Why we skip

Online notes, class sizes cited as reasons for poor attendance

About 136 students attended yesterday’s Econ110 lecture at 8:30 a.m. 317 people are registered in the course.
About 136 students attended yesterday’s Econ110 lecture at 8:30 a.m. 317 people are registered in the course.
Students take notes in an Econ 110 lecture yesterday morning in Dunning Hall, where almost 200 students were absent.
Students take notes in an Econ 110 lecture yesterday morning in Dunning Hall, where almost 200 students were absent.
Brian Maxwell, ArtSci ’08, created www.lecturetally.com so students could share class notes.
Brian Maxwell, ArtSci ’08, created www.lecturetally.com so students could share class notes.

When Brian Maxwell realized that he missed a lot of class and didn’t take great notes, he decided to take action.

Rather than going to class, he created the website www.lecturetally.com. The site gives Queen’s students a domain that allows them to share course notes with one another for free.

Maxwell, ArtSci ’08, advertises the site on Facebook.

The three most-downloaded sets of notes on the site are Econ 110, Psyc 100 and Socy 122.

Although Maxwell agreed a site like his may encourage students to skip class, he sees the website as being in-line with what’s happening to communication worldwide.

“I think a lot of people skip class anyway, so it’s more of a helping tool,” he said. “The internet is changing how people are communicating.” Maxwell said the site has been operating for the past two weeks and 350 to 400 people have already signed up.

If Maxwell is right about declining class attendance, what does that mean for the future of university lectures? From growing class sizes to an increasing reliance on technology, the future of undergraduate education is changing.

Economics Professor H. Lorne Carmichael spoke to a sparsely populated lecture hall yesterday morning.

Almost 200 students skipped class, with 136 of the 317 students registered in Econ 110 in attendance at 8:30 a.m.

Carmichael said his students’ background in economics differs, which results in poor attendance.

“Well it’s 8:30 a.m.; it’s our earliest section,” he said. “We teach the same first year course to everybody and it’s a huge mix of students. It’s quite reasonable that attendance would be low because some people have seen this material before.

“Or it could just be because I’m a horrible professor,” he said, with a wry smile.

Alli Lee, ArtSci ’09, said her Econ 110 class last year was also poorly attended.

“The attendance in Econ 110 was terrible—it was a joke,” she said. “I’d say I went to class roughly once or one-and-a-half times a week.

“A lot of people relied on the textbook and going to Course Cram.”

However, Lee said attendance has improved in her second-year classes.

“I didn’t really care about my courses last year because they weren’t related to what I wanted to do,” she said. “Attitudes toward attendance are way better in my classes this year. Now I’m in my major, so I’m taking courses I want and that gives me more incentive to go.”

Slides posted online give students more freedom to skip classes, Lee said.

“My professor for Sociology 122 told us we didn’t need to come to class to do well in the course because the text was by him and the slides were posted,” she said. “He said you would come to class to be more engaged with the material.”

Professor Rob Beamish, who teaches Socy 122, said he tells his students there are a number of ways to succeed in his course and going to class is only one of them.

“What I do is tell them that I give them a number of tools to do well in the course,” he said. “The textbook which I have written, I put up the lecture notes on WebCT. I prepare very elaborate Powerpoint slides and I put those up on WebCT as well.”

Jill Atkinson, chair of undergraduate studies in the psychology department, said declining attendance is a chronic problem throughout the year.

“At the beginning of the year, attendance is up, and it declines around midterms, and goes up again towards exams because students are looking for review,” she said. “In first year, engagement is a huge problem. In huge classes, students are just listening passively.”

Atkinson said attendance is the first step towards engagement, but that laptops in class contribute to the problem.

“A lot of students bring their laptops to class,” she said. “Laptops have a place educationally, but many students are on Facebook or MSN during classes.”

Putting lecture notes or slides on WebCT is a decision left to each individual faculty member, Atkinson said. However, she said the notes online should not be considered a replacement for attending classes.

“We don’t want to make [online notes] a replacement for lectures. That would undermine attendance,” she said. “If I was in a class where the notes were online and nothing else [supplemented them], I wouldn’t make it a priority to go to class.

“I don’t know if it’s apathy or the nature of first year courses.”

Atkinson said science programs require students to attend because there are specific skills they learn in the classroom that cannot be learned online or from a book.

“It is more unusual for students to miss labs and seminars. Attendance is crucial to learning research methods,” she said. “In the sciences, there is practical lab work that requires you to be hands on, and run through the motions.”

Attendance is higher in upper-year seminar classes, Atkinson said.

“I have a fourth year seminar with participation marks,” she said. “The hallmark of the class is active discussion. The students learn from one another.”

