opportunity to take part in campus life. But contrary to some commentary, whatever else they feel about non-attendance, they are very much bothered about it.

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9 responses to “Can students be bothered to come to campus?

  1. Very interesting pointers, the lesson I take away is that institutions need to identify and better understand which of the factors above are having the most significant negative impact on students in their institutional context. Subscribe to Cibyl, other market research agencies may be available…

  2. I do not understand the percentages you quote and could not link the numbers to the written words.

    How can you have
    “How good are staff at explaining things and making the subject engaging?
    hours Very good Good Not very good Not at all good
    1, 2 or 3 23% 23% 36% 53%
    4 or 5 77% 77% 64% 47%

    If for the second line 77% are saying good or very good, how can 64% say not very good and 47% not at all good?

  3. Of the students who say that staff are “very good” at explaining things and making the subject engaging, 23% have attended 1, 2 or 3 hours of teaching out of the last 5, etc

  4. Very good article with focused points ie teaching quality but not losing the holistic component. Perception of good and engaging fun teaching has always been a key determinant of student attendance. Some academics just don’t want to believe it. Would you attend 1 hr lecture when you just sit there with 50 slides thrown at you at speed?! Friendly approachable lecturers are pivotal to belonging and engagement.

  5. Are we really surprised? We should avoid this tone of how dare students skip classes with such brilliant and engaging lecturers. The truth is that lecturers do not put effective teaching or learners support at the top of their priority list, and focus on their own research, which gives them salary increases and recognition. There is incentive incompatibility, and only fundamental university reform will change this.

  6. Re, “This suggests that as well as teaching quality, it’s the complexities of students’ lives and the extent to which they are burdened by other responsibilities that is impacting their attendance.” Aren’t all these reasons very very similar to what we know about factors that impact upon non-continuation…? Universities could be wondering if that’s a false flag or red flag…

  7. An interesting article. One point not made is that if there is any causation in the figures it’s not necessary clear which direction it goes in. Students may not be attending classes because they don’t feel supported, but at the same time students who aren’t engaging with a course may be less aware of available support options, for example.

  8. Insightful article! I’d be interested to know more about the AI-based methodology with the qual. data, and the prompts used to generate and then prioritise the themes.

  9. No research at all is needed on this issue. All you need is common sense. If you give anybody the opportunity to watch/participate online instead of physically attending (whether its a lecture, a work seminar, a conference, a trade exhibition, a museum exhibition or a work meeting) then a lot of us will take it. And this is because online is a fairly good representation of the reality; so when balanced against the cost and time and general hassle of physical attendance, then sometimes we are bound to justify to ourselves that on balance, online participation is the best bet. This is quite a sad fact for humanity as before too long the balance is going to more and more be tipping towards taking the “fairly good” online option over the physical experience and we will be spending more and more time in self-imposed screen isolation .

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