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Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Why Do Students Skip Lectures?

There's an interesting article on student attendance at lectures in the latest issue of BAMBED (Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education): Engagement of students with lectures in biochemistry and pharmacology.

The authors surveyed students to find out why they skipped classes at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. The answers they give are not surprising, especially for the 8AM biochemistry lecture. However, the really interesting finding is that there's hardly any correlation between the number of lectures attended and a student's final grade in the course. The slight difference could easily be due to motivation and not ability to master the material.

This is a common finding in studies like this and the paper provides several references to the pedagogical literature. (In fairness, there are some studies that show a more significant correlation—students who skip classes get a much lower grade than those who attend.)

Here's my take on the issue of skipping lectures. If the lecture doesn't provide any value in terms of your final grade then why waste time going to class? Why bother giving the lecture?

I'd like to see a study comparing attendance in a course that has adopted student-centered learning where the class time is devoted to explaining difficult concepts and helping students think critically. The exams and assignments would have to measure whether students have mastered the concepts and learned how to think critically about the subject. In an ideal course, a student shouldn't be able to pass if they've skipped most of the lectures. What would attendance look like in such a course?

If students are skipping your lectures and still getting good grades then it's time to change your course. If you can't, or won't, do that then just cancel the lectures. You could record them and put them online if it makes you feel better. Your students are clearly not getting anything of value from sitting in the classroom.


  1. If students are skipping your lectures and still getting good grades then it's time to change your course.

    I don't agree with that.

    The best students are self-motivated and capable of self-learning. They will use your lectures as a guide, but not as the main source from which they learn. Skipping some of the lectures does not much affect those students.

    1. Most of us have all sorts of misconceptions about a subject. "Self-learning" does nothing to remove those misconceptions because we just skip over the parts that conflict and emphasize the parts that agree with our misconceptions. This is a well-established pedagogical fact.

      The best courses are designed to address and correct those misconceptions and the best way to do this is through discussion and debate in the classroom.

      I don't think I've ever me a student who "self-learned" the correct concepts of evolution or the correct concepts of biochemical pathways in spite of the fact they had a textbook.

      Learning how to think critically is a two-way process. Students learn from the instructor and they learn how to express themselves and get feedback on their comments from other students. (Instructors also learn from students, as I re-discover every year.)

      You have to practice what you've learned in front of others in order to really assimilate it. Groups always learn better that "self-learners" if given the right guidance.

      You must be thinking of "memorize and regurgitate" types of courses.

  2. So why DO students attend (those who do)? Do they think they're getting something from attendance, or do they feel obligated to attend?

    I'm surprised that attendance does not correlate with test scores, if only because lectures tend to provide guidance as to what will be on the test (and professors will sometimes make explicit comments about what will be on the test).

  3. I attended an Ivy League Reject school (also on the list of the "New Ivy League"). When I took Chem 101 (as a sophomore - a vast majority of the students were 1st semester freshmen) there were two class sessions - one held 400+ students, the other over 200.

    After a lackadaisical freshman year, I was determined to become a better student. I purchased all the required and recommended books, promised to attend classes and recitations regularly, and study dutifully. After two weeks, I decided that 2 out of 3 ain't bad.

    One of the required book purchases was a copy of the Chem 101 professor's notes. I took the binder with those notes with me to class along with a highlighter to make sure I noted The Important Stuff! During Class#1 I noticed a pattern emerging - every single chalk-stroke the professor made on the board was already in those purchased notes. Even comments made by the professor about diagrams were in there. The fine doctor had taught the course for so long that he knew what we not only should know, but what we would note as being important.

    I stuck around for 2 more classes, then did not attend another. Recitations and labs? I think I missed all of 2 over the entire semester.

    I found similarities to that class in other courses I took over the last 3 years of school, and based my attendance on whether the class lecture was REALLY needed or not. I must have done OK as I made Dean's list 4 of the last 5 semesters...

    (BTW - this was waaaaaay back in the early 80s)

  4. "I'd like to see a study comparing attendance in a course that has adopted student-centered learning where the class time is devoted to explaining difficult concepts and helping students think critically"

    I've always thought this was the ideal way to teach. As a TA in grad school I even created extra-credit take home assignments of 'thinking questions'. I think the reason more faculty dont teach this way is because its very very difficult. It requires a lot of preparation, thought and some imagination to come up with challenging but solvable problems based on the material. Its just much easier to spend an hour or 2 reviewing powerpoint slides before lecture.


  5. I'd often skip class when I felt that I could learn just as easily by reading the text book- this was pretty common in first and second year courses. I have a strong dislike for being crammed into a lecture hall filled with loud, smelly undergrads, early in the morning.

  6. I tend to skip class. But that's not because I'm not interested in the material or what the professor has to say. It's more to do with the fact that the universities like to schedule classes at ungodly hours of the morning (read: before 2pm).

  7. From my ancient recollections, the most valuable parts of lectures wandered off into territory that was never reflected in exams. These wanderings have, however, been more valuable to me than those parts that were targeted in exams.

  8. Never went to university but too me its just continued high school.
    Unless the teacher says something of insight or knowledge thats not in the textbooks then who needs the teacher?
    Teachers were for the old days when they mattered!
    When the material was too difficult for a student to learn by themselves.
    Blame the superior textbooks of our times!!
    Or accept these profs are not bringing greater personal skills that are not in textbooks.!
    They might have such abilities and the kids don't notice.

    I don't see the need for profs or lectures for most university education.
    The kids are smart enough and have the material before their eyes.

    There is much problems in higher education and the nations are being held back but its not because of skipping lectures.
    I've known smart kids who say its a waste of time listening to a prof!
    It's the dumber kids who need this tutoring .
    I do believe here and there the prof could make the student a better thinker regardless of how smart they are.
    Yet these days its rare.
    possibly in the old days it was more common.

    1. Hmmmm. I expect you have low regard for keen attention to spelling and grammar, under the belief that they are not important to people understanding what you mean. Many feel that way. They seem to have missed the point though, which is to be sufficiently critical about what you mean in the first place. Awareness of nuances in meaning opens the door to nuances in understanding.

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  10. Always good to hear the opinion of a person who never got a university education on the topic of university education and pedagogy. What could be more valuable than a completely uninformed opinion?

  11. Larry: "If the lecture doesn't provide any value in terms of your final grade then why waste time going to class?"; "If students are skipping your lectures and still getting good grades then it's time to change your course."

    Do you really think that grades are the only way to measure of the value of attending lectures? And that if students can get a good grade without attending lectures, it means you should change the course rather than the way it is graded?

  12. I rarely went to lecures when I was an going for my Bach. Scient.

    The lectures where in large auditoriums with hundreds of students attending, and most of the lectures were just regurgitation of the printed notes. The notes were the totality of the curriculum.

    There were a few exceptions, som lectures were true artists in delivering the material, and on or two actually added to what was in the notes.

    In Graduate school the courses I took, were with far less students attending, perhaps 30 at the most, and as low as 8. Generally this meant that there were no lectures given, class was more like the tutor led instruction in undergraduate work.

    The material was a wealth of artivcles and books, and no pre-prepared notes, and the focus was on understanding the material and not on "will this be on the test".

    For the record my graduate classes were in computer science, so not in the real sciences.