A Simple Strategy for Improving Student Attendance

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Monday, December 11, 2023
By Chandres Tejura
Photo by iStock/FatCamera
Queen Mary University of London increases student attendance, interaction, and engagement through a Student of the Month initiative.
  • If students skip their college classes, they suffer poor grades and miss out on social interactions that will help their career preparations.
  • To encourage attendance and participation, the School of Business and Management hands out prizes twice a month to selected students in an undergraduate module.
  • Prizewinners in each class represent a diverse mix of male, female, and international students who have made the most progress over the semester.

“Students don’t attend class!”

I’ve heard this exclamation dozens of times over the past decade at different academic conferences. I’ve heard the same complaint at my own institution, the School of Business and Management (SBM) at Queen Mary University of London. I’ve even aired the gripe myself.

The low attendance numbers are all the more puzzling given the fact that, in the past 10 years, fees have risen both for international and domestic students. Indeed, I doubt that any students would confess during the admission and application process that they intend to show up for only 50 percent of the classes for which they are paying significant amounts of money.

However, the rising cost of tuition might be one reason attendance is dropping, because more students need to work full- and part-time jobs to finance their studies. This is particularly true for students from lower-income households or students in parts of the world that offer less financial aid. In addition, technological progress means that lecture recordings are easily available, leading some students to think they won’t miss anything important if they aren’t present in the classroom.

But they’re wrong: The ramifications for poor attendance are overwhelmingly negative. In addition to suffering poor grades, students who skip class miss out on the social interaction they can enjoy when they go to lectures, seminars, workshops, and other events.

What can business schools do to encourage students to show up more often?

Focusing on Attendance

A potential solution sprang to my mind from an unexpected source: primary school. I have two children, one of whom has completed primary school and one who is still in situ. The school emphasizes the importance of good attendance every term and tracks numbers on a weekly basis. Students are applauded when they achieve 100 percent attendance over a term.

But if a child misses three days of school or has an attendance record that falls below 95 percent, someone at the school calls the parents or makes a home visit to ascertain why. Minor coughs, colds, or headaches are deemed insufficient reasons for absence.

When students skip class, they suffer poor grades and miss out on the social interaction they can enjoy when they go to lectures, seminars, workshops, and other events.

I have never heard of a university business school that places a similar emphasis on a student’s presence. While the student handbook makes it abundantly clear that attendance is important, it doesn’t always explain why. Nor does it explain that attendance alone is not enough.

What good does it do for students to be in the classroom if they are not interacting with their professors and their fellow students? Even if they’re present, how much will they learn if they haven’t completed the assigned reading or engaged with the learning material? How can schools improve both student attendance and performance?

Launching a New Initiative

In 2019, with the goal of answering that last question, SBM embarked on a trial initiative called Student of the Month (SotM). The program, which was unrolled within seminar classes in the year-one undergraduate module, has continued through today. Here’s how it works.

At the beginning of the semester, we let students know that tutors from each seminar group will choose one student per class for a participation award. To be eligible, students must have an attendance record of 80 percent or better; interact regularly with their tutors and fellow students, either by asking for help or giving it; and complete all of their reading and other assignments before class.

There are two checkpoints during the semester, the first between weeks two and five, and the second between weeks eight and 11. At the end of each checkpoint, one student from each seminar group receives a certificate and a gift. Because we have more than 500 students in 19 seminars, this means we are delivering a total of 38 prizes, half in October and half in December.

The gifts are Parker pens branded with the SBM logo. The cost for 100 pens was approximately 650 GBP (810 USD). We felt that the branded option not only was affordable, but also was something students would treasure for years.

Ensuring Diversity

We take steps to make sure that the award program is a value-added initiative that will appeal to all students in the undergraduate module. We emphasize three points to the teaching fellows who are delivering the seminars and choosing the recipients:

  • Do not simply choose the brightest students in class; look for those who have made the most progress.
  • Ensure diversity among the students who are selected, in terms of both gender and background.
  • Create a sense of belonging among international students by making sure they are encouraged and represented.

We also remind everyone that SotM is not a prize for the students who are achieving the highest marks in class. Neither is it used as a weighted component of the assessment process. Its purpose is to encourage students to attend class, interact with professors and peers, and engage with the learning material.

Assessing Results

Because this exercise is relatively new, it’s difficult to gauge the results. However, we have seen positive signs.

In 2022, attendance in these undergraduate seminar classes hovered around the 70 percent mark. This is a marked improvement from the school’s average rate of 50 percent. During informal discussions with students and the module leader, they all showed enthusiasm for the SotM initiative.

Student of the Month is not a prize for students achieving high marks. Its purpose is to encourage students to attend class, interact with professors and peers, and engage with the learning material.

In 2022, I conducted a short survey about the initiative, and 60 year-one students completed it. One of the questions said: “SotM is aimed at improving students’ attendance, interaction with lecturers and fellow students, and engagement with the learning material. Has it helped?” On a 5-point scale, with 1 being no and 5 being yes, the mean answer was 4.

In addition, student satisfaction with the undergraduate module was above average last year—4.2 on a 5-point scale—based on an end-of-semester evaluation. To ascertain to what extent this score has been impacted by SotM, we will need to collect further data to compare results with evaluations from previous years. Nonetheless, based on research about the correlations between student attendance and performance, we expect to see that SotM has improved both student achievement and satisfaction.

Upsides and Downsides

We have found a hidden benefit of the SotM scheme. Because the seminar tutors are constantly observing who is present and participating in class, they are getting to know their students better over the course of the semester.

Unfortunately, there’s also a downside: Tutors tend to be overly focused on the loudest voices in class. We help keep them on track by reminding them of the aims and objectives of the initiative: to encourage participation, interaction, and engagement.

Some schools also might consider the cost of the program to be a downside. To win approval from school or university management for the expenditure, I would recommend that administrators make the case for how such a program could remedy the problem of poor attendance, provide a reasonable budget for implementing the program, and follow up later with results from student surveys that indicate its effectiveness.

In my own observations, I have seen students demonstrate commendable progress over the opening weeks of the course after we put the SotM program in place. For this reason, I am convinced it is a value-added component of the year-one seminars. And I am reminded of why I wake up in the mornings, motivated to teach.

Chandres Tejura
Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor in Accounting, School of Business and Management, Queen Mary University of London
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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