The psychology department is looking at using iClickers in large classes to get students engaged, Atkinson said. An iClicker is an input device that allows an instructor to ask the class a multiple choice question and have the students respond by selecting a, b, c, d, or e on the device.

“We’ve been toying with the idea of using iClickers as a way to implement participation marks [in Psyc100],” she said. “We have to look at our delivery because students are using technology in different ways.

“Maybe the best way of delivering information is changing. Maybe it’s just a matter of us having to adjust.”

Bonnie Dainty, ArtSci ’10, said she doesn’t find many of her first year classes engaging.

“A lot of my classes, especially my Classics course, are incredibly boring. When they have their slides on the internet it’s really easy to say I don’t really have to go,” she said. “What [two of my friends and I] do is that one of us goes to each one out of the three each week and share notes.”

She said that the LectureTally website appeals to her.

“That would definitely be something I would use,” Dainty said. “I type up my notes too, and I’ve given quite a few of my notes to people. I don’t mind giving my notes to people because for me, typing them up is a form of studying for me, so if they want to access that it’s okay.”

Dainty said getting up early for classes is difficult because of the social aspect of residence.

“You’re up later because you’re all hanging out as a floor, and it’s harder to get up in the morning for class,” she said. “If your long classes are in the morning, it’s harder to focus.”

As well, four out of five of her professors post their slides on the internet, which gives students an excuse not to go to class, Dainty said.

“I have one prof who doesn’t post the slides because she doesn’t believe in putting them on the Internet,” she said.

That professor is Christine Sypnowich, chair of undergraduate studies in the philosophy department, said she has seen a change in attendance patterns at Queen’s.

“When I arrived at Queen’s in 1990, for several years the only people who skipped class were incredibly negligent, bad students, or people with really serious problems,” she said. “That seemed to change and I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s a web culture and there’s something archaic about walking to a real event with real people.”

Sypnowich said the problem is more prevalent in first- and second-year students.

“It’s a bit of a snowball effect,” she said. “If you perceive that classes are not well-attended, you are less likely to attend yourself. It’s self-perpetuating in some ways.”

Some students attend classes but distract themselves and the professor by using their computer for the Internet or other assignments.

“The Internet has changed things quite radically. I can tell that [Internet surfing] is happening and I’m never really sure what to do, if I should call the student on it or not,” she said. “There’s a kind of wall between the student and the professor that the screen provides, almost like you’re hiding.”

Joanne Brett, faculty services manager for the university registrar, told the Journal the university timetable committee can schedule courses any time from 8:30 to 5:30, Mondays to Fridays.

“The teaching week is 8:30 to 5:30, Monday to Friday,” she said. “Departments decide whether they want to schedule night classes or not.”

Brett said a number of issues get considered when the committee prepares the school year’s course timetable.

“There are many factors which go into determining the course timetable—like student requirements, program requirements, the amount of rooms we have, instructor availability, and what lab requirements are,” she said.

The committee’s website says that “all reasonable efforts will be made to accommodate the requests of instructors, as approved by unit head, concerning the scheduling of teaching based on a medical condition, family circumstances, research requirements, and other academic responsibilities.”

Music professor Karen Pegley teaches Social History of Popular Music, or Musc 171, said she teaches approximately 400 students on Thursday nights from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Pegley said her class, which often has an enrolment waiting list despite its high capacity of 400 students, was already a night class when she began teaching it.

“It’s been offered as a night class in part because with that many people, it’s good to have it all as one time. The idea behind it was that it could service more students,” she said. “As well, I prefer teaching at night.”

Despite the three-hour class on Thursday nights, Pegley said, she tries to keep her students coming back for more.

“I think it tends to be the subject matter. They know when the tests are so there are no spot tests that would make them obligated to come,” she said. “During the course of the night, they’re going to be participating in some way. We do some participatory things in class—we do singing.”

Tim Wu, CompSci ’07, said he enjoys Musc 171 but doesn’t care enough to attend many of his other classes.

“I find that Musc 171 is the only course that I’ve enjoyed in my university career. The subject matter is something I really enjoy,” he said. “The reason why I skip so many courses was because in second and third years there were a lot of courses scheduled early in the morning and I just got lazy.”

Wu said most of his notes are also accessible online through professors’ websites, and that contributes to his unwillingness to attend classes.

“Notes are available online and there isn’t really much variance between what the prof says in class and what’s online,” he said.

However, Wu said just because his notes aren’t available online doesn’t mean he’ll still attend classes, and that some of his more difficult physics classes do not have online notes available.

“If you miss a few classes, there’s not really a point of going once in a while because you’ve missed so many classes already,” he said.

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