I haven’t had the chance to blog much lately. It has been a very busy 2nd semester for me at WLU, with a number of big projects all happening at once. The biggest one was a book manuscript for Cambridge University Press that I had been working on since mid-2011 and finally completed at the end of February.
Now that the book and other projects are mostly behind me, I’ve been reflecting on my teaching this semester. In particular I’ve been thinking about attendance in my first year class. As is typically the case, attendance was high at the beginning of semester, but the number of empty seats has been growing over the weeks. It was especially low the Monday morning lecture after St. Patrick’s Day, which fell on a Sunday this year, and which WLU and U of Waterloo students celebrate by having a huge street party a couple blocks away from campus. Attendance has been better since then, but there are still a lot of students cutting class.
What does failure to attend class mean? Does it mean my teaching performance is poor? A problem is that professor evaluations are done by students who attend class, so there’s no feedback from non-attendees. I always had favourable evaluations from students when I was at the University of Ottawa and, for what it’s worth, on RateMyProfessors.com. I’ve only taught here at WLU for one previous semester, and have yet to see the results of my evaluations. It may be that I haven’t been performing as well here at WLU as I did at UO, or maybe WLU students’ expectations are different. I do try to do a good job at teaching, and put a good deal of thought into the content and delivery of my lectures. While there’s always room for improvement (and I do try to continually improve), I don’t think my overall teaching performance has changed a lot since I switched universities. I also don’t think UO students somehow had lower expectations of their profs than do WLU students.
If it is indeed a problem with my teaching performance, that’s something I can improve upon. But what if it is something else? In chats with colleagues I’ve been told that there’s nothing unique about attendance levels at my class, it’s apparently common. Students have always cut classes, and will continue to do so in the future. I even cut a few when I was in undergrad, but that was only occasionally. What I’m talking about here is a pattern of regular non-attendance. Part of what I’m seeing may be that the courses I’m teaching at WLU are all first-year environmental studies, and most of the students enrolled in my courses will major in some other field. It may be, therefore, that they’re still attending their compulsory classes but skipping their electives. Not an especially wise strategy over the long run – I always found electives were a great way to boost my GPA, and made sure I participated – but understandable if you get behind and something has to give. It may also be that my courses have lab/tutorial meetings where, although attendance is not compulsory, there’s a participation grade awarded. As a result, attendance at labs is high, so if you are going to skip something related to my course, it’s better to skip the lecture than the lab. Of course, this doesn’t explain the underlying question of why skip at all.
Should I award a participation grade to those who attend lectures? A professor I admire holds unannounced pop quizzes in randomly selected lectures. The questions are super simple, and there may only be one question on the quiz. So long as the student attempts a decent answer, a grade is awarded. His philosophy is that in introductory biology, which is what he teaches, knowledge is gained cumulatively and includes memorization and repetition. If a student skips classes, they won’t succeed, and so he gives them a strong incentive to attend. My philosophy to date has been different. The students are adults and if they do not wish to attend lecture, they are free to make that choice (so long as they don’t subsequently complain about their exam grades). I do my best to facilitate the learning of those who do attend class, and provide them skills that will be helpful for them whether or not they pursue further studies related to the environment. I do my best to give them their money’s worth. Tuition fees are approaching $3000 per semester. If a student wishes to spend that kind of money and not attend classes, that’s their business.
I explained this perspective to another colleague whose opinion I respect, and got a reply that’s made me rethink. She said, in a nutshell, that first year students are only 18 or 19 years old. Legally they’re adults, but in practice they’re still just learning their way in the world. Going to class and pursuing a degree is only one thing that they’re learning; they’re also learning how to socialize outside their high-school peer groups, how to be independent from their parents, how to negotiate an institution where they’re anonymous and everything is unfamiliar, and lots of other stuff as well. It’s easy for them to get caught up in those other things and let the attendance at class slide. They may not mean to make it a habit to cut class, but it becomes one. You (referring to me) are an expert in your field. They may not realize that. As far as they’re aware, you’re just another in a long line of teachers that has been put before them over the course of their lives. Some of those who make it a practice of skipping class may look back in hindsight and realize they missed out on a great opportunity. You should give participation grades to those who attend lectures. Even if they sit there looking bored, they’ll learn something, in spite of themselves. Maybe you’ll end up getting more of them enthusiastic about learning about the environment, which is the main reason you do what you do, right? In being ‘forced’ to show up, they may find they like it after all, and start attending gladly.
What she said makes a lot of sense. Perhaps I have been a bit of a cop-out with my ‘they’re adults, it’s their choice’ approach. I’m going to give this some thought over coming months, and make a decision before the next batch of first-years arrives in September. I’m open to suggestions if anyone cares to comment.