‘Bums on Seats’ versus ‘Hearts and Minds’; questions of student attendance and engagement

Michael Rogers, Teaching Fellow, Department of Chemistry gives his summary of the Forum workshop ‘Bums on Seats’ versus ‘Hearts and Minds’.

To engage or not to engage? That is not just a question that students are faced with but also a problem that departments may need to deal with. The above-titled Learning and Teaching forum workshop, which ran on Wednesday, October 22nd  focused on two case studies that highlighted the need to address issues related to student engagement within the University of York. What follows is a few notes of one of the case studies and its subsequent discussion.

The Department of Philosophy identified an issue of student engagement in seminars. The observation was that students who had missed seminars early in term(s) tended to be absent from all subsequent seminars; this absence then had a knock-on effect for the remaining students and the quality of the seminars was perceived to be lower than desired. Discussion of this situation raised several interesting questions, including:

Why should the quality of a seminar be affected by student numbers?Environment 1

As a physical scientist, this seemed a poignant question. Much of the small group teaching that takes place in the Department of Chemistry involves groups of approximately 5 students and one member of staff. On the occasion that one or more students fail to attend, the remaining 3-4 students may benefit, as the tutor can spend more time addressing their specific concerns.

The answer, it seemed, was that seminars have a quorum that must be reached and the quality of each session is a function of its inputs.

Should student attendance be assessed?

The majority of those present answered ‘no’ to this question. The assessment of attendance was deemed to be an inaccurate measurement; consider the case of students who sleep through lectures, or those who attend a seminar and contribute nothing. On the other hand, it could be argued that by ‘enforcing’ attendance, half the battle is won.

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Should student participation be assessed?

Opinions on this point were mixed. Some of those present volunteered their departmental methods for assessing participation. Others voiced their disapproval at the subjective nature of this type of assessment. Again, the likely inaccuracy of this approach was highlighted as a cause for concern. Some of those present made the point that the ‘assessed’ nature of a session introduces unwanted stress and may lead to enforced (and by extension, low quality) participation.

In summary, there was no clear consensus, other than to try and engender students with a desire to both attend and participate. Perhaps we should look to the Oxford English Dictionary for guidance, in the form of definition.

engage: attract or involve (someone’s interest or attention)

How attractive and/or involving are your lectures, seminars, workshops and tutorials?

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