MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVIII No. 4
March/April 2006
Diversification of a University Faculty: Observations on Hiring Women Faculty
in the Schools of Science and Engineering
at MIT
Squeezing Out the Graduate Students
When Disasters Strike!
Faculty Roles in Administration:
A Critical Part of Institute Governance
Why Students Don't Attend Class
Life in the Lowlands
Provost Announces Government Inquiry
Into Lincoln Lab Misconduct Charges
International Students at MIT Post 9/11
A Failure in Communications
Peer Support: Taking Advice from a Friend
Students Need Dental Insurance Plan
International Students at MIT:
Top 10 International Countries Over 10 Years
International Students at MIT:
Top 10 International Countries (2005)
Printable Version

Teach Talk

Why Students Don't Attend Class

Tom Clay and Lori Breslow

Are you dissatisfied with the attendance at your lectures? Do you wonder what your students are thinking when they skip your lectures? If you answered “yes” to either question, you’ll be interested in what 47 undergraduates said in response to a recent email survey on their attitudes toward attending lectures. This article addresses the results of that survey, including (1) the students’ general attitudes about lecture attendance; (2) the importance of various factors they consider in deciding whether to attend; (3) the thinking process they use to make those decisions; and (4) their recommendations for ensuring high attendance rates. Click here to learn about the survey.

Students’ General Attitudes about Attending Lectures

We found that students’ attitudes toward lectures vary widely, from “I never miss them” to “they’re worthless,” with most responses falling somewhere in between. Most students reported they try to attend lectures, and usually do, missing them from time to time as the result of academic, extracurricular, or personal conflicts.

When asked to estimate what percentage of their lectures they attend, about two of every three respondents (67%) estimated that they attend at least 90%, three of every four (76%) that they attend at least 75%, and more than nine in 10 (93%) that they attend at least half.

Factors in Decision Making and their Importance

The survey results indicate that the most important factor in deciding whether to attend lectures is the lectures’ quality and clarity, followed by conflicting deadlines for other classes, the professor’s use of relevant examples, and the professor’s ability to engage and entertain the students.

Attendance Factors
Relative Importance of Factors Used to Decide on Lecture Attendance
(click on image to enlarge)

The figure lists various factors from the highest mean importance score to the lowest (based on a five-point scale in which 1 was “not at all important” and 5 was “extremely important”).

In creating the list of factors we asked students to rate, we tried to adopt their viewpoint, but we discovered from their write-in comments that we had not anticipated the following:

  • Whether the students expect to learn from the lecture – If students do not expect to learn from lectures, they are less likely to attend. “The absolute most important thing,” according to one student, “is if I feel that I am learning something in the class.” A second student echoed this opinion, adding, “If I'm not learning, why go?”
  • The difficulty of the class and the material – Students say that if they don’t find the material challenging or if they are doing well in the class, they may decide to allot time they would otherwise spend on the class – including attending lectures – to classes they find more challenging, especially at the busiest and most pressure-filled times of the semester.
  • How the lectures relate to psets and tests – Students felt that the lectures should be aligned with what appears in the homework and on tests. As one student put it, “[H]aving the lectures directly relate to the problem sets and test materials is probably the most motivating factor in going to lecture. Because that way, what is said in class can be processed in doing the problem sets and I can see that they are both useful and applicable.”
  • How interested the students are in the subject matter – Not surprisingly, students are more likely to attend classes they find interesting. At first glance, this may appear to be beyond the professor’s control, but at least one student would disagree: "What matters most for me is how much I like the class. Sometimes a class is good because it is simply an interesting topic. However, an otherwise boring subject can become an interesting class if the lecturer is able to present the course material in such a clear and cogent manner that students cannot help finding it interesting. Generally I have found that if a lecturer genuinely finds the material he/she is teaching [interesting], and he/she is able to connect with students through lectures (present material in a way that makes sense), then he/she doesn’t have trouble making the material interesting for students."
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The Decision-making Process

The decision-making factors are discussed above as though each influences the students independently of the others, but that is not the case. To the contrary, the write-in comments make it clear that students typically use a very practical decision-making process that considers a range of factors in combination, comparing the advantages and disadvantages of lecture attendance, calculating the impact on their workload, and attempting to optimize their use of time. While students may or may not be deliberate or systematic in making their decisions, they do explain them this way in retrospect. In light of this process, the mean importance scores discussed above may best be seen as reflecting, at an aggregate level, the weights the students place on the various factors in their overall decision-making “calculations.”

Recommendations for Ensuring High Attendance Rates

A number of students offered observations on how professors can ensure high attendance rates. Some of those methods – pop quizzes, taking attendance, and giving away test questions in class – force students to attend. Students referred to these methods as “cheap” and “mean,” the implication being that a professor using them might achieve high attendance rates, but would not be earning them. Other methods, they said, make the students want to attend. How can a professor do this? The easy answer is to say that he or she should lecture well and clearly, use relevant examples, engage the students, schedule classes in the afternoon, use a lot of demos, and align the lectures with the psets and tests. This is sound advice as far as it goes, but is of only limited usefulness, since it does not suggest how these things can be done. Fortunately, some of the same students who provided the other insights in this article also offered specific advice on how to give great lectures. Their suggestions include:

  • “It's a real pleasure to be able to walk out [of class] … and know what happened, and how it all fits together .… One way to do this might be to finish the lectures by stepping down from the position of professor, and taking the view of the students, to try to talk more on a level with them. As a ‘student’ [the professor] could run through everything he had ‘learned’ in that class, describing it in broad, quick strokes. Then the students could leave, confidently knowing that what seemed so new and overwhelming just a few [minutes] ago could be explained very simply.”
  • “[T]o make the lectures useful, the new knowledge must be integrated into what we already know. … [It] must be continually related back to known material, so the students can make the small connections that keep the new facts/concepts tied into the existing knowledge structure. This can simply be done by verbally giving the equivalent of directions after every new small concept is … introduced. … Simply add, so this equation came from ___ … and tells us ___. …

“The most important thing to come away from a lecture with is the overall structure of the new knowledge gained – in essence how all the parts fit together. … [W]ithout this overall super-structure …, the [information is] no more than disjointed facts that seem pointless and frustrating. [T]hen the lectures become both meaningless and frustrating and people stop going.”

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