Image by Jeanne Provost via Shutterstock
Admittedly, the Arts and Humanities are not traditionally known as the spiritual homeland of number crunching, but in 2019, colleagues and I from the departments of Classical Studies, History, English, and Creative Writing at the Open University broke with tradition and embarked on a quantitative analysis of student attendance patterns within our school.
Three years before, the Open University had introduced a bold new framework for tuition, the Group Tuition Policy, that guaranteed students an online alternative for every face-to-face session on offer. The objective of the policy was to ensure students had a greater range of options (face to face or online/weekday evenings or Saturdays) when it came to choosing a tutorial to suit their schedule and needs.
We reckoned it was time to take a good hard look at attendance in the wake of these changes. What was working well? What wasn’t? So much of our tuition strategy and implementation in the past had been based on gut instincts about what works well for students and tutor—but we wanted to establish a solid evidence-base for tuition moving into the future. With this in mind, we donned our data-wrangling chaps, and headed out into the wild frontiers of attendance statistics.
Using data from our booking and registration system (LEM), we tracked student attendance from 2017-2018 (eventually adding in 2019-2020 in the second phase of our project) to help us get a broad overview of attendance across a range of Arts & Humanities modules, but also to give us a snapshot of student behaviour at a more granular level.
We had all sorts of questions about attendance. What percentage of students actually attend learning events? What kind of events do students prefer to attend—online or face to face? Lectures or smaller tutorials? How does attendance relate to academic outcomes for students: do students who attend learning events do better than those who don’t? How has COVID impacted on student attendance? While the answers to these questions were interesting in themselves, what drove us was a desire to get it right for students in the future: how can we plan tuition so that it is attractive to students and helps them achieve their study goals? How can we make the most of our present tuition resource so that our learning events benefit the maximum number of students?
What we came up with, after many, many hours of wrangling data into submission, was a fascinating picture of student attendance behaviour within the school of Arts & Humanities. It may not be the I Ching of attendance, but our report generated a number of valuable insights into the state of student attendance in our school. Here are a few tantalising snippets we thought you might like to know:
Students want tuition. There is clearly a strong demand for it. While attendance at face-to-face sessions remained fairly stable between 2017-19, attendance at online sessions seems to be growing, year on year, and we need to plan for that in terms of investment in our teaching platforms, staff development, and tuition offerings.
Attendance has remained relatively stable, and even risen, under lockdown. Apart from a dip in mid-May 2020 when many end-of-module assessments were cancelled for students, attendance during 2019-2020 was generally higher than it was the previous year, and this trend appears to have continued on modules presenting from October 2020 as well.
There is a strong link between attendance and attainment: students who got Pass 1 and 2s were more likely to have attended a learning event (and more of them) than those students with Pass 3 and 4 grades.
Cancellation might be our best friend—when it comes to registering for online learning events at the beginning of a module, many students panic and book more events than they will realistically attend. Unfortunately, they often neglect to cancel bookings they don’t intend to use. Our study found that 1 in every 3 students who register for an event fails to show up! This means that a large number of the students on waitlists could have been accommodated at learning events if appropriate cancellations had been made. Clearly, we’ve got a job to do creating a booking system that minimizes un-used bookings, but we also need to cultivate a culture amongst students of responsible registration.
Some students REALLY like to attend. When we sampled student behaviour, it became clear that there was a wide range of engagement within our student cohort: some students didn’t attend at all, while others attended a great deal. Of those who attended a great deal, we discovered the phenomenon of the ‘super-attender’, that species of student who not only books but also attends a massive amount of learning events on a single presentation. One student in our sample managed to attend a whopping 40+ sessions over the course of one module (and actually booked but did not attend a further 10). It’s not clear that attending this many sessions on a limited number of topics will actually help the student achieve their study objectives—in fact, it may rob them of time better spent on personal study and assignment writing. While it’s great for students to have choice, booking into this many events means that one student’s choice may sometimes come at the cost of others who didn’t book early enough. Such students are relatively rare, but such a phenomenon does draw attention to some of the risks involved with having a booking system with no limits.
The project has been challenging but hugely productive, laying the groundwork for a series of conversations with our colleagues in the school of Arts & Humanities who are responsible for designing and implementing tuition strategies on future presentations. Our findings have also been a springboard for broader conversations within the university community, with stakeholders ranging from tutors to university policymakers and system-commissioners. All of us are keen to make the most of our resources to meet students’ needs in the coming years and we firmly believe that the best way to do that is by sharing our understanding of what is working—and what is not—in our present tuition and systems offering.
Have you been involved in a project looking at student attendance, in another faculty of the Open University or at another institution? Have you found that these trends in student behaviour really resonate with you as a tutor, teacher, or tuition manager? Or perhaps you’d like to read a more detailed account of our methodology, conclusions, and recommendations? We’d love to hear from you. Please do add a comment below or drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Jennifer Shepherd & Astrid Voigt
on behalf of the ‘Investigating Tuition Attendance in Arts & Humanities’ Project Team (Robin Mackie, Steve Padley, Maddy Sharman, Jen Shepherd, Lee Simmonds, Astrid Voigt)