Cookie policy: This site uses cookies to simplify and improve your usage and experience of this website. Cookies are small text files stored on the device you are using to access this website. For more information on how we use and manage cookies please take a look at our privacy and cookie policies. Your privacy is important to us and our policy is to neither share nor sell your personal information to any external organisation or party; nor to use behavioural analysis for advertising to you.

Be here now, or else: lamentable effects of student 'presenteeism'

Forcing undergraduates to attend class retards their capacity to develop as mature, independent learners, warns Bruce Macfarlane


Be here now, or else: lamentable effects of student 'presenteeism'
Credit: Paul Bateman


Academics frequently complain that their freedom is being infringed by the scrutiny imposed on them by developments such as teaching observations, research assessments and annual appraisals. But we rarely reflect on the increasing surveillance to which students are also subject and the effect this has on their academic freedom.

There was a time when being a university student meant "reading" for a degree. Attending lectures and seminars was a matter of choice, and skipping classes barely raised an eyebrow. Now, attendance policies and class registers are the order of the day. Some lecturers even use draconian measures such as excluding students who are not punctual.

But the surveillance culture goes much deeper than that. There are an array of assessment-related proxies aimed at getting students to attend, including oral presentations, short tests and quizzes, cunningly scheduled for the beginning of classes including lectures, smaller group tutorials and seminars.

So-called "class contribution" grades long established in North America have begun to creep into the UK system. Often worth between 5 and 10 per cent of overall grades, these practices purport to evaluate the extent to which students contribute to class discussion. Sometimes they are really just a glorified reward for turning up. Contributions to online discussion forums play much the same role. Where this consists of simply counting the number of postings, there is little connection to the quality of student learning.

Further layers of e-surveillance exist that testify to our lack of trust in students. These include the routine use of anti-plagiarism software and the requirement for students to sign quasi-legal authorship statements every time they hand in an assignment.

Universities assert that student absenteeism is a problem because it is disrespectful to lecturers and other students, and a waste of public funding. Attendance and punctuality are considered to be important workplace competencies, and registers are said to be necessary to comply with the visa regulations affecting some international students. Yet in abiding by the law, universities should not treat students as potential criminals.

It might seem perverse to suggest that students should not attend and participate in class. But surveillance is an insidious trend intended largely to make them conform to behavioural expectations rather than develop them academically. This approach has been described by Leonard Holmes, reader in management at the University of Roehampton, as "learnerism". At the heart of the discourse, which also underpins the learning and teaching certificates aimed at novice academics, is the idea that since learning needs to be a social process of knowledge construction, students must be active participants. It also chimes with employer needs for students with social skills suited for the workplace, while the justification of group assessment conveniently benefits the economics of mass higher education by reducing the assessment workload.

Ironically, learnerism largely ignores the right of students to learn in different ways and to be reticent. Research has shown that people learn through silence as well as discussion. Pedagogy should respect the autonomy of students and their cultural norms - it should not be like a game show in which they have to demonstrate some kind of personal transformation.

It is true that those who attend class are often more likely to get better grades, but forced attendance does not develop the positive capability of students to make choices as independent adults. They need to take control of how and when they learn if they are to develop genuine intellectual and life skills. We are increasingly creating a culture of presenteeism, and there is a big difference between attendance and engagement.

Bunking off class is nothing new. In many ways, students have far better excuses to be absent than they used to. They almost all pay tuition fees and have jobs to support their studies. Students (or perhaps their parents) are customers, whether we like the analogy or not, but they are treated more like naughty and untrustworthy schoolchildren than young scholars. Rather than blaming students for not attending, we ought to look harder at the quality of our own teaching.

One final thought. How many of us would have our degrees if we had been required to attend every class? As academics, we are quick to voice concern about protecting our academic freedom - and rightly so. But we need to put more energy into creating an environment that fosters student maturity and protects their academic freedom, too.

Readers' comments (1)

  • I have felt like this since starting teaching in HE, in that those that want to attend, will and those that don't want to, well that's their choice (and we can give them a quiet nudge next time we see them, face-to-face, god forbid, instead of a corporate email) and that's what they pay their money for. That is all part of them embracing their independence. Unfortunately you end up becoming indoctrinated yourself and become a part of the surveillance system (just so you don't get your knuckles wrapped by the powers that be) and then in some tragic irony I've ended up becoming a departmental retention coordinator... I think subconsciously because I feel there is a better way of keeping students here and getting them 'engaged' rather than just giving them a telling off every time they are not here. I did a little study (http://www.eshare.edgehill.ac.uk/2777/) a couple of years ago on our students (at the end of their 1st year) looking at motivations for attendance and for that particular group it seemed we had got it all wrong with regards to what we thought about how they should learn and why they should be here. As it happened they didn't want to be asked questions, involved in group discussions about content, learning about new research and thinking about application in the real world, instead they attended to find out what the assessment was and what they had to learn to pass (not to get a 2:1 or a 1st... just to pass). Now maybe this is a reflection on the teaching of modules, maybe we just hit an unusual group, or maybe this is just a growing trend? We have considered all aspects ha ha! I'm just increasingly worried that more and more students are not coming to university because they are interested in learning, they are coming because they want a degree... Interesting article and more interesting comments

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Print
  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Share
  • Save
Jobs