Last week, Deakin University Associate Professor Adrian Raftery set LinkedIn alight (as much as LinkedIn can be set alight…) by posting a photo of the empty classroom he was faced in the first class of his second semester Estate Planning unit (pictured above). Raftery stated that, ‘After being pumped up to give a great class, I am deflated that they couldn’t bother their arse to show up.’ For academics, in particular those in Law, this is a familiar feeling.
Studies are consistently showing that attendance rates in tertiary classes, and especially lectures, are falling at dramatic rates. The widespread nature of the problem is reflected by Raftery’s post going viral, with hundreds of comments and suggestions provided by academics and other interested parties, and the The Sydney Morning Herald running a piece on the issue. While recent studies of attendance at Law classes can be hard to come by, an examination of two fifth-year Law units taught at Griffith University in 2007 found average lecture attendance rates of 40% and 27% respectively. There is no doubt whatsoever that attendance rates are now, ten years later, far worse.
A range of causes have been proffered for this: students are lazy, students don’t care, students only watch things that are online, students want the easy route, students just spend their time eating smashed avo and sipping lattés (that last one is used for a lot of things). Interestingly, it is always students that appear to be the focus and students who are attributed blame. Indeed in his original post, Raftery stated, ‘I don’t know about you but my generation always showed up for lectures and seminars, particularly at the start of semester.’
This avoids the real problem, though. There is no doubt that students have changed – as they have throughout history. There is also little doubt that the changes occurring in this current generation of students are perhaps the most drastic ever witnessed in higher education. The phenomenal breadth of the internet means that students can, within seconds, access information at their fingertips. Social media has created a generation that want to be constantly engaged and connected, and that want to find new ways of expressing their creativity. Globalisation and new forms of technology mean that students now change jobs and careers more than ever before and are increasingly mobile across industries and locations. All of this is terrifying for Law Schools, who have largely built their reputation on producing excellent local graduate lawyers who all follow similar structured, traditional paths. But students changing is not the problem. The problem is teachers not changing.
As teachers, there is little we can do to stop this tide. Yes we can refuse to record lectures. Yes we can attach marks to attendance. Yes we can even use facial recognition technology to determine attendance and engagement (seriously?). All of these measures would probably increase attendance, and indeed most of the comments on Raftery’s post suggested the need to simply force students to attend. But of and by themselves, these are just bandaid solutions to a global movement away from traditional forms of information transfer. Students no longer want to sit in a lecture at a set time and location that may not fit around their work or other commitments, when they can usually find this information easily and freely online or via a textbook, or when they could sit at home in their PJs watching their recorded lecture at whatever time works for them. They do not want to be passive listeners who do not participate in this one-way information transfer process. Instead, they want to be active. They want to be engaged. They want to be involved. They want to do and try new things and learn in new ways. Why on earth are we suggesting this is a problem!?
Instead of seeing dwindling class attendance as something that must be punished with a stick, we should see it as an exciting opportunity to use a carrot to entice students to attend and participate in more interactive, engaging class settings. We should use face-to-face time valuably, with active learning or problem solving exercises that require actual participation and critical analysis from students. We should arrange group exercises and mock trials, to get students talking and thinking, and learning from each other. We should bring students into the conversation of how courses should be run and give them more of a say, granting them a greater sense of belonging to their degree, their cohort and their university.
To Raftery’s significant credit, in week 2 of his classes he implemented some changes along these lines and has reported far greater involvement from students since then. Indeed, since his post Deakin University has witnessed a significant increase in class attendance across the board – with Raftery’s class now having a 94% attendance rate. This may not all be attributable to Raftery’s post and how far it spread, but if even some of it is attributable to this, then clearly students have the capacity to respond to a well-reasoned plea for their attendance at and involvement in class. They also have the ability to recognise when there is value in attending class – particularly when they can see how devastating an empty classroom can be for us as teachers.
We often forget that universities are businesses, and students are our customers and consumers. A store would not simply open its doors and expect to be packed out the next day (unless it’s H&M or IKEA opening in Perth, because…Perth). It is no longer enough for us to declare that our classes exist and simply expect students to attend. Yes students must also come to the table and this cannot be the exclusive burden of teachers, but it is not right for us to force students to attend lectures that offer nothing more than information transfer. Instead, it is time for us to adapt to new ways of learning and sell the experience of higher education, and legal education, to our students. It could be the experience of a lifetime for so many of those we teach, but only if we make it so.