Physical Presence, Part 1

Last month, the Chronicle of Higher Education published “Why Students Are Skipping Class So Often, and How to Bring Them Back,” by Carol Holstead, a University of Kansas journalism professor. The piece is paywalled, so here is a short summary for those without a subscription:

You, again?
  • During the spring 2022 semester, Holstead noticed a very high rate of absenteeism in her courses. She surveyed 245 or her students about their reasons for not attending class; 175 responded.
  • Over a third of the respondents said they regularly did not attend class. Common reasons included physical illness, depression, attendance wasn’t required, boredom, tiredness, and conflicting family care commitments.
  • Students said they regularly came to class if they felt a connection to other students or the professor, if they felt it improved their mental health, or if attendance was required.

I thought this was an interesting exercise in gathering data, so I’ll be administering a similar survey in the coming week. I’ll report the results in my next post.

But I want to point out two underlying assumptions to this kind of survey, and my objection to her recommendation that faculty require students attend class. The assumptions are that learning is a function of time spent in the physical classroom and that students are in college mainly to learn. I’ve written before about why the first assumption should be discarded. I’ll belabor that point a bit more — always happy to beat a dead horse that people keep trying to ride — by connecting it to the pandemic.

This semester, and probably for the foreseeable future, students who test positive for Covid are required by my university to quarantine for at least five days. In practical terms, this means missing up to a week’s worth of classes. Faculty are expected to accommodate these students accordingly, and right so, in my opinion. But from my perspective, such a policy is long overdue, and it shouldn’t be limited to the latest communicable virus. Penalizing students when they are absent from class not only punishes those who are infected with contagious diseases, but also commuter students who decide not to drive to campus on icy roads during a snowstorm, and students with ailments that are periodically physically debilitating. The list goes on. It’s an accessibility and equity issue.

The credit hour is the quantum building block of college curricula. It is a proxy for how long a student sits in a classroom chair. As Matt Reed pointed out recently in Inside Higher Ed, this measurement exists because it meets the bureaucratic needs of the institutions that use it. It was never a valid or reliable indicator of learning. Maybe it’s time for a different measurement.

As for the faulty logic behind the second assumption, I’ll discuss that in an upcoming post